The tyranny of design. Why you need to focus on objective outcomes in interface design.

In-flight entertainment – a story

Some years ago at British Airways there was a project to design an interface for a new in-flight entertainment system. My then-colleague and friend Mike Lock was project managing. Mike is the real godfather of digital usability at British Airways. Whilst I set up and developed the UX, Design and Research team, I did so off the back of what Mike had already done to sow the seeds of awareness and need. He says I’m too modest, but I call it as I see it.

British Airways’ in-flight entertainment screen

For the design of the IFE interface a small number of companies had been asked to present a concept. At the end of the presentations it was clear to Mike that only company X had grasped the issues around information architecture and navigation, although the visual design was a bit off. He was shocked to hear when going round the table that no-one else favoured company X. All the other (more senior) stakeholders in the room went for a more on-brand visual design. Mike felt overwhelmed – like all the big guns were pointed at him and he only had a cardboard shield to deflect the blows.

‘But’, said Mike, ‘the one you all like does look nice, but no-one will be able to use it. It’s not a design where the usability issues can be fixed – it needs throwing away and starting again.’ Sceptical faces were all he saw, but he kept going. ‘Although the design from company X isn’t quite on brand it is usable, and we can fix the design elements relatively easily.’ The meeting broke up with the stakeholders thinking that Mike didn’t get it, and there was no way they were going with company X. But Mike still wasn’t giving up.

That meeting was on a Friday and the group was going to reconvene on Monday to decide what to do. Mike was desperate to find a way to influence the decision towards the one he knew to be correct. Over the weekend he took the images from the presentations and turned them into clickable prototypes using Powerpoint. It was all that was available in those days. He then videod his mum ‘using’ the two interfaces. This was in the days of camcorders that recorded on tape. She couldn’t use the pretty design but got on pretty well with the from company X.

On Monday Mike played the video to the group. Ultimately he won the argument, company X got the contract and re-worked the design, and it was implemented on many aircraft. It left a bad taste in Mike’s mouth though. He had to work too hard to prove a simple point and taken a load of senior shit for it.

The lessons

Something similar to that scenario has played out again and again over time. There are lessons to be learned.

Firstly you can’t assume that your stakeholders get what it takes for an interface to be usable. It’s one of those contradictions in life – we’ll all swear at an interface that frustrates us, but (some of us) would still build an interface for our own companies that incorporate the same frustrations. It’s human nature – we’re often not aware of the causes of our emotions, and most people don’t analyse exactly what it is that they don’t like about a website or an app. They just ‘know’ that it doesn’t work for them.

Secondly, if you have business people who are (relatively) sane and rational it should be possible to influence their perception of effective design. They do actually want it to work. There are different ways of doing this, and sometimes it depends on the person as to what the best way is. Some people like to review a spreadsheet of analytics following a multivariate test, but usually the best way of snagging a stakeholder is for them to see a real customer being unable to use an interface that that stakeholder thought was ok. It hits at an emotional level that has impact. Get them to watch live research in person – but if you can’t, then show the video.  If you can, involve them in the setup of the research so they can’t quibble with the methodology afterwards.

Thirdly, agencies vary in their expertise. Some are better at UI, some excel in IA, some at ecommerce. It’s critical when engaging an agency to make sure they have the expertise to do what the client wants, and to be clear about what success looks like. I wrote another post on why agency/client engagements often don’t work.

The landscape today

Designing for mobile forces the designer to ruthlessly prioritise content and produce a compact design. Users focus more because there’s less to look at, and identify more issues with confusing and irrelevant copy which they would just ignore on a desktop screen. More people are using phones more of the time, but desktop isn’t dead yet. I don’t know if it’s a reaction to compact phone design, but desktop design seems to have gone the other way.

A short while ago I was talking to a senior business manager about her company’s desktop site. It had been designed by an agency and she had complained that there was too much scrolling. The agency had ‘explained’ that it was ‘modern design’. The business manager was right, there was too much scrolling.

It seems to be the vogue to have enormous images, lots of white space, and huge font sizes. If you have an ‘artistic’ site or a particular brand image all of this might be appropriate. However, for most ecommerce or informational sites it isn’t appropriate. Customers want to get in, do their stuff, and get out. They want the experience to be a perfect combination of ease, pleasure, succinctness, entertainment, effectiveness etc. And yes, that does include a site that’s pleasant to look at. But if they have to repeatedly scroll just to find out what’s on offer, or to find the information relevant to them, then it’s not achieving their goals and it’s not helping the company to win their business. There are some sites where I’ll go to read an article and I almost feel like I’ve been punched in the face by the huge font that’s difficult and unpleasant to read.

My perception is that many, if not most agency sites are culprits of implementing a triumph of design over communication. If they built their clients’ sites like they built their own then their clients would go out of business.

The bottom line

I’ve had excruciating debates with got-religion UI designers who can’t bear to see the excellence of their design debased and compromised in pursuit of mere money. They don’t disagree that the design impacts usability – they just think making the design right is more important. I’ve told them I’m not prepared to explain to the CEO that we chose to make lower profits so that we could adhere to the designer’s idea of a nice-looking interface.

I want to be clear that I’m not at all putting down UI. It’s absolutely essential. It’s just not the reason why we do all this work.

The reason for the existence of UX, UI, research, interaction design, information architecture etc etc is to be effective in the mission of the organisation paying for the work to be done, which is usually to make money and/or to communicate. We need to focus on the goals and objectives for the interface, where ‘on brand’ is a primary goal and ‘nice looking’ is a secondary goal.

It all needs to come together. Figuring out what works needs to be based on research, on facts – if anyone can stomach facts in a post-fact world.