Date: May 14, 1998
Kevin Mullet, Human Interface Architect — Icarian LLC

In recent years it has become increasingly commonplace to hear software professionals professing their dedication to the principles of “user-centered design,” and indeed, a general conciousness-raising toward the needs of everyday users does seem to be taking place within the development community. Executives now call routinely for “ease of use” as a competitive differentiator, and practically everyone agrees that a “good” user interface is critical to the success of any product. Unfortunately, the number of perspectives on just what constitutes a “good” user interface is about as great as the number of well-meaning but poorly informed advocates.

Kevin’s talk will address the design of software tools. Our attention will be divided about evenly between what constitutes a good design – why you need it, when you should start it, how to make sure you’ve got it – and what makes a good tool – why it exists, where to focus, and what to avoid. We’ll consider the distinction between tools and toys, and what this implies about the kind of task knowledge you’ll need to inform your design. Toys are great in the proper context, but toy values tend to get in the way of good software design when creating a task-centered interface. We’ll consider the incorporation of increasingly available factors like photorealism and three-dimensional representation, plus multimedia graphics, animation, and sound. Task-centered design can tell you when to use these technologies and why.

These principles are as applicable to web-based applications as to any other software platform. Unfortunately, the toolmaker’s values of Fitness, Focus, and Transparency are too easily overcome, regardless of platform, when the toymaker invokes the undeniable appeal of the latest flashy tech-novelty. Despite the growing awareness of user-centered design within the development community, usability problems arising from the difficulty of focusing on task-centered design continue to be prevalent in shrink-wrapped software and practically pervasive among high-end tools. These “Seven Deadly Sins” of poorly designed software tools should be familiar to anyone using interactive software in the late 1990s:

  • Selection Neglection

  • Fad Gadgets

  • Scattergorization

  • Creeping Featurism

  • Compulsive Rambling

  • Rasterbating

  • Operational Hazards

    To consider how we might address this problem, we’ll examine the contents of the designer’s toolbox. The iterative design process begins with conceptual design and proceeds simultaneously through presentation design and interaction design with prototyping and evaluation woven throughout the entire cycle. Tonight’s talk will focus on the design of visual presentations to support software tools. We’ll survey the methods available and the results that can be achieved in each of four broad application areas:

  • Visual Coding

  • Visual Structure

  • Visual Representation

  • Visual Systems

    We’ll review “before” and “after”examples in each of these areas to illustrate the contribution that can be made by effective task-centered design. Although the time available precludes the examination in comparable detail of the conceptual and interaction design sections of the designer’s toolbox, these examples are representative of the results that can be achieved in every area when design methods and design values are applied to the problem of software tools.

    Kevin Mullet is Human Interface Architect at Icarian LLC, a Silicon Valley start-up creating web-based applications for Workforce Management (recruiting, hiring, deployment, utilization, retention) in high technology organizations. He was previously Managing Principal in the Information Architecture and Design practice of Netscape’s Professional Services organization where he worked on large-scale web applications for corporate accounts. Before joining Netscape, Kevin spent three years at Macromedia, where he was responsible for the design of Director 5 and 6, as well as the cross-product Macromedia User Interface initiative, and four years at Sun, where he worked on the OPEN LOOK GUI and applications in Sun Microsystems, on next generation desktop environments in SunSoft, and on object oriented programming tools in SunPro. Kevin holds the BS and MA degrees in Industrial Design from The Ohio State University and is co-author of Designing Visual Interfaces: Communication Oriented Techniques (1995, Prentice-Hall).