Difference between revisions of "One Size Fits None. Hacía un diseño de interfaz crítico. Por Rosa Llop"

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='''One Size Fits None. Hacia un diseño de interfaz crítico'''=
 
='''One Size Fits None. Hacia un diseño de interfaz crítico'''=
Por Rosa Llop
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By Rosa Llop
  
El diseño de interfaz es una disciplina joven, de carácter multidisciplinar y con teoría que proviene de ámbitos tan dispersos como la psicología, la ergonomía, la comunicación, el arte, la ingeniería y las matemáticas. Cuando buscamos bibliografía concreta sobre el diseño de interfaz nos encontramos principalmente con dos tipologías de libros: las declaraciones de intenciones en forma de principios para el buen diseño, y los libros de patrones basados en experiencias previas. Ambas tipologías tienen el defecto de fomentar una mirada inocente al diseño de interfaz. En un momento en que las interfaces forman una parte muy importante de nuestra cultura, es necesaria una reflexión mucho más adulta sobre cómo queremos que estén diseñadas.
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Interface design is a young, multidisciplinary discipline, based on theory from fields as diverse as psychology, ergonomics, communications, art, engineering, and mathematics. When we look for specific literature on interface design, we mainly find two types of books: declarations of intent in the form of good design principles, and books that describe patterns based on previous experiences. The weakness of both types is that they encourage an innocent approach to interface design. At a time when interfaces are a very important part of our culture, there is a need for much more mature reflection on how we want them to be designed.  
  
Los primeros libros de principios para el diseño de interfaz se escribieron en los 80 cuando se estaban gestando los primeros ordenadores en Xerox Parc. Son textos que fomentaban una relación hardware-usuario basado en la transparencia de la interacción. El WYSIWYG- (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) fue el mantra en esos primeros años, y en la redacción de esos principios se pusieron los cimientos para la construcción de una ilusión de relación objetual con algo tan intangible como el software.
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The first books on design principles for interfaces were written in the eighties, when the first computers were being developed at Xerox Parc. These texts promoted a hardware-user relationship based on transparent interaction. WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) was the mantra during those early years, and those principles laid the groundwork for the construction of an illusion of objectual correspondence with something as intangible as software.  
  
Más tarde, en los 90, fue cuando empezaron a surgir compendios para el diseño de interfaces con aportaciones tanto de académicos y profesionales como de empresas e instituciones vinculadas al desarrollo de software. (Galitz 1992, IBM 1991, 2001, Lidwell et al. 2003, Mayhew 1992, Microsoft 1992, 1995, 2001, Norman 1988, Open Software Foundation 1993, Verplank 1988, World Wide Web Consortium 2001, etc.). Estos compendios incluyen principios para facilitar interacciones eficientes. La finalidad del diseño de interfaz de esa época era conseguir relaciones de confianza con estos nuevos dispositivos para que se introdujeran exitosamente en nuestras vidas.
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Later, in the nineties, interface design surveys began appearing, with contributions by academics and professionals as well as companies and institutions involved in software design. (Galitz 1992, IBM 1991, 2001, Lidwell et al. 2003, Mayhew 1992, Microsoft 1992, 1995, 2001, Norman 1988, Open Software Foundation 1993, Verplank 1988, World Wide Web Consortium 2001, etc.). These surveys included principles that favoured efficient interaction. The purpose of interface design at the time was to build a relationship of trust with users of these new devices, so that they could be successfully introduced in our lives.  
  
