Design without touching the surface

I am prepar­ing two class­es at the moment. One is an intro­duc­tion to user expe­ri­ence design, the oth­er to user inter­face design. I did not come up with this divi­sion, it was part of the assign­ment. I thought it was odd at first. I wasn’t sure where one dis­ci­pline ends and the oth­er begins. I still am not sure. But I made a prag­mat­ic deci­sion to have the UX class focus on the high lev­el process of design­ing (soft­ware) prod­ucts, and the UI class focus on the visu­al aspects of a product’s inter­face. The UI class deals with a product’s sur­face, form, and to some extent also its behav­iour, but on a micro lev­el. Where­as the UX class focus­es on behav­iour on the macro lev­el. Sim­ply speaking—the UX class is about behav­iour across screens, the UI class is about behav­iour with­in screens.

The solu­tion is work­able. But I am still not entire­ly com­fort­able with it. I am not com­fort­able with the idea of being able to prac­tice UX with­out ‘touch­ing the sur­face’, so to speak. And it seems my two class­es are advo­cat­ing this. Also, I am pret­ty sure this is every­day real­i­ty for many UX prac­ti­tion­ers. Notice I say “prac­ti­tion­er”, because I am not sure ‘design­er’ is the right term in these cas­es. To be hon­est I do not think you can prac­tice design with­out doing sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing of some sort. (See Bill Buxton’s ‘Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences’ for an expand­ed argu­ment on why this is.) And when it comes to design­ing soft­ware prod­ucts this means touch­ing the sur­face, the form.

Again, the real­i­ty is, ‘UX design­er’ and ‘UI design­er’ are com­mon terms now. Cer­tain­ly here in Sin­ga­pore peo­ple know they need both to make good prod­ucts. Some prac­ti­tion­ers say they do both, oth­ers one or the oth­er. The lat­ter appears to be the most com­mon and expect­ed case. (By the way, in Sin­ga­pore no-one I’ve met talks about inter­ac­tion design.)

My con­cern is that by encour­ag­ing the prac­tice of doing UX design with­out touch­ing the sur­face of a prod­uct, we get shit­ty designs. In a process where UX and UI are seen as sep­a­rate things the risk is one comes before the oth­er. The UX design­er draws the wire­frames, the UI design­er gets to turn them into pret­ty pic­tures, with no back-and-forth between the two. An iter­a­tive process can mit­i­gate some of the dam­age such an arti­fi­cial divi­sion of labour pro­duces, but I think we still start out on the wrong foot. I think a bet­ter prac­tice might entail includ­ing visu­al con­sid­er­a­tions from the very begin­ning of the design process (as we are sketch­ing).

Two things I came across as I was prepar­ing these class­es are some­how in sup­port of this idea. Both result­ed from a call I did for resources on user inter­face design. I asked for books about visu­al aspects, but I got a lot more.

  1. In ‘Mag­ic Ink’ Bret Vic­tor writes about how the design of infor­ma­tion soft­ware is huge­ly indebt­ed to graph­ic design and more specif­i­cal­ly infor­ma­tion design in the tra­di­tion of Tufte. (He also men­tions indus­tri­al design as an equal­ly big prog­en­i­tor of inter­ac­tion design, but for soft­ware that is main­ly about manip­u­la­tion, not infor­ma­tion.) The arti­cle is big, but the start of it is actu­al­ly a pret­ty good if unortho­dox gen­er­al intro­duc­tion to inter­ac­tion design. For soft­ware that is about learn­ing through look­ing at infor­ma­tion Vic­tor says inter­ac­tion should be a last resort. So that leaves us with a task that is 80% if not more visu­al design. Touch­ing the sur­face. Which makes me think you might as well get to it as quick­ly as pos­si­ble and start sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing aimed not just at struc­ture and behav­iour but also form. (Hat tip to Pieter Diepen­maat for this one.)

  2. In ‘Jump­ing to the End’ Matt Jones ram­bles enter­tain­ing­ly about design fic­tion. He argues for pay­ing atten­tion to details and that a lot of the design he prac­tices is about ‘sig­na­ture moments’ aka micro-inter­ac­tions. So yeah, again, I can’t imag­ine design­ing these effec­tive­ly with­out doing sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing of the sort that includes the visu­al. And in fact Matt men­tions this more or less at one point, when he talks about the fact that his team’s deliv­er­ables at Google are almost all visu­al. They are high fideli­ty mock­ups, ani­ma­tions, videos, and so on. These then become the start­ing points for fur­ther devel­op­ment. (Hat tip to Alexan­der Zeh for this one.)

In sum­ma­ry, I think dis­tin­guish­ing UX design from UI design is non­sense. Because you can­not prac­tice design with­out sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing. And you can­not sketch and pro­to­type a soft­ware prod­uct with­out touch­ing its sur­face. In stead of tak­ing visu­al design for grant­ed, or talk­ing about it like it is some innate tal­ent, some kind of mag­i­cal skill some peo­ple are born with and oth­ers aren’t, user expe­ri­ence prac­ti­tion­ers should con­sid­er being less enam­oured with acquir­ing more skills from busi­ness, mar­ket­ing and engi­neer­ing and in stead prac­tice at the skills that define the fields user expe­ri­ence design is indebt­ed to the most: graph­ic design and indus­tri­al design. In oth­er words, you can’t do user expe­ri­ence design with­out touch­ing the sur­face.