Hierarchy and Aesthetics: Separating Science from Art in Visual Design

In this post I argue that we need to communicate the differences between the science and art of Visual Design better to help change the common perception by stakeholders and clients that user experience is purely subjective.

One of the most difficult aspects of visual design is finding the right science:art ratio to accomplish user goals. I’ve always subscribed to what Tim van Damme calls the mathematics of design. You start with the science:

If art is about talking and expressing yourself, interface design is about listening and disappearing into the background. You listen to the content and its context, and take it from there, one step at a time. Don’t worry about the looks, just start with the variables. 1 + 1 + 1 + “¦ Baby steps, over and over again until what you have on your screen feels right.

And then you mix in art where appropriate:

But sometimes, even 1 + 1 is too much to handle, and you need to clear your head. This is where art comes into play, in the broadest meaning of the word: Paintings, illustrations, architecture, human beings, even nature is art. They won’t help you decide whether you should draw a 1 or 1.5 pixel highlight, but allow you to take a step back and just decide on what’s more suitable or pick one and move on.

Of course, this is not a serial process. Great designers are able to design within that delicate balance between science and art, and find the right ratio as they’re doing it. And even though it’s not easy, I do feel that most designers inherently get this – that visual design is science and art combined in different levels based on the needs of the user and the application.

What’s even harder is explaining this to stakeholders and clients in a convincing way. Over the past week I’ve seen so many comments about how “UX is subjective” and “standards always change” that it got me thinking about a possible solution to this problem. I haven’t figured it out, but I’d like to write down some initial thoughts for discussion.


The problem with Flash and Ster Kinekor’s new web site

South African movie site Ster Kinekor just relaunched their web site to much fanfare. Much of the discussion I’ve seen on Twitter about the new site is about their decision to remain completely reliant on Flash. I agree with all the technology arguments against Flash, but I want to take a slightly different approach here and talk about Flash as an enabler of bad user experience.

You see, Flash is like the guy who keeps giving your alcoholic uncle a drink while the rest of the family is trying so hard to help him get sober. Every time he gets close to quitting he gets “one more drink” from somewhere and falls back into bad habits. And this is what Flash is to user experience.

Every time you might get close to following standard UI conventions or have a simple flow, Flash comes in to whisper sweet animatic nothings in your ear… “Just one more flyout,” it says. “Just one more hover state – come on, everybody’s doing it.” Designing a boring old button? “No man,” says Flash, “we can make this thing move and light up with Flash, wouldn’t that be cool?”

And before you know it, you have this:


Apple as “the third who benefits”, or why developers shouldn’t be upset

Perhaps the most succinct summary of Monday’s Apple WWDC keynote is this tweet by Dustin Curtis:

Screen shot 2011 06 08 at 9 57 47 AM

I understand the sentiment, and a lot of the post-keynote blog posts echoed this general statement. The most measured response, in my view, came from Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper:

If Reading List gets widely adopted and millions of people start saving pages for later reading, a portion of those people will be interested in upgrading to a dedicated, deluxe app and service to serve their needs better. And they’ll quickly find Instapaper in the App Store.

I’m certainly not going to stop using Instapaper. I’m deeply invested in the service and can’t see myself moving to Safari any time soon. But that’s beside the point. Here’s the point.

I find it strange that people are freaking out about how Apple is going after successful apps and integrating them deeply into Lion and iOS. Here’s Rich Mulholland (well, censored a little bit):

Screen shot 2011 06 08 at 10 03 12 AM

For my part, I agree much more with Justin Williams when he says:

Some people grow frustrated by Apple continually making inroads in existing developer’s territory, but it comes with being a part of the platform. The key is to ensure your product lineup is diverse enough that you can survive taking the blow Apple may offer at the next keynote.


Product roadmaps are safe

Over on the 37signals blog they just reposted an old article entitled Product roadmaps are dangerous. Jason Fried says the following:

Instead of the roadmap, just look out a few weeks at a time. Work on the next most important thing. What’s the point of a long list when you can’t work on everything at once anyway? Finish what’s important now and then figure out what’s important next. One step at a time.

