UI's 7 Great Controversies
Jack Bellis, September 4, 2007
abound in design, and UI design is no exception. Here's
1. Personas or software that serves all person(a)s extremely
Although their use in marketing-centric work is perfectly
justified, I challenge the emphasis being placed on personas
in software application work (web or desktop). To the
extent that they are a vehicle to get developers to appreciate
real user dilemmas, they indicate our failure to manage
the engineering process. To the extent that they enable
a development team to focus on core functionality at
the expense of "edge" functions, or cater to
either learnability or power at the expense of the other,
personas highlight a failure of the creative process;
there are plenty of software applications that prove
these tradeoffs are unnecessary.
2. Prescriptive design or adaptive design?
I spend all of my time in environments where the complaint
at the end of every rushed development cycle is "why
don't we have the requirements right in the first place,
and ready early enough to get the job done on time." The
notion of achieving those two ideals is called prescriptive
design. The opposing force is called adaptive design...
adjusting the design all along the way. When you adjust
the design even after the product can be used, that's
part of what's called usability testing; for thousands
of years it was called trial-and-error, but high-paying
jobs just don't sound so good that way. ("I work
for Oracle/Microsoft/NASA and I do trial-and-error.")
Prescriptive design, was never a true solution. It might
once have been 90% real and 10% dream. But with the
number of moving parts in today's software, and the shift
instant development tools, the balance too has shifted.
The prescriptive portion of the design (the part any
one of us is smart enough to plan out) is probably
only 40-60% of the journey. The rest is adjustment on
fly, and constantly through the life of the product.
I used to think of and use NASA as the paragon of prescriptive
design... you wouldn't fly in the Space Shuttle if
it were done without 100% planned engineering, would
But even the paragon blew up two vessels, mostly through
preventable engineering, not whims of Mother Nature.
(For the O-rings and tiles they had to use adaptive
3. Menus-and-dialogs or page-hyperlink navigation?
I believe that the drop-down menus and OK/Cancel dialogs
of the Win/Mac paradigm have a persistent place in software
design and will persevere for dozens or possibly several
hundred years. We like to flatter ourselves that everything
changes so rapidly, but it's not that fast. We still
don't have flying cars. Drop-down menus show up on plenty
of web pages because they're the most powerful solution
once you have over approx 30 items. The dialog metaphor
has an important benefit when questions *must* be answered.
4. Fewest clicks or best design?
Best design. That's why it's called design, because
5. Foolish consistency or best design?
The term "consistency" is so vague as to be
meaningless. Without adding a modifier, such as "rote
visual" consistency, discussion is silly. A1989
article attempting to make an erudite argument against
consistency is an argument with a fool. In fact a good
argument could be made that design is the opposite of
consistency, but I won't argue with a fool.
Minimize the use of "modes"; respect any
external conventions that "have currency"; make
your system's controls behave—that's the key, behavior—similarly
in most situations, and neither fools nor smart, frustrated
users will show up at your door muttering the
6. Simplicity or power-and-learnability?
Power-and-learnability. "Tog: Usability and learnability
are not mutually exclusive." Complexity is not the
enemy. Making complexity easy to learn, and then quick
to use and reuse, is the job. If you want to choose only
one, become an aluminum siding salesman or something.
7. Left-aligned or right-aligned labels?
No one cares. Eye tracking studies, though fun, are
diminishing returns for such purposes. Design it well
and people won't actually be reading the labels. The
more I read on the topic, the more I like left-aligned.