Con el cambio de milenio los ordenadores ya formaban parte de nuestra cotidianidad y fue entonces cuando empezaron a aparecer los libros de patrones. Esta tipología de libros tienen un carácter mucho más práctico que los de principios. Su punto fuerte es que facilitan un marco de conocimiento específico para el diseño de interfaz basado en la práctica profesional y por tanto permiten a los diseñadores no empezar de cero en cada proyecto sino aplicar soluciones que han funcionado anteriormente en problemas similares. Esta tipología de libros tienen el defecto de proporcionar soluciones generalizadas, soluciones que el diseño de software denomina ''one size fits all'' <ref>http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1309668</ref>. Soluciones que la mayoría de los diseñadores aplican sin pensar dos veces si es la mejor opción.
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At the turn of the millennium, computers already formed part of our everyday lives, and that’s when the books on patterns and guidelines began to appear. These are much more practical than the books on principles. Their strong point is the fact that they offer a knowledge framework specific to interface design, based on professional practice, which means that designers don’t need to start from scratch with each project, and can instead apply solutions that have worked previously on similar projects. Their weakness of these is that they provide general solutions, what software designers call “one size fits all”,<ref>http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1309668</ref>. solutions that most designers apply without a second thought for whether or not they are the best option.  
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Estos dos tipos de literatura especializada ha llevado al diseño de interfaz por un camino dónde falta la reflexión y la crítica. Así que hoy nos encontramos con una disciplina en la que ni se condenan las falacias ni se cuestiona la falta de contexto. Una profesión en la que se acepta el paternalismo y no se fomenta la autonomía. Un panorama donde todas las interfaces se parecen entre sí, dónde la transparencia y la confianza de los primeros años se dan por sentados aunque en realidad no sean más que un espejismo.
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Esta falta de crítica de los modelos para el diseño de interfaz es grave puesto que en la actualidad, en un momento donde pasamos aproximadamente unas 7 horas al día frente a una pantalla (Meeker 20142) <ref>Meeker, M. (2014): Daily Distribution of Screen Minutes. BGR Media. http://bgr.com/2014/05/29/ smartphone-computer-usage-study-chart
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These two types of specialist reference books have taken interface design along a path that is lacking in reflection and critical thinking. So now we find ourselves with a discipline that does not denounce falsehoods or question the lack of context. A profession that accepts paternalism and does not encourage autonomy. A panorama in which all interfaces are similar, in which the transparency and trust of the early years are taken for granted even though they are actually an illusion.  
</ref>, no podemos ignorar que las interfaces gráficas son una parte muy significativa de nuestra experiencia cultural. El diseño de interfaz como disciplina debe poner en cuestión los principios y patrones que han regido el diseño hasta ahora y dejar de aceptarlos como dogmas intocables.
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Hoy hay que incentivar un diseño de interfaz que busque metodologías para un acercamiento más sincero con sus usuarios. Pero no estoy hablando de usuarios arquetipo, personas imaginadas, sino que me estoy refiriendo a usuarios que están plenamente vinculados a un contexto. Usuarios con unas necesidades intelectuales que van más allá del uso eficiente de un sistema y a los que no podemos dejar huérfanos culturalmente.
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This uncritical acceptance of interface design models is a serious matter. At a time when we spend approximately 7 hours a day in front of screens (Meeker 2014) <ref>Meeker, M. (2014): Daily Distribution of Screen Minutes. BGR Media. http://bgr.com/2014/05/29/ smartphone-computer-usage-study-chart
 +
</ref>, , we can’t ignore the fact that graphic interfaces are a very significant part of our cultural experience. The discipline of interface design needs to question the principles and patterns that have governed design up until now, and stop accepting them as untouchable dogmas.  
  
En este texto propongo una revisión a algunos de los principios fundamentales del diseño de interfaz e invito a los lectores a cuestionar tanto mis aportaciones como los principios y patrones que utiliza cuando diseña. La finalidad de esta propuesta no es otra que despertar la necesidad de reflexión en un ámbito del diseño que aunque esté en su infancia ha tomado una relevancia que ninguna otra área del diseño ha alcanzado tan rápidamente.
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We now need to promote a kind of interface design that seeks methodologies that can generate a more sincere relationship with users. And I don’t mean archetypal users, imaginary people, but users with strong links to a particular context. Users whose intellectual needs go beyond the efficient use of a system, and that designers should not culturally abandon.  
  
==Principios para un diseño de interfaz que estimule el desarrollo cultural==
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This text reviews some of the fundamental principles of interface design. I invite readers to question my suggestions and the principles and patterns that are used in the design process. The aim of this proposal is to awaken the need for reflection in a field of design that is still in its infancy, but has become culturally important with a speed unmatched by any other.
  
