Requiem for a Metaphor

We use metaphors when what we have to explain may not be obvious. Given the complex nature of software, metaphors are used regularly. Every time you jump on your computer you are looking at different metaphors which come in the form of the icon. If you click on a folder icon, it’s not taking you to a folder; it’s taking you to a set of information. The folder icon is a metaphor for the organization of your documents. It is both a graphic element and a tool of information architecture used for better understanding. But, there is a problem sneaking up on us. Most of our metaphors are based in analog.

Many things no longer need to look like what they do. A television used to need a giant tube, which dictated its size and shape. Over time it got flatter. And then a lot flatter. Now a television has become a slim black box with a screen. Telephones have had a similar evolution. Once they were large devices that had a distinct look that was dictated by its analog nature. Now they’ve changed.

The convergence of devices on your average smart phone breaks metaphors like never before. It’s a phone, but looks nothing like the phones we grew up with. It’s a camera, but looks nothing like the cameras we grew up with. It runs applications, but looks nothing like the computer you grew up with. Given the newer technologies in development, your phone will soon become your wallet too. And for all it does, what does it look like? A slim black box with a screen. With this evolution we have lost inherit visual cues that analog gave us. This effects how we communicate in the digital space.

We are comfortable with using icons as a base metaphor for information on Web sites and operating systems. Look at the Windows OS. Your information and documents are subdivided into folders. But, if you look at how documents are increasingly digital, at one point you realize the metaphor of a folder may no longer be a logical reference.

If there are no paper documents, then there is no need for folders to place them in. At some point in the future, this will happen. With smart phones and digital readers, it may not be as far off as you think. The folder metaphor as we now know it will become an antiquated reference to how we used to do things.

The number of cell phone subscriptions will hit 5 billion this year. I would also argue the average icon used to represent a phone is outdated. If you do a Google search on phone icons you will see an overwhelmingly large number of images that have little to do with your average phone experience.

Holding on to these analog references makes little sense. Sometimes it’s the language that doesn’t add up. Tapes and VCRs have a rewind button, but so does you’re DVD player and DVR. It was called rewind because you were physically winding tape back to the first reel. The term fast forward is still relevant, but we should ditch rewind and call it fast back. Other analog references are less innocuous.

The accepted QWERTY keyboard layout is rooted in analog. It’s been arguably shown that other keyboard layouts are more efficient. But with the invention of the keyboard, they wanted to create something that was familiar and easy for those using mechanical typewriters. Now we’re stuck with it.

I am certainly not being nostalgic. I don’t want to be stuck with the old. I don’t want to cater to analog. I say good riddance, but it forces new questions to be asked. Abstraction is the removal of details. Digital has hastened the abstraction of these objects we create for ourselves. Fundamentally, it becomes a communication challenge. I see it as an opportunity for new language and new metaphors, but digital metaphors.


Brand Web Sites Don’t Need To Suck

The argument has been presented to me that the World Wide Web has room for all kinds of experiences. Some can be very usable and utilitarian while others can be freer to examine different things. Particularly, the argument is that a Web site that is shown to have more design and less information has its place too. The Web is a big place, but I just can’t agree with that line of thinking.

If a site like that is actually produced then it won’t stay up for long because users will not stay or return. This isn’t creatively breaking the rules in a good way. It’s pretending there aren’t any. It’s like designing a car with square wheels because anything round doesn’t match your design style. The very act of something being functional imposes real limits. Usability is half of the problem, content is the other half.

Content is king. So the content on a Web site should receive the most attention. Taking time to see that content is easy to scan, easy to consume, and easy to find are how we make content functional. In order of importance it works like this. Content is first, usability comes second and visual design last. I am not just talking about business based Web sites either. Sites that are completely entertainment focused still do this if they want to attract an audience.

