Thursday, September 27, 2007

"Getting" Design

Hi All. Sorry for the long absence. I'm an official IBMer now and I've been heads down learning the ropes. It's been intense to say the least and it's only been a few days! :-)

Today, I wanted to head back up to the 30,000 foot level and discuss a little about Design (yes...a capital D...because it's so important) and how it is a subject you can learn about from many different sources.

It's a pretty well-known fact that we ("we" in this case meaning humans) enjoy beautiful things. We admire the "beautiful people", we seek out beauty in museums, at the symphony and in the library. This search for beauty applies to all aspects of our lives, including our work. People enjoy tasks more when they get to work with beautiful things. An elegant new pen may provide you with inspiration to sit down and write in your journal. The Michael Graves designed toilet bowl brush just might make that cleaning job a bit more bearable. In the same way, that well-designed accounting application that you built has the potential to turn a mundane monthly reporting project into a job that the accountants don't dread so much anymore.

If we take it for a given that people like beautiful things, then how can we logically extend this fact to make our applications better? One of the interesting things that interface designers have figured out is that a user's perception of the quality of an application is proportional to its adherence to good design principals. That is, things seem to "work better" when they are well designed. This has profound implications in our work and I think this emphasizes why design of the visual aspects of our applications should not be an afterthought.

I have found in the past that computer people tend to be less concerned with how something looks that the general population (yes...I am using a blatant stereotype here ;-) In reality, we should strive to become well-versed in the hows and whys of good design because we're actually building stuff people have to use. Apple is a company that has embraced this idea. They certainly did not invent the mp3 player, but many people think they did. They set the standard in the category by building a beautifully designed device with an interface that is just a pleasure to use.

Beauty in an application does not necessarily have to be skin deep either. Just having a pretty interface won't help if the users have a hard time actually *using* the program. Thus, in my mind, beauty in application design is comprised of an attractive interface as well as a simple and intuitive user experience. Gmail comes to mind as a perfect example of this. It's not necessarily a work of art in visual terms (although I like the clean design), but the user experience is so well thought out that I can't think of going back to another e-mail program for my personal accounts.

All of the above is just a long, roundabout way of suggesting that if you are not already concerned with the aesthetics of design in your applications, you should start planning to head down this path. I've said it several times before, but it bears repeating. These ideas become even more important as you move your company to Notes 8 (why are you waiting? It's real and it's spectacular!) This is a beautiful environment (I *love* saying that about a Lotus product), but your old way of building apps will still make them look like old apps unless you start formulating a way to build a truly modern design.

So, if you've never fancied yourself a designer, how can you start down that path? One thing I recommend is looking for ideas all over the place. Subscribe to a magazine about interior design or fashion. Watch design shows on HGTV (guys...your wife will love this). Observe the form and function of things you work with everyday, such as your microwave, vacuum cleaner and TV. Note what features you enjoy using and those that annoy you. If you are so inclined, get a nice hard-bound notebook and keep a design journal, adding notes about your user experience with different products, clippings of things you like from magazines, etc. Just the act of doing these exercises will start to enhance your knowledge of good design and will train your eye on what to look for. Then, armed with this newfound information, you can start enhancing the design of your own applications. Even small, incremental design improvements will make a big difference to your users. I've received many testimonials from other developers that speak to this fact. A focus on beauty in your applications is a direct reflection of your caring for the user and remember, that's why we're all here. Now go on and get out there...Help make the world a more beautiful place. (And start using Notes 8, will ya? ;-)


jonvon said...

great post chris! a stadium full of people were doing The Wave in my head while i read this.

Chris Reckling said...

Bravo! Although I think with some developers, you really don't want them to think they can design. :) My advice - hire a designer, talk to your users, rinse and repeat.

I've been meaning to post a few book suggestions for those interested in design, as a way to get started.


Chris Blatnick said...


@Chris. LOL! That's very, very true. It's a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. haha... But, if you're a Notes developer all on your own or with a small team, it will never hurt to at least know the basics.

Please do post those book suggestions on your blog. I'm always on the lookout for new stuff to learn. Cheers!

Radu Cadariu said...

hey Chris, welcome to the ibmers crowd :)

Chris Blatnick said...

@Radu...Thank you. I'm really glad to be here!

Eric R said...

I'd like to hear ideas on this link and how much the critiques still apply in Notes 8: