Volume 6 Number 6
Usable Information Designs
By Jeremy Hylton
Jeremy Hylton is a software architect at BeOpen PythonLabs.
Designing Web Usability:
The Practice of Simplicity
419 pages, including index.
New Riders Publishing: 2000, $45.
Robert Jacobson, ed.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MA: 1999, $35.
It would be easy to construe information design narrowly, given the current interest in creating web sites and in various technologies for e-commerce, digital libraries, and computer-mediated collaboration. The collection of essays in Information Design, published last year by MIT Press, offers a wider view of the design landscape. It considers topics ranging from navigation in urban spaces, to educational displays in museums, to the technology and physiology of 3-D graphics.
The contributors to that volume may disagree about what exactly information design is or whether it is even possible to design information. Nonetheless, some common themes about approach and methodology emerge. Some of these same issues motivate Jakob Nielsen's practical and valuable guide to designing web sites, Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. In particular, both books suggest that the measure of a design's quality should be its effect on user behavior and satisfaction and that the only way to achieve that quality is to do real tests with real people during the design process.
Several contributors to Information Design argue that the success of a design depends crucially on the specific setting in which it is applied and on the goals and expectations of the users. Nielsen's work, too, exemplifies this approach: "I believe the main goal of most web projects should be to make it easy for customers to perform useful tasks." (p. 11) This goal captures Nielsen's approach -- design decisions should favor the user and her ability to accomplish her task. It may also reveal a limit of his vision -- his focus on customers and designs for web portals and e-commerce sites.
The users that Nielsen talks about most are customers, and his primary audience appears to be corporate web developers. He argues that usability is more important for web sites than for software or consumer electronics. Once the user has bought a device, it's difficult for her to return it if it is hard to use. But if a user visits a web site that is hard to use, she won't come back.
Designing Web Usability is a catalog of techniques for building usable web sites. It is filled with expert advice on when it is okay to use frames, why not to tinker with the link colors, and what a link from a person's name should lead to. While there are some guiding principles, the book is primarily a compendium of good design tips. Nielsen says that the book is the first of two he will write about web design: the first book is about how to design web sites; the second will be about why to do it that way.
The first half of Nielsen's book covers the design of individual web pages, how to write effective online content, and the overall design of a site. The second half of the book covers topics including internal corporate sites, accessibility, and internationalization.
For the most part, Nielsen discusses not the specific technologies used to create web pages, but more general design techniques. The chapter on page design, for example, emphasizes designs that work across multiple platforms and have fast download times. The chapter on writing and content advocates giving up on a traditional linear writing style. Instead, he recommends a writing style that features short pages and paragraphs, bulleted lists, and generous use of links. Users are scanning pages, not reading them, he says. This advice is good if taken in moderation.
Nielsen's web pages employ this style, and they are easy to use and informative. But there other styles that seem equally effective -- web sites with long, information-filled pages that are as valuable as Nielsen's. A news, portal, or e-commerce site will be well-served by Nielsen's style, but there may also be good reasons to break the rules.
The book itself suffers a bit because it isn't linear enough. It contains hundreds of screenshots, often accompanied by lengthy captions, and dozens of sidebars. They are welcome as examples and illustrations, but they make it hard to sustain a linear argument. A point will be raised in the text, discussed further in a caption, and returned to a few pages later in a sidebar. It can be confusing to decide what to read next when a paragraph is interrupted by a sidebar and two pages of screenshots.
The chapter titled "Site Design" may be the most relevant for the creator of a digital library or collection. It has good advice on how to create easy-to-navigate sites, how to create easy to understand URLs, and how to integrate search features.
At its best, Designing Web Usability offers insights into web design that echo Donald Norman's classic book The Design of Everyday Things. (Nielsen and Norman are business partners.) Norman describes the ways in which poor design frustrates people when they use everyday objects like telephones, refrigerators, and doors. It is a liberating book, because you can recognize difficulties that once made you feel stupid or inept as limitations of the design and not of the user.
Nielsen's book occasionally has the same effect. Once you have read Nielsen's advice, it becomes hard not to notice examples of bad design as you browse the web. When I visit a hard-to-use site, it often seems clear that Nielsen's advice would have made the site easier to use. It's not that the web is inherently hard to use or that I can't figure out a particular site; the site's designers are to blame.
Where Nielsen's design strategies reflect concerns of the moment and the limitations of today's web technology, the authors represented in Information Design look at a broader swath of design issues and technologies. The book contains 16 essays organized into three sections -- one on theoretical foundations, one on practice, and one of design for information technology.