===1. Las interfaces no deben ser accesibles sino desafiantes.===
 
El principio de accesibilidad dice que ''“los sistemas deben ser diseñados para ser usados, sin modificaciones, por el máximo número de personas posible”.'' Este principio es, hoy más que nunca, una falacia. Las interfaces se diseñan pensando en los ''early adopters'' porque si no se hiciera de este modo el avance tecnológico sería imposible. Pensemos por ejemplo en la interfaz táctil de los dispositivos móviles, algo extraordinario hace unos pocos años convertido hoy en un gesto cotidiano. Este diseño se lanzó al mercado dirigiendo el producto a un grupo limitado de usuarios avanzados. Ellos fueron los evaluadores del diseño en sus primeras versiones y fueron los que actuaron como trendsetters para que esa interfaz formara parte de la oferta generalizada y el resto de usuarios la adoptaramos. Fue precisamente el hecho de pensar en usuarios avanzados lo que permitió introducir novedades disruptivas en el modo en el que interactuamos con estos dispositivos, si se hubiera seguido pensando en un diseño con pretensiones de contentar a todos esto no hubiera pasado.
 
Por lo tanto, mi propuesta es cambiar la palabra accesibilidad por desafiante. Las interfaces deben ser desafiantes tanto para los usuarios avanzados como para la gran mayoría, facilitando que la interacción con el sistema sea una experiencia intelectualmente motivadora.
 
  
===2. Las interfaces no deben ser obvias sino contextuales.===
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==Interface Design Principles that Promote Cultural Development==
El principio de obviedad dice que ''“la interfaz debe facilitar que el sistema sea fácil de entender y de aprender”''. Este principio se sustenta en la idea que el propio diseño de los objetos que forman una interfaz sugieran cómo deben usarse. Esta idea suele denominarse ''affordance'' <ref>Norman, D. A. (1990). The design of everyday things. New York: Doubleday.</ref>, un término acuñado por el psicólogo James J. Gibson en 1979. Según Gibson, las ''affordances'' son los usos potenciales de un objeto que se derivan de la observación de sus propiedades. Por ejemplo, un botón sugiere una acción de presión dada su propiedad de volumen. Pero hoy, por ejemplo, en plena vorágine del diseño de interfaces ''flat'', la mayoría de los usuarios entendemos que determinados gráficos son botones a pesar de que sus propiedades no lo sugieran. Está claro que la percepción que tenemos de los objetos es subjetiva y que el significado de estos objetos no depende únicamente de sus propiedades intrínsecas sino que buena parte viene determinada por las experiencias que hayamos tenido anteriormente.
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Por lo tanto para este principio sugiero cambiar la palabra obvia por contextual. Las interfaces deben responder al contexto en que se usan, y su diseño debe responder a las necesidades y especifidades de cada momento y lugar de uso.
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===3. Las interfaces deben ser tolerantes pero también escépticas.===
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===1. Interfaces should be challenging rather than accessible===
Existe un principio de tolerancia con los errores que se puedan derivar del uso de una interfaz. Este principio trata de ''“proteger a los usuarios de cometer errores irreversibles facilitando siempre información clara y concisa tanto para evitarlos como para solucionarlos”''. Nadie quiere borrar accidentalmente el trabajo de toda una tarde y todos pensamos que debemos tener el derecho a deshacer una acción poco meditada. En realidad este principio es de vital importancia para que un usuario confíe en un sistema. Pero la otra cara de esta actitud paternalista es que fomenta actitudes poco reflexivas: no importa lo que hagamos por que siempre podremos deshacerlo. Esta falta de reflexión sobre las consecuencias de las acciones no está exenta de problemas éticos.
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According to the principle of accessibility “systems should be designed to be used by the greatest possible number of people, without modifications.” This principle is false, now more than ever. Interfaces are designed with “early adopters” in mind, because otherwise technological progress as we know it would be impossible. Think about touchscreens on mobile devices, for instance, a phenomenon that seemed extraordinary a few years ago and has now become commonplace. When touchscreens were launched on the market, the devices were targeted at a limited group of advanced users. It was these users who evaluated the first versions of the design and acted as trendsetters, so the interface became part the mainstream and the rest of us adopted it. It was precisely the decision to focus on advanced users that allowed designers to introduce new features that disrupted the way we interacted interact with devices. If they had continued to think in terms of a design that aimed to please everybody, none of this would have happened.  
Mi propuesta es que las interfaces sean tolerantes pero también escépticas. Que fomenten en los usuarios una actitud inquisitiva sobre cómo se interactúa con ellas, que ayuden a descubrir los valores que se desprenden de su uso y que promuevan comportamientos más conscientes y responsables.
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===4. Las interfaces no deben ofrecer sensación de control sino de empatía.===
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Therefore, I propose replacing the term “accessible” with “challenging”. Interfaces should be challenging for advanced users and for the mainstream, so that interaction with the system is an intellectually motivating experience.  
El principio de control fomenta que el usuario tenga siempre una ''“sensación de control sobre la interacción”''. La idea es que la interfaz proporcione siempre feedback sobre las acciones que realizamos y que de este modo nos sintamos al mando. Por norma general esta sensación de control se formaliza mediante la visualización de respuestas simples -cuadros de diálogo, micro-animaciones, etc.- Pero estas visualizaciones no son más que una ilusión de control sobre la máquina. Las interfaces hoy son tan complejas que pretender que el usuario sienta que está al mando es un principio más que naïf.
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Mi propuesta es que las interfaces no devuelvan un feedback de sumisión sino de empatía. Que en lugar de señales de que están ejecutando la acción solicitada envíen señales que evidencien la complejidad del sistema, generen curiosidad y fomenten una actitud de exploración y aprendizaje hacia el mismo.
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===5. Las interfaces pueden ofrecer opciones de personalización pero deben comunicar honestamente los limites.===
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===2. Interfaces should be contextual rather than obvious===
El principio de configurabilidad dice que ''“las interfaces deben proveer desde configuraciones por defecto para usuarios noveles a opciones de personalización avanzadas para los usuarios expertos”.'' Esta capacidad para adaptar la configuración de la interfaz están pensadas para permitir cierta libertad en los usuarios en la forma de interactuar con el sistema. La idea es permitir que los usuarios configuren a su gusto cómo se presenta la información, cómo se comporta la interfaz y cómo se interactua con ella.
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According to the obviousness principle, “the interface should make the system easy to learn and understand.” This principle is based on the idea that the design of the objects in an interface should in itself suggest how they should be used. This idea is usually called “affordance" <ref>Norman, D. A. (1990). The design of everyday things. New York: Doubleday.</ref>, a term coined by the psychologist James J. Gibson in 1979. According to Gibson, affordances are the potential uses of an object that emerge from observing its properties. For example, a button suggests the action of pressing due to the property of volume. But today, in the midst of the maelstrom of “flat” interface design, most users understand that certain graphics are buttons, even though their physical properties do not indicate that this is so. Our perception of objects is clearly subjective, and the meaning of these objects does not only depend on its intrinsic properties but is largely determined by our previous experiences.  
  
No obstante este principio es muy cuestionable cuando el diseño de interfaz está sometido a criterios comerciales y corporativos como lo están hoy la mayoría de las interfaces. Pensemos por ejemplo en Facebook. El servicio nos proporciona una ilusión de personalización de la forma en cómo nos presentamos: podemos poner una foto en nuestro perfil y cambiarla siempre que queramos. Podemos decidir que amigos queremos tener y cuáles bloquear. Pero en realidad eso es lo único que podemos personalizar. No podemos ni cambiar el color, ni la tipografía, ni la estructura y ni el orden de la información que nos representa como a individuos. Tampoco podemos evitar los anuncios, ni que terceras personas vean las interacciones que mantenemos con amigos comunes. Todas estas decisiones son tomadas conscientemente bajo criterios de interés corporativo. No hay una intención de garantizar niveles de personalización ni tampoco una comunicación honesta de los límites que se establecen.
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As such, I suggest replacing the word “obvious” with “contextual”. Interfaces should respond to the context in which they are used, and their design should be in line with the needs and specificities of the time and place where it is used.  
Mi opinión es que las interfaces no tienen la responsabilidad de ofrecer opciones de personalización si la corporación que hay tras ellas no lo desea. No obstante en estos casos sí creo que tienen la responsabilidad de ser honestas con quién las usa y deben comunicar con claridad estos límites.
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===6. La interfaz debe ser simple, no únicamente aparentarlo.===
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===3. Interfaces should be tolerant but also sceptical===
El principio de simplicidad propone ''“la eliminación de toda aquella información irrelevante con la finalidad de conseguir una interfaz que sea lo más simple posible”''. A mi entender, hemos llegado a un punto en que los sistemas incorporan tantas funcionalidades que lo que se hace es esconderlas para que no interfieran en el uso principal del artefacto. Un ejemplo de ello es el icono ''hamburguer'' presente en muchas de las aplicaciones y servicios que usamos actualmente. Este es un icono poco expresivo -3 líneas horizontales- que en realidad sirve para esconder toda la amalgama de funcionalidades que molestan, pero que nadie se atreve a eliminar. Para mi es la demostración que no basta con pretender diseñar interfaces simples. Cuando estamos diseñando la interfaz hay que tener el valor de eliminar todo aquello que sea superfluo hasta conseguir que el sistema muestre su esencia.
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EThere is a principle by which there should be tolerance for errors arising from the use of an interface. This principle seeks to '''protect users from committing irreversible errors, providing clear, concise information on how to avoid them and on how to resolve them'''. Nobody wants to accidentally delete a whole afternoon’s work, and we all agree that we should have the right to undo an ill-considered action. This principle is in fact of vital importance in getting users to trust a system. But the other side of this paternalistic attitude is the fact that it encourages acting without really thinking: it doesn’t matter what we do, because we can always undo it.  
  