The more expressive sites are typically brand destinations where design and interaction become part of the content people expect to see. Still, all Web sites need to be usable. The same basic rules apply. There are many brand destination sites that are visually engaging, fun to use, and above all informative. I think the Mini site does an excellent job at balancing all of it:

It seems that people are easily confused when they see a pretty design that is not a functioning Web site. In truth if it were functional, they’d see how worthless a site like that is. Portfolio sites can be very deceiving this way. A Web site is to be used, not just looked at.

The Web will continue to change and grow. But we have come across things that have proven themselves a million times over. People scan Web sites for interesting content. People want things that are easy to use. Why would anyone ignore these things? Present a range of information and make it easy to scan. Once you get that right, weave in the branding and the atmosphere. That’s how great experiences are made.

Usability and Development Time

After recently finishing a wire frame process, I was congratulated by a project manager who announced my contribution to the team as having saved development time. Hmm, well that’s true and I’ll take the compliment, but there’s a lot more going on than just  that.

Without wireframes, I have seen development stumble down a path with a very myopic set of solutions when facing problems as they arise. The usability process always looks toward the big picture, the experience from start to finish. Factoring in cognitive and hierarchical task analysis, benchmarks and stats, and let’s not forget good old fashioned creativity and you do more than just help the process. You build a product that at worst saves users time and at best becomes a cornerstone of success.

One thing I know is if you don’t make things easy to use, people don’t use them, end of story. User centered design doesn’t guarantee success, but without it the probability of failure skyrockets. With it, there is the potential to destroy your competition.

When the iPod was released it was just another MP3 player, but the usability they put into that device made it something special. From September last year, Apple says it has 73.8 percent of the market, followed by 18 percent held by “other”, SanDisk at 7.2 percent and Microsoft at 1.1 percent share— With their closest competitor 55 percent behind them, I can guess they aren’t forced to spend hours and hours attempting to prove the ROI on usabiliy.

Anyway, saving development time is good. Realizing that the discipline can make or break you is better.

Good Web sites don’t win design awards or Addys

We all know what a good Web site looks like. Just look at the ones you use everyday. Google, Facebook, Yahoo (Yahoo! If you’re on your third cup of coffee), and eBay. Here’s a complete list of the top 100, With the billions of dollars of business that is done on these sites, you bet your ass they are paying attention to user experience design and digital marketing. But that type of design and marketing isn’t something advertising agencies do well. So the reason why the best sites don’t win Addy awards is because they were not designed by ad agencies.

Most advertising shops don’t think about branded utility and creating meaningful conversations, they push ideas that win awards. If it’s not pretty or clever enough to win an award, they won’t dream it, much less pitch it. Everyone in adverting knows it’s about the awards; they just keep that fact to themselves when selling to their clients. Now, not all advertising shops and advertising creatives are the enemy of the Web, I have seen really strong interactive work from a few, but it’s not typical.

So who should be designing Web sites? Well, interactive shops and marketing agencies have been creating the sites you use on a regular basis. These are places that know how a site functions and what it does is infinitely more important that how it looks. Information design takes just as much creative talent and thought as creating pretty pictures. I would argue more, actually.

Adverting agencies have added interactive capabilities, pulling talented interactive people into the mix. Don’t be fooled by this. True interactive people in advertising are often treated like a necessary evil. They get ignored when they have ideas and are wholly disrespected. Everything they do is subject to the approval of someone who is unqualified to judge their work.

For an interactive to get respect at an advertising agency, he must abandon user centered design. And that designer must be prepared to have his site taken down after 3-6 months when the user base drops off to nothing. I say this because I can think of one individual who has done just this. And yet, for the stream of failed interactive experiences, his agency just loves every potential award winning site he designs. I guess that will work for them as long as they can misguide their clients.

Think an advertising agency would have developed an idea like blogging, an online auction, or social networking? Not a chance, those ideas came from interactive people, not advertising people. Advertising’s structure and focus is best used for that commercial you DVR past or possibly the banner ad you don’t look at and never click on. I would have thrown newspaper ad in there, but in 5 years those won’t exist.