Bratislava World Usability Day 2016 and the future of design

By a lucky coincidence I visited the World Usability Day (WUD) event here in Bratislava. It was November 10th, 2016 – as any other event of the same name around the world. Theme for this year was Sustainability, but for us, working with and for the public sector, it was even more attractive thanks to the guest from UK and Estonia government agencies that implement or oversee the government services – services for real people, citizens.

I will talk about government services in the followup post. This one will be more about design and how I feel about it. Mind you, I’m a software developer with some experiences with real users – I always prefer to hear from them although listening blindly to your users is also not a recipe for success. I’m not a designer. But I’m also a user of many things – and not only modern technology gadgets. Maybe I have some twisted programmer’s perspective but that doesn’t make me less a user.

Design of everyday things

Before going on, let me divert to a book I’m just reading – The Design of Everyday Things. I’ll probably never be a great designer but there are many basic aspects of design we can learn about and use them every day in software development. In the book I also found many funny examples of frustrating experiences – experiences we all have to go through sometimes.

I’m personally torn between the progress and stability. I understand the progress is inevitable – and in many cases it doesn’t affect the design. Technology performance and capacities get higher and it all gets smaller at the same time – this doesn’t mean we have to change how we interact with computers or computer-based devices like smartphones. On the other hand we can – and we even should because previous UIs were insufficient and current performance allows us to do so much better. Are we doing better?

Everybody now experiments with design but I doubt they test it properly. I wonder how Google – that definitely has facilities and resources – tested when they changed “add document” button to the bottom-right corner. Anyone I met who used computers and not tiny screens couldn’t find that button. Then you have products developed by a single developer – how should they experiment in design? How much should then learn before? How much of they learn can inhibit their creativity?

One of the ideas of the book is that the importance of the design will only grow. I have to agree. How is it possible that you need to set the current time on your oven to be able to bake a cake (not just one brand)? If we screw ovens after decades they worked already how can we design revolutionary devices? But maybe we can – perhaps the problem is not with designing new types of devices where we expect some searching. Perhaps we’re just too meddlesome and can’t resist redesigning what doesn’t need redesign anymore.

Role of Sustainability or Sustainability of Roles

Back to the WUD 2016 and the presentation that had the designated theme in its title, presented by Lukáš “Bob” Mrvan (with Avast). Videos from Bratislava event can be found here – and while the page is in Slovak, it is easy to find the videos there – and most of them are in English (all I mentioned are at least). Pity they are not made as a split screen between the slides and the presenter or that they don’t take the slide more often.

Sustainability definitely resonated throughout the presentation. This may seem annoying to some but not to me as I’m convinced our current lifestyle is unsustainable.

Another interesting idea was that too often we focus on technical part of the design and not on the whole experience. E.g. Bob was talking about their call centre – they needed to replace their insufficient application, but the most important change might have been designing their call scripts properly. Of course this wasn’t the first time I’d heard about this more holistic approach. So, just as the book says the importance of the design will grow, Bob claims the role of designer will change. And I agree.

But this all raises more questions, obviously. Maybe we need dedicated design experts on big projects, but what about small ones? How much of the design essentials must we take in to deliver useful software? How much an analyst and developer and tester should know about the design? And how to keep track of it when it develops like crazy nowadays? How to distinguish lasting advices from fashion trends?

Focus on people…

Part of the presentation discussed the speed of progress and its acceleration, talking about exponential Moore’s law vs our slow linear improvements in IQ. I take these only as visualization aids for the idea that the change is indeed inevitable. But when someone puts exponential curve on a linear scale and says “look at the pace of change since 2000” then I can move myself to 2000 and say “look at the crazy pace of change since 1985”. The rate is still the same it just affects more and more of our lives, that’s all.

Yes, society changes, design of things should get better and easier. The exponential curve doesn’t tell us anything different now than any time before. But right now it governs lives of virtually everyone (or soon it will). What to do with that is beyond the discussion about design, but the design is affected too.

…not just users, but workers as well

But there is one positive about these facts. Knowing that people evolve slower than technology we can focus on them – learn how we work, something about psychology (and psychopathology) of design, how we interact with things. This knowledge will last, it’s much better investment than learning something about the newest framework. Learning the technology is also necessary, of course, but we should find time for learning more important bigger ideas as well.

Bob mentioned it can be difficult to persuade our managers to give us time for learning and added a chart of performance of the top organizations vs average. The top organizations have also higher levels of employee satisfaction and learning culture is part of it. These are all known facts documented in many books, some of them decades old.

Some believe that in our line of work we should educate in our free time – and while I agree with this to a degree I refuse the idea that we should just be prepared anytime for anything at work. If organization doesn’t want us to practice at work at all, it can’t expect we will do it home, especially later in our lives with families. It’s also different to have a solo practice and a team practice.

To wrap it up

Bob’s presentation was much more cultural than technical. This seems to be the trend at the conferences nowadays. This is a good shift in overall although not all presentations are quality. This one was one of the better ones, definitely on the inspiring side of a spectrum. Bob also organized an exhibition about design, he is active in the community – so he’s got experiences of his own to present on the topic.

One of the questions about the design is – do we need revolutionary changes or will evolutionary suffice? Bob was more on the revolutionary side, it seemed to me. I understand the need for these in new areas. But revolutionary changes make me personally tired in many existing devices – especially the phones and web applications.

Productivity is directly tied to the design of things. If we need to relearn how to work with a phone every other year I don’t call that good progress. Like switching back and menu buttons? I have two phones with each of the buttons on the opposite sides!

Applications come and go and nothing is developed for reasonable time. Smart TVs are called a failure because people refused them, but producers refuse the idea that their Smart hubs (or whatever they call it) suck. They don’t improve the applications there. It’s been reported years ago that YouTube on Samsung smart TV does not use external keyboard – and it still doesn’t. If we don’t care about improving applications evolutionary as well, revolution will not bring anything good.

With this I’ll finish this post – mostly about design – and in the next one I’ll talk about government services. Those should also be about the design but are much more about politics, especially here in Slovakia.

Advertisements