===Hacía un diseño de interfaz crítico y socialmente responsable.===
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This lack of reflection on the consequences of actions is not without ethical problems. I propose that interfaces be tolerant, but also sceptical. That they encourage users to be curious about how they interact with them, help to disclose the values that arise from their use, and promote more conscious and responsible behaviour.  
A lo largo del texto he tratado de someter a crítica algunos de los principios fundamentales del diseño de interfaz publicados por Wilbert Galitz, en su libro ''“The Essential Guide to User Interface Design: An Introduction to GUI Design Principles and Techniques''”<ref>Galitz, W. (2007): The Essential Guide to User Interface Design: An Introduction to GUI Design Principles and Techniques. Wiley Publishing, Inc. Indianapolis.</ref>. La intención del ejercicio no era desmontar las teorías de los expertos en diseño de interacción, si no todo lo contrario. Sigo pensando que la literatura sobre diseño de interfaz es escasa y poco especializada si la comparamos con otras áreas del diseño. El ejercicio expuesto precisamente lo que pretendía era poner en cuestión una literatura que se escribió cuando no existían ni los ''smartphones'', ni los ''social media''. Una literatura escrita con la ilusión con la que se empieza algo nuevo, pero demasiado inocente si la juzgamos con mirada contemporánea.
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A mi entender el diseño de interfaz necesita dejar de repetir patrones sin cuestionarlos y empezar a construir una reflexión crítica tanto de las fuentes como de las metodologías que utiliza. Una revisión que me resulta imprescindible para avanzar hacia la construcción de interfaces culturalmente ricas, que fomenten un rol activo en la construcción del progreso y que garanticen la libre actuación de sus usuarios.
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===4. Interfaces should offer a sense of empathy rather than control===
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The principle of control encourages users to always have “a sense of control over interaction.” The idea is that the interface should always provide feedback on the actions we carry out, and that this will give us the sense of being in control. Generally speaking, this feeling of control is formalized through the display of simple responses – dialogue boxes, micro-animations, etc. – but these displays are simply an illusion of control over the machine. Interfaces today are so complex that expecting to place users in command is naive to say the least. I propose that interfaces provide empathetic rather than submissive feedback.
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That instead of giving signs that they are executing the requested action they send signs that show the complexity of the system, generate curiosity, and encourage an attitude of exploration and learning.
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===5. Interfaces can offer customisation options, but they should openly communicate limits===
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According to the configurability principle, “interfaces should provide default configurations for new users as well as advanced customisation options for expert users.” This option to adjust the interface configuration is intended to allow users certain freedom in the way they interact with the system. The idea is to allow users to choose the way they want the information to be presented, how the interface behaves, and how they interact with it.
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Nonetheless, this principle is highly questionable when interface design is subject to commercial and corporate criteria, as most interfaces today are. Think of Facebook for example. The service offers us an illusion of customisation in the way we present ourselves: we can include a photo in our profile and change it whenever we like. We can decide which friends we want, and which to block. But that is really all we can customise. We can’t change the colour, or the font, or the structure or the order of the information that represents us as individuals. And we can’t avoid the ads, or stop third parties from seeing our interactions with friends in common. All these decisions were made consciously, in line with decisions based on corporate interest. There is no attempt to guarantee levels of customisation, and there is no honest communication about the limits that are set. I think that interfaces should not be obliged to offer customisation options if the corporation behind them does not wish to. Nonetheless, I think that they have the responsibility to be honest with those who use it, and that they should communicate those limits clearly.
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===6. Interfaces should be simple, not just appear to be so===
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The simplicity principle encourages “the removal of all irrelevant information so as to achieve the simplest possible interface.” As I see it, we have reached a point where all systems include so many functionalities that they have to be kept out of sight to prevent them interfering in the main use of the device. An example is the “hamburger” icon included in many of the applications and services that we use. This not very expressive icon – three horizontal lines – is actually used to hide a whole amalgam of functionalities that get in the way, but that nobody dares to get rid of. I see it as evidence that attempting to design simple interfaces is not enough. When we design an interface, we should be bold enough to remove everything that is superfluous, until we get the system to reveal its essence.
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===Toward critical and socially responsible interface design===
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Throughout this text I have tried to critique some of the fundamental interface design principles published by Wilbert Galitz in his book The Essential Guide to User Interface Design; An Introduction to GUI Design Principles and Techniques”[4]. The exercise was not intended to pull apart the theories of interaction design experts. In fact, my aim was just the opposite. I still think that the literature on interface design is scarce and not very specialised compared to other areas of design. The idea of the exercise was precisely to challenge a body of theory that was written before smartphones and social media existed. Theory written with the eagerness with which you start something new, but too innocent when judged through contemporary eyes. I believe that interface design should stop repeating patterns without questioning them, and start to generate a critical approach both to the sources and the methodologies that it is based on. I believe that this revision is essential if we are to move towards the creation of culturally rich interfaces that encourage an active role in the construction of progress, and that guarantee the free action of their users.
  
  
 
<references ->
 
<references ->

Revision as of 15:07, 26 November 2015



One Size Fits None. Hacia un diseño de interfaz crítico

By Rosa Llop

Interface design is a young, multidisciplinary discipline, based on theory from fields as diverse as psychology, ergonomics, communications, art, engineering, and mathematics. When we look for specific literature on interface design, we mainly find two types of books: declarations of intent in the form of good design principles, and books that describe patterns based on previous experiences. The weakness of both types is that they encourage an innocent approach to interface design. At a time when interfaces are a very important part of our culture, there is a need for much more mature reflection on how we want them to be designed.

The first books on design principles for interfaces were written in the eighties, when the first computers were being developed at Xerox Parc. These texts promoted a hardware-user relationship based on transparent interaction. WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) was the mantra during those early years, and those principles laid the groundwork for the construction of an illusion of objectual correspondence with something as intangible as software.

Later, in the nineties, interface design surveys began appearing, with contributions by academics and professionals as well as companies and institutions involved in software design. (Galitz 1992, IBM 1991, 2001, Lidwell et al. 2003, Mayhew 1992, Microsoft 1992, 1995, 2001, Norman 1988, Open Software Foundation 1993, Verplank 1988, World Wide Web Consortium 2001, etc.). These surveys included principles that favoured efficient interaction. The purpose of interface design at the time was to build a relationship of trust with users of these new devices, so that they could be successfully introduced in our lives.

