Thursday, February 23, 2017

Grail Syndrome

 or Why I am a "Process" Guy

There is in graphic design (and other design disciplines) a tendency to fixate on the "thing" -- the artifact, the whatsit, the object that we believe will be the end of our design process. It can be a blinding obsession that can result in premature design-ation. The "thing" is our sirens on the cliffs, the big red shiny button, the beautiful glowing destination that calls to us like the bug to the zapper, it is our holy grail. It's difficult for me to describe in mere words the overwhelming power that the grail has over us as designers. I have begun calling this obsession the "grail syndrome." This syndrome is real and pervasive. It can result in designers falling in love with early ideas and clinging to them until the bitter end even though those ideas may be bad ones. The syndrome can result in designs that ignore any other number of  problems that should be addressed in order to generate effective, enjoyable and efficient designs.

For designers who don't understand the extreme importance of the context-of-use or the humans-we-design-for or the goals we are trying to help those humans reach, the call of the grail often ends badly. We must understand not just the grail itself. We must strive for a deep understand of it... in context... with humans... and goals. This "grail" is the literal object of our design efforts and it is often referred to in design as the form. Present day forms are rapidly evolving and accelerating in complexity. In the last twenty years we have experienced a radical shift in the types of designs that people interact with. We have moved from relatively static designs like printed catalogs to kinetic experiences like websites and mobile technologies. It is difficult to keep up with changes of this magnitude that are happening at such a rapid pace. And more importantly it is increasingly difficult to predict what we will be faced with fifteen, ten or even five years from now.

Teaching design in such a world is very exciting. It's tempting to spend most of ones time teaching students how to deal with forms that are currently in use. To some degree it is necessary to do this. But, I feel that too much emphasis on this is time misspent. Unlike the scale and speed of the evolution of form, the evolution of "design process" has been much slower. We frame, we ideate, we empathize, we iterate, we test -- these are things that designers have been doing for generations.  An emphasis on "design process" encourages students to understand design in terms of systems, humans, contexts and goals. These are concepts that don't change much over time and as design educators these are where we should be spending most of our efforts. We can prepare students for the rapid evolution of forms by teaching these concepts along with strategies for dealing with complexity (but, complexity is probably a topic best left for future post).

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Design Prototype Fidelity Addendum

Last week I wrote a post about the fidelity level of design prototypes. This topic has been on my mind for some time. Shortly after making last weeks post I created another graph that I think is noteworthy. Much like last weeks graph/post I have no quantitative research to back this up. I have been studying design and designers for a couple of decades now and these two posts reflect my personal experiences. Today's graph reflects how an experienced designer might create prototypes of increasingly high fidelity as a design project progress from its early stages to it later/final(?)/ship state. As with last weeks post this progression may depend on the type of design project that a designer might be working on and the client that the designer is working with. Sometimes it might be appropriate to create prototypes at a very high level of fidelity much earlier in the design process. So, these graphs are intended as rough "rule of thumb" models.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Design Prototype Fidelity as an Affordance for Change

I'm working on a paper that discusses low-fidelity, rapid prototyping for user-experience design. I have an interest in paper prototyping — why it's useful and important. Low-fidelity, rapid prototyping is any quick, rough way of approximating how a design will look and/or function. This is often done just with paper and markers. But it may be done with other common materials that might be found around the office -- paper, markers, tape, glue, rubber-bands, paper-clips, etc.

I also have an interest in affordances. An affordance is "a property in which the physical (or arguably visual) characteristics of an object or environment influence function." For example when you see a large wooden rectangle embedded in a wall and there is a metal knob at waist height on that rectangle -- you assume that's a door. You can assume that by twisting and pulling the knob you can open the "door." A door knob is an affordance that indicates there are certain things you can do.

So it occurred to me today that these two interests work well together. Of course it is one of those seemingly obvious connections.

We do pencil sketches on paper because they are easy to change and easy to change quickly. The low-fidelity of the materials of pencil and paper afford us the ability to change our sketches. As the fidelity of a prototype becomes higher it becomes increasingly difficult to change. A low-fidelity prototype of an iPhone app may be done with several post-it notes stuck to the screen of the phone. Drawn on the post-it notes are a series of screens that represent how the app looks and functions. Peeling off one post-it note after another gives an approximate experience for using the app. Changes to such a prototype can be done in seconds. As the prototype is slowly evolved by the designer the prototyping moves from pencil on paper to digital wireframes and beyond. As the prototypes increase in fidelity it becomes increasingly difficult and time consuming to make changes.

There is enormous value in using low-fidelity prototyping in the early stages of a design project. The low-fidelity of the prototype affords the designer the ability to make changes easily, quickly and very inexpensively. The fidelity level of a prototype acts as an affordance -- low-fidelity acts as an affordance for a high degree of changeability and high-fidelity acts as an affordance for a low degree of changeability.