Arcane Thoughts: Designing for Use

Last week I traveled on business, and the hotel I stayed in had some interesting features that got me to pondering the dilemma of design versus usability. In the bathroom the sink looked like a piece of furniture. Four wooden legs held up a black marble table, atop of which was a large white bowl which was in fact the sink.

Visually, this was quite pleasing, the colors worked well, the contours were pleasing to my eye. The issue came when I tried to actually use the area. There was virtually no counter top area to work with. I had a very tiny space to put my contact lens stuff and my shaving kit. Further, there was no place to sit the hand towel while I was scraping my whiskers or putting my eyeballs in. This was a classic case where the builder went with a design that was visually pleasing over one that was usable.

Another conflict I found was the frosted glass that divided the bathroom from the bedroom. Where the frosted glass pane was located, if someone got up during the night to, well you know, and turned on the light, the light would hit right in the face of the person remaining in the bed. (Since I was alone it was a non issue, but if I’d been with my wife it could have been a problem.) In this case it was something with a design that looked good having negative side effects when put into use.

Lest you think I’m all whiny, there were some good points to the place, such as the closet. When I opened the closet door, the light came on. Didn’t have to think about it, didn’t have to fumble for a switch, it just worked. Simple yet very effective and pleasing.

My point on this post is not to complain about hotel rooms but to get you to think about design versus usability when it comes to your applications. How many websites have you been to that were confusing or hard to use, but visually stunning.

A good example of a bad example is Brown University. (http://www.brown.edu/). If you try to put your mouse over a menu item in an area that is collapsed, that area pops up to show a pretty picture. You then have to slide your mouse up to be able to click on the item you were just hovering on a second ago, before the page helpfully slid the menu up to show you a pretty picture you probably don’t care about. Visually, the effect is cool and the page looks nice, but if you are trying to actually click on a menu option it sucks.

On the other hand, let me mention my favorite site, Google (http://www.google.com). Yes, I said Google. It’s simple, not too much being thrown at you, and it’s obvious what I’m supposed to do (type something in and click Search). Like the light in my hotel room’s closet, it just works.

Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) included in the new .Net 3.0 Framework gives us some powerful new tools for designing beautiful applications. Like all new technologies, this can be a double edged sword. I hope this post gets you to spend some time thinking about the user experience. Be sure the pretty pictures and cool effects don’t actually get in the way of getting the job done. Spend some time actually using your app. Key in data, do searches, etc. In short, be sure your program isn’t so pretty it’s ugly.

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