At the turn of the millennium, computers already formed part of our everyday lives, and that’s when the books on patterns and guidelines began to appear. These are much more practical than the books on principles. Their strong point is the fact that they offer a knowledge framework specific to interface design, based on professional practice, which means that designers don’t need to start from scratch with each project, and can instead apply solutions that have worked previously on similar projects. Their weakness of these is that they provide general solutions, what software designers call “one size fits all”,[1]. solutions that most designers apply without a second thought for whether or not they are the best option.

These two types of specialist reference books have taken interface design along a path that is lacking in reflection and critical thinking. So now we find ourselves with a discipline that does not denounce falsehoods or question the lack of context. A profession that accepts paternalism and does not encourage autonomy. A panorama in which all interfaces are similar, in which the transparency and trust of the early years are taken for granted even though they are actually an illusion.

This uncritical acceptance of interface design models is a serious matter. At a time when we spend approximately 7 hours a day in front of screens (Meeker 2014) [2], , we can’t ignore the fact that graphic interfaces are a very significant part of our cultural experience. The discipline of interface design needs to question the principles and patterns that have governed design up until now, and stop accepting them as untouchable dogmas.

We now need to promote a kind of interface design that seeks methodologies that can generate a more sincere relationship with users. And I don’t mean archetypal users, imaginary people, but users with strong links to a particular context. Users whose intellectual needs go beyond the efficient use of a system, and that designers should not culturally abandon.

This text reviews some of the fundamental principles of interface design. I invite readers to question my suggestions and the principles and patterns that are used in the design process. The aim of this proposal is to awaken the need for reflection in a field of design that is still in its infancy, but has become culturally important with a speed unmatched by any other.


Interface Design Principles that Promote Cultural Development

1. Interfaces should be challenging rather than accessible

According to the principle of accessibility “systems should be designed to be used by the greatest possible number of people, without modifications.” This principle is false, now more than ever. Interfaces are designed with “early adopters” in mind, because otherwise technological progress as we know it would be impossible. Think about touchscreens on mobile devices, for instance, a phenomenon that seemed extraordinary a few years ago and has now become commonplace. When touchscreens were launched on the market, the devices were targeted at a limited group of advanced users. It was these users who evaluated the first versions of the design and acted as trendsetters, so the interface became part the mainstream and the rest of us adopted it. It was precisely the decision to focus on advanced users that allowed designers to introduce new features that disrupted the way we interacted interact with devices. If they had continued to think in terms of a design that aimed to please everybody, none of this would have happened.

Therefore, I propose replacing the term “accessible” with “challenging”. Interfaces should be challenging for advanced users and for the mainstream, so that interaction with the system is an intellectually motivating experience.

2. Interfaces should be contextual rather than obvious

According to the obviousness principle, “the interface should make the system easy to learn and understand.” This principle is based on the idea that the design of the objects in an interface should in itself suggest how they should be used. This idea is usually called “affordance" [3], a term coined by the psychologist James J. Gibson in 1979. According to Gibson, affordances are the potential uses of an object that emerge from observing its properties. For example, a button suggests the action of pressing due to the property of volume. But today, in the midst of the maelstrom of “flat” interface design, most users understand that certain graphics are buttons, even though their physical properties do not indicate that this is so. Our perception of objects is clearly subjective, and the meaning of these objects does not only depend on its intrinsic properties but is largely determined by our previous experiences.

As such, I suggest replacing the word “obvious” with “contextual”. Interfaces should respond to the context in which they are used, and their design should be in line with the needs and specificities of the time and place where it is used.

