Practise like an expert, don’t communicate like one.

Peer networking in the design community is thankfully not the rarity it used to be. Where there were onceinfrequent events based around an occasional high-brow lecture or overly self-conscious ‘networking opportunity’ (ugh), thanks to any number of driven and enthusiastic individuals we now have conferences, unconventions, informal meet-ups and increasingly relevant and compelling talks.

Industry peers aside though, our professional communications take place with a number of other key groups: colleagues, clients and end users. It’s worth considering how we handle these conversations.

A couple of years back the excellent UX Bookclub Belfast covered ‘How to Use Your Eyes’ by James Elkins. Each chapter delivered a brief but compelling insight into the expertise of others. By deconstructing (amongst other things) a culvert, an oil painting and the Periodic Table, the book revealed hidden mechanics and meanings, inspiring admiration for those whose contributions you might not otherwise consider.

Had there been a chapter devoted to the makeup of a graphic user interface or how a web browser renders HTML, no doubt most in the web design industry could have articulated something to inspire  similar, admiring reactions from readers outside our sphere of activity. Indeed, expertise is (or should be) the minimum price of entry into the increasingly crowded Service Industry Club. A key question to consider then, is: how do we convey our knowledge to those we most need to engage with?

It just works

Almost everything we interact with or consume is the product of others’ technical mastery; their input is largely invisible, allowing us to go about our day without having to consider theories, systems or production processes. We care about these things, only in the sense that they just work without insight on our part.

The same goes for most experts we come into contact with. Be it a doctor or a car mechanic, we appreciate it when these people frame problems and solutions in the simplest possible simple terms, revealing more detail only when we request it.

Dumbing up

In UX design, and I’d suggest pretty much every other design discipline, expertise should manifest itself in simplicity. Or to rephrase that, the science we incorporate into what we produce should be invisible to a non-expert; and we should be able to communicate our expertise while remaining intelligible to the listener.

Too often we trip over ourselves to prove our competence rather than communicate it effectively. In many ways our ability blinds us. We should not berate the client for, as designers are so fond of saying, “not getting it”. Others do not see as we do. We are the ones who have the responsibility of making sure clients “get it”… whatever “it” may be.

So perhaps the truest test of our competence is how simply we can share it. When we discuss a project’s challenges and potential solutions with a client, make it simple to understand. Communicate like a true expert.

Cutting from the same cloth

I’ve written on this blog before about my Dad, a joiner by trade. A recent tweet has given me cause to write about him again.

Dad died just as I was waking up as an adult – not in my teens, but in my twenties, as I finally started to think about design as a career rather than a meander through a series of jobs. I was a late starter, but thankfully, eventually came to have great pride in the profession.

Over the years there have been, and continue to be many days when I have imaginary conversations with Dad, trying to work out what his advice might be on matters both professional and personal. Dad would not have claimed to be universally liked, but he commanded respect; more than anything, people trusted him. And while we had any number of differences over the years typical of a father-and-son relationship, I would never have questioned Dad’s judgement. He was ‘true North’ on an ethical compass, to me and to many others.

One element of the legacy he left me was that I strive to exercise the same judgement and sense of integrity whenever I can.

Bill Monro had huge pride in his work and his tradesman’s background never left him. His role in later years, that of a Clerk of Works, brought him into contact with any number of trades, all of whom he could relate to because of his background in the Belfast shipyard and later the construction industry. He said that doing anything was worth doing well. Doing it thoroughly. Doing it properly.

As I move deeper into the area of user experience design, I often wonder what Dad would make of it, when so many even within the digital design industry have issues with the concept. I remember the difficulty I had in explaining what a Graphic Designer was; I can’t imagine what he would have made of something called ‘User Experience’.

And yet I know that to Dad the idea of building something without first specifying it thoroughly would have been a completely alien concept. As a joiner the old maxim of measuring twice, cutting once was an unflagging principle. I like to think that by talking in terms of thorough research, comprehensive planning and effective execution we would have found much to agree on.