Many of the authors take up the question of whether there is a specific practice that can be usefully labelled "information design." The editor, Robert Jacobson <firstname.lastname@example.org>, offers his own definition of information design: "Its purpose is the systematic arrangement and use of communication carriers, channels, and tokens to increase the understanding of those participating in a specific conversation or discourse." (p. 4)
The specific conversation or discourse may be a multi-user virtual world, a large, collaborative art project about public transit in Seattle, or a library reference desk. The great diversity of voices in Information Design makes its hard to categorize. Some of the essays are technical or theoretical, others simply relate experiences with a design project or try to directly inform practice.
The essays range widely in length and tone -- from C.G. Screven's 62-page piece on design in museums and public spaces, to a 10-page piece on virtual worlds by Simon Birrell, a video game designer. Screven's scholarly piece, containing 93 citations, takes a textbook approach to describing communications and learning in a museum setting. Birrell's piece, transcribed from a talk given at the CyberConf in 1996, argues for the importance of the characters, narrative, and interactivity of a virtual world over the 3-D graphics used to paint the world on a display.
The collection is strongest when it focuses on practice and relates the experiences of individual designers. Some of the theoretical pieces tend towards highly abstract discussions of their topics and reach broad or vague conclusions that seem hard to substantiate. For example, Yvonne Hansen's essay on Graphic Tools promotes her design approach as a "simple, easy-to-learn graphical language that is universally applicable to all subjects." The language is a based on using six shapes -- circles, squares, triangles, lines, points, and fuzzy scribbles -- to help people develop and communicate ideas and plans. The notion that graphical languages have value for planning and thinking is hard to disagree with. It is less clear that a specific formalism for shapes and their meanings could be universally meaningful or applicable.
Brenda Dervin's overview of her Sense-Making approach is also problematic. Inspired by Continental philosophers including Foucault, Habermas, and Lyotard, she describes a theory, methodology, and practice for information design involving a postmodern notion of information as "a tool designed by human beings to make sense of a reality assumed to be both chaotic and orderly." (p. 39) The applications of Sense-Making have been mostly hypothetical to date, though real applications include a library reference desk. The essay focuses primarily on the highly abstract framework, however, and ends up offering little evidence of how the theory could inform practice. Librarians, Dervin suggests, should develop a model of how patrons make sense of information; i.e., they should ask "What led you to ask this question?" or "How do you hope to be helped?"
Other essays focus on less universal themes. One of the most interesting and practical contributions to the collection is Roger Whitehouse's essay, titled "The Uniqueness of Individual Perception." In it, he describes his experience designing signs and maps in a building that provides services for the visually impaired.
Whitehouse's work is an example of wayfinding, a study that focuses on the ability to navigate an architectural or geographic space. It is specifically concerned with the decision making and problem solving skills involved in reaching a destination. Romedi Passini's essay also discusses wayfinding, but in a large urban setting and from a more general perspective.
The central message of Whitehouse's essay is that each individual has a unique perspective or viewpoint that effects the success of a particular design. While the designer cannot practically plan for every person's individual needs, she should work to make sure no group of people is left out. If a designer focuses on an idealized average user, she may end up with a design that works well for no specific group of users.
The specific design challenges posed by visually impaired users illustrate the point well. Whitehouse describes tests he used to design typefaces and maps that could be used by several different groups of users, including people with reduced vision caused by aging, people with partial or total blindness caused by accident or disease, and people who were born blind. The needs of each group are different, and it was not always possible to find a single solution that accommodated everyone.
To make effective design decisions, Whitehouse relied on user testing. While carefully collected clinical data and research would be the best guide, there is often little data available to inform a particular decision. In these cases, Whitehouse says "what we can do -- and do with relative economy -- is obtain some less tidy information by conducting simple real-life tests in real-life situations." (p. 112) Jakob Nielsen calls this approach "discount usability engineering." The two offer similar advice: Design questions can be resolved by turning to empirical evidence. What design lets users find the information they want more quickly? What design do users like better? (Though what users like and what works best for them may not be the same.)
Can these varied ideas about information design be applied to the challenges of designing usable web sites or digital libraries? Jacobson points to Dervin's work on Sense Making and Passini's work on wayfinding as subjects that may affect future design approaches. Screven's work on museums may be helpful, too. There is certainly some intuitive appeal to looking for answers to problems of navigating the web in theories about how to produce signs for navigation in physical spaces, or for designing educational displays in large public spaces like museums. The theories laid out in Information Design may not be substantial or clear enough to inform current practice, but they are an interesting starting point.