3. Interfaces should be tolerant but also sceptical

EThere is a principle by which there should be tolerance for errors arising from the use of an interface. This principle seeks to protect users from committing irreversible errors, providing clear, concise information on how to avoid them and on how to resolve them. Nobody wants to accidentally delete a whole afternoon’s work, and we all agree that we should have the right to undo an ill-considered action. This principle is in fact of vital importance in getting users to trust a system. But the other side of this paternalistic attitude is the fact that it encourages acting without really thinking: it doesn’t matter what we do, because we can always undo it.

This lack of reflection on the consequences of actions is not without ethical problems. I propose that interfaces be tolerant, but also sceptical. That they encourage users to be curious about how they interact with them, help to disclose the values that arise from their use, and promote more conscious and responsible behaviour.

4. Interfaces should offer a sense of empathy rather than control

The principle of control encourages users to always have “a sense of control over interaction.” The idea is that the interface should always provide feedback on the actions we carry out, and that this will give us the sense of being in control. Generally speaking, this feeling of control is formalized through the display of simple responses – dialogue boxes, micro-animations, etc. – but these displays are simply an illusion of control over the machine. Interfaces today are so complex that expecting to place users in command is naive to say the least. I propose that interfaces provide empathetic rather than submissive feedback.

That instead of giving signs that they are executing the requested action they send signs that show the complexity of the system, generate curiosity, and encourage an attitude of exploration and learning.

5. Interfaces can offer customisation options, but they should openly communicate limits

According to the configurability principle, “interfaces should provide default configurations for new users as well as advanced customisation options for expert users.” This option to adjust the interface configuration is intended to allow users certain freedom in the way they interact with the system. The idea is to allow users to choose the way they want the information to be presented, how the interface behaves, and how they interact with it.

Nonetheless, this principle is highly questionable when interface design is subject to commercial and corporate criteria, as most interfaces today are. Think of Facebook for example. The service offers us an illusion of customisation in the way we present ourselves: we can include a photo in our profile and change it whenever we like. We can decide which friends we want, and which to block. But that is really all we can customise. We can’t change the colour, or the font, or the structure or the order of the information that represents us as individuals. And we can’t avoid the ads, or stop third parties from seeing our interactions with friends in common. All these decisions were made consciously, in line with decisions based on corporate interest. There is no attempt to guarantee levels of customisation, and there is no honest communication about the limits that are set. I think that interfaces should not be obliged to offer customisation options if the corporation behind them does not wish to. Nonetheless, I think that they have the responsibility to be honest with those who use it, and that they should communicate those limits clearly.

6. Interfaces should be simple, not just appear to be so

The simplicity principle encourages “the removal of all irrelevant information so as to achieve the simplest possible interface.” As I see it, we have reached a point where all systems include so many functionalities that they have to be kept out of sight to prevent them interfering in the main use of the device. An example is the “hamburger” icon included in many of the applications and services that we use. This not very expressive icon – three horizontal lines – is actually used to hide a whole amalgam of functionalities that get in the way, but that nobody dares to get rid of. I see it as evidence that attempting to design simple interfaces is not enough. When we design an interface, we should be bold enough to remove everything that is superfluous, until we get the system to reveal its essence.


Toward critical and socially responsible interface design

Throughout this text I have tried to critique some of the fundamental interface design principles published by Wilbert Galitz in his book The Essential Guide to User Interface Design; An Introduction to GUI Design Principles and Techniques”[4]. The exercise was not intended to pull apart the theories of interaction design experts. In fact, my aim was just the opposite. I still think that the literature on interface design is scarce and not very specialised compared to other areas of design. The idea of the exercise was precisely to challenge a body of theory that was written before smartphones and social media existed. Theory written with the eagerness with which you start something new, but too innocent when judged through contemporary eyes. I believe that interface design should stop repeating patterns without questioning them, and start to generate a critical approach both to the sources and the methodologies that it is based on. I believe that this revision is essential if we are to move towards the creation of culturally rich interfaces that encourage an active role in the construction of progress, and that guarantee the free action of their users.


  1. http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1309668
  2. Meeker, M. (2014): Daily Distribution of Screen Minutes. BGR Media. http://bgr.com/2014/05/29/ smartphone-computer-usage-study-chart
  3. Norman, D. A. (1990). The design of everyday things. New York: Doubleday.