I have a suspicion, though, he might have raised an eyebrow at user experience even being a thing: “You mean understanding the problem and making the results fit for purpose..? Hmm.” To Dad’s generation, these fundamentals were the minimum price of entry. Customer experience would have seemed an equally perplexing idea; surely good customer service is a prerequisite to trade?

I get a degree of comfort from connecting what I do to the skills and motivations my Father had. And so this post’s title is not a misquoting of the old idiom, but a suggestion of common purpose. Amidst the talk of a return to craft in web design, I have a personal motivation in wanting to achieve it.

Laws of Simplicity

The recently rejuvenated UX Bookclub Belfast, brought to us by the good people at Front, had “Laws of Simplicty” by John Maeda as its September selection.

I wish this had been written when I was a student or graduate designer. I come from a generation of designers where the goal was generally to embellish, embellish, embellish, and that was evident in the the wave of websites which emerged when designers finally decided to engage with the web in the last couple of years of the nineties. This should certainly be a must-read for all design students. Here are a few of my random thoughts and quotes from the book:

The first edition came out in 2006; throughout the book Maeda makes repeated reference to the iPod as a paradigm of simplicity principles. I would love to know if this reverence extends to the iPhone which is – to me – a hugely complex device, one which seems to base its appeal almost exclusively on aspirational aspects, albeit its functionality is split into a large number of smaller, simpler modules.

“Good design relies to some extent on the ability to instill a sense of instant familiarity” – this is very true when one thinks of patterns in UX design, and yet some designers are ashamed of conforming to conventions. Doing ‘what everyone else is doing’ is generally perceived to be a bad thing, and yet it makes a vital contribution to usability.

“Ambience is the proverbial ‘secret sauce’” – very true in web design. Sometimes you can feel like you have very little room to make your mark in a ‘typical’ web project, whether the constraints be financial, or dictated by brand guidelines etc. Many small victories can be achieved through tiney details which contribute to the overall ambience.

“Synthesizing the ambient experience of simplicity requires attention to everything that seemingly does not matter”. Daaammmn. Favourite line in the book by far! I may not get a tattoo of it, but it deserves framing at the very least.

Maeda makes the point that “simple = cheap” to his mother (and others). I would suggest that simple = cheat to some; that somehow simplicity is less design. Sadly a viewpoint that is too often adopted by short-sighted clients!

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding to the meaningful” – and here we have a key differentiator between simplicity and minimalism, which tends to be about reduction at all costs, something I’ve commented on before.

Overall, great book. The last couple of pages suggest to me that simplicity does not just appeal to us as designers, but as humans. For instance, I don’t believe that anyone wakes up in the morning and thinks: “Hmm. I think I need to make my life more complex today.” More exciting perhaps, or more fulfilling, but we will naturally be drawn to simplicity as a goal. And yet, I know I continue to fill my life with “stuff”, be it gadgets that I will never unlock the full potential of, books and magazines I may never read, which do nothing but add to the complexity of my life. Maeda lets us know that simplicity is a choice.

Without over-simplifying what Maeda offers, the book forces us to reconsider what is truly helpful, emphasising that more does not necessarily mean better.

Simplicity vs minimalism

My work tends toward simplicity to the point that I sometimes I think it marks me out as some kind of design luddite.

As I grow older I’ve become increasingly aware of how difficult it can be to simply stop designing. There is a time when a design – or to be more accurate – a style is done, finished.

Simplicity is the art of removing complexity (my definition but apologies if this has been subconsciously lifted from an official definition from elsewhere). For the user, complexity is a usability killer. For the designer, complexity is a time drain and a creative anathema. The more complex a design is, the less sustainable it becomes and the more work is required at later stages to uphold the extreme level of detail or clutter that has been established.

Simplicity is not minimalism. I see minimalism as an aesthetic, whereas simplicity is an imperative. Very different. And simplicity does not mean “plain” or “bland”. Just simple.

I’m barely touching on this huge subject but I’ll revisit it again and again I have no doubt.

Here’s a good point well made which I think illustrates what I’m getting at: http://www.usabilitypost.com/2010/07/23/a-mild-case-of-borderitis/