Myths and Design

There are a lot of things about design that we (as designers) can count on:

  • Humans are predictable; they rarely do what they say they do.
  • The environments in which humans act and interact are predictable; they are easy to observe and change.
  • Humans hate being observed and changed.

Myths

Myths are stories that we rely on in times of uncertainty. They often stem from truth but in the retelling become broader in context and oddly (or, perhaps not oddly, YMMV) less applicable to most situations.

There are plenty of myths in design. They tend to get tossed around in meetings by designers and non-designers alike and usually start with “I think the users will…” Thinking the users will do something is a good place to start, but the problem tends to be that conversation ends there.

Here's a myth, based on 15-year-old research, we can all agree upon:

“Research shows no reliable differences in reading speed or user preferences for twelve point Times New Roman or Georgia (serif fonts), or Arial, Helvetica, or Verdana (sans serif fonts).” — Source, usability.gov

Or can we agree upon it? Is 15-year-old research good enough to still rely upon, especially on the web? The research noted above is something I've brought up during different projects over the years. But no one I've worked with really wants to use 12-point (equivalent) font-size and very few think Times New Roman should be allowed on the web other than ironically, like Comic Sans. I don't want to use 12-point Times New Roman. Yet, research shows…

There's plenty more well researched guidelines where that came from. And then there's Heuristics (rules of thumb). They, too, are myths of a sort. Experts have created “always should” and “always consider” lists to follow when designing. I've used them. I've created my own heuristics, based on my research and experience. But how often are these heuristics revisited? There are certain ways we all go about designing that are likely steeped in myth.

I am not saying I never rely on design myths; I do. I believe most design myths can be relied upon. My caution here is that they should also be questioned from time to time. Environments change. People change. And at some point it may not make sense to worry about defining a font-size or font-family. Who am I kidding. We all want our sites to look a certain way.

Mythos

Let's go back in time to my φίλος Aristotle. Mythos is the vehicle by which actions are carried out. Aristotle cared more about, in this case, goat songs (tragedy, for the layperson) while we care more about workflows.

While there is still plenty of feature-centric design work happening in the world, I see more companies moving toward task-based design. Designers and those they work with are starting to ask, “what really needs to be done? What's the goal?” The problem that remains is the tendency to ultimately bend toward what the business needs to accomplish instead of what drives the user.

For his part, Aristotle focused so much on plot that he neglected character. Or didn't think character was as important for the creation of conflict which drives the change and… okay, another article for another time. You likely work with people who know how the system should be designed and how users should use it. But did someone ask the user what they think? I mean, beyond a usability test, if one was ever done.

If you have a User Experience person (hey, you could have me!) in your company, you're in a better place than you'd be without one. They can ask what the user wants, assess what the user can do, and balance that with what the business wants and can do. Perfect. Done and done.

If you don't have a User Experience person, you are not screwed. Remember, you are working with people who know the business side of the equation. Run with it. Design around it. But early and often, get feedback from users on how the design is progressing. (And yes, it's fine to simply ask, “What do you think?”) You wouldn't implement a system without starting with Unit Testing, right? Please say, “Right.”

“Strong Opinions, Weakly Held”

There is no right way to design. There are good ways and bad ways.

You can get a good percentage of completeness in your design just by having a decent designer who knows the design myths well. And all without talking to one user. There are do's and don't's in design; follow them and you'll likely be on the right track.

The caution here is two-fold: you won't get a high level of confidence that your design is good without involving users, and you can't always rely on design myths to be true in every context.

Question, question, question. Question business intention. Question user goals. Question your own beliefs about design. It's important to know that you are making design decisions not out of hat, but that meet the needs of all aspects of the system within the correct context(s) of use. Which, no surprise, requires hard work.

There's no need to add to the collective insanity in the world by designing without this level of attention. Things are bad enough out there. While that kind of drama may be good on stage (I'm looking at you Oedipus), it isn't good in a web application.