Saturday, August 13, 2011

Look and Flow is the new Look and Feel

R Marie Cox, who designed the question and answer site Quora had this to say about the early design of Quora:
"Really early on I decided to focus only on the product design and would forgo any time spent on things like visual design and, to some extent, branding. I didn't really know how that would play out at the time but I knew I wanted to get as much built as possible and as quickly as possible and hoped this artificial constraint would pay other, as yet unknown dividends. In hindsight, this turned out to be a good call because it really focused the product design and avoided common distractions. So, the scant visual elements are carefully added to provide utility and help guide the user to the most important behaviors we wish to encourage."
Soleio Cuervo the product designer who created the "Like" button in Facebook, said the following.
"We have a saying at Facebook: Photoshop lies," said Mr. Cuervo. Instead of relying on mockups filled with pretty fake text, Facebook designers create Web-browser-ready versions of their designs that can be filled with real user content, which tends to look very different from what designers might want ideally. "On Photoshop, it is very easy for me to fabricate an imaginary world where users type in very poignant statements, but that is not how people will populate the system."

How does this work in Enterprise App design?
The quotes above are from designers of consumer facing apps. I believe this is even more critical in enterprise applications design.

I have observed this over the past two years. I see many of my user experience design colleagues start with their favorite tools such as Adobe Photo Shop or Illustrator and build very appealing screens. When they show the screens, I have noticed that they get stuck when asked how the application will behave or flow. This is not because they are not smart people. It is just that the tools they use do not force them to think about behavior or flow. On the contrary the tools they use make them shine in a very narrow territory in a particular time period of the design process. They shine for a while. However, because they did not take into consideration what the behavior or flow of a screen is and because they did not make adequate inquiry about what is currently possible with the tools used by the programmers, the development teams settle for designs of their own. This disappoints the designers and frustrates them. Sadly, I did not see designers learn from this experience and change their behavior. Instead they sulk and keep using the same tools they they are familiar with.

Sometime last year my colleague @enricgili suggested we prototype behavior or flow for everything we do right from the beginning. He identified a tool that forced us to think about behavior of a particular screen or feature apart from the layout. We did not worry about how appealing the screen looked. One reason is because we believe that design is how things work, not just how they look. Another reason is that, like every large software company, we depend on a common technology framework designed by a central team to cater to multiple projects. We have relatively little control over how things might eventually look. The look will largely depend upon the capability and leadership of the central user interface framework team. However, we have relatively more control over how things will eventually behave or flow.

How did fellow design colleagues react?
We were able to influence some colleagues. Many other them adopted tools that help them build flow or behavior into their design suggestions. Focusing on 'Look and Flow' instead of just "Look and Feel" forced them to think differently. They started showing behavior rather than focus on one screen and rely just on verbal communication to convey their ideas. Because the tool forced them to think about the behavior, they were able to articulate the flow even in places where they did not have a chance to build it. I applaud the courageous colleagues who gave up the opportunity to shine for a moment and focused on making a long term impact on the product.

Some other designers refused to get out of their comfort zone and started talking about the glory days of Adobe Photoshop. I suspect these designers will fall behind, be marginalized and will either fade away or will change eventually if they want to be relevant as designers.

Is there a downside for building look and flow?
Yes. There is. One of the design interns started building behavior into every button and every element on the screen, almost treating it like a final application. This is counter productive. You should know where to draw the line and stop there. This is more art than science.

If you are a manager of designers you can make a difference
If you are a design manager, you can help designers recognize this changing landscape by providing them with the tools necessary to build behavior and flow rather than plain screens. Earlier, designers developed skills to code in HTML, which was an open canvas to do anything. Tools such as Axure and ForeUI provide a boundary within which designers can create clickable prototypes without getting lost in an open canvas.
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