It’s hard to disagree with a person (and a company) you have great admiration for, as I do for Jason and 37signals. But I do think it’s important to set the record straight on product roadmaps – particularly when it comes to large organizations. The post highlights two main concerns with product roadmaps:

  • Product roadmaps assume you know what’s going to happen 6 – 18 months from now
  • Product roadmaps set expectations, so you can’t change them (and if you do change them it becomes a worthless exercise)

So let’s look at each of these points in turn.

My notes from Oliver Rippel’s NetProphet talk on “The current state & future of e-commerce in Africa”

These are my notes from Oliver Rippel‘s talk at NetProphet 2011. Oliver is the CEO of MIH, a group company overseeing African and Middle East online properties like Mocality and

The state of e-commerce in Africa

  • As soon as e-commerce becomes more than 1% of retail sales, that’s when it becomes mainstream
  • US not the most successful e-commerce market – Korea is, with 9% of retail sales online. US is at 4%
  • E-commerce in Africa is still nascent:
    • Egypt – 22% Internet penetration, less than 0.01% online retail penetration
    • Nigeria – 29% Internet penetration, less than 0.01% online retail penetration
    • South Africa
      • 6 million Internet users, 12% penetration
      • 0.4% online retail penetration
      • 16.7% credit card penetration
      • 14 e-commerce sites in Top 100 SA sites

Positive e-commerce macro-indicators in Africa

  • Big average projected real GDP growth
  • There is a growing middle class of 320m Africans
  • High mobile penetration (World average: 60%; South Africa: 92%)
  • The promise of accessible and affordable broadband Internet is there

Lessons for building a winning e-commerce business in Africa

MIH’s focus is on the full e-commerce value chain
The brands cover the whole purchase cycle: awareness, interest, decision, action, post sale, resale

  • Embrace mobile
  • Leverage offline
    • Go where the users are – online marketing on its own simply won’t work
    • Go to shopping malls and put up posters – whatever works
  • Cash is king
    • 50m million banks accounts in Africa, 95% of transactions are cash-based
    • The only mobile payment system that is scaling is M-Pesa in Kenya: P2P payments
    • They are converting a cash economy into a digital economy, so that can now also be used for e-commerce
  • Build trust
    • Open marketplace model is inadequate in low trust early stage environment – unlike eBay
    • Instead, MIH uses controlled marketplaces that reduce barriers for buyers by building a trusted brand

How long can BlackBerry hang on to its smartphone market in South Africa?

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion just cut their earnings guidance for Q1 2011, blaming slower sales. Even as the future of RIM looks bleak from a US perspective, you wouldn’t think so looking at the South African market. BlackBerries are simply everywhere. I’ve always wondered why BlackBerry has such a large portion of the SA smartphone market, and I can think of two four reasons:

  1. Most BlackBerry contracts come with unlimited free data, which (to my knowledge) no other smartphone handset does at a reasonable cost.
  2. When it comes to business users, it’s still the only phone trusted by corporate IT departments.
  3. A capable smartphone at a reasonable price (although an influx of cheaper Android and Nokia phones might make this a moot point). (Thanks Steyn for pointing this one out in the comments)
  4. The popularity and cost-effectiveness of BBM (although WhatsApp largely takes this away as a selling point). (Thanks Stafford for pointing this one out)

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. The latest earnings guidance cut clearly spells big trouble for RIM, and in a great blog post on Forbes, Eric Jackson lists 10 questions he would ask CEO Jim Balsillie based on that news, including the following:

Your bullish analysts used to say “yes, the US business is dying but International is going to keep growing.” You seemed to be saying last night that demand is drying up in Latin America too.  Does that mean the US was a sign of what is to come for your future International growth?

Now combine that with a recent IDC report that predicts Africa would become the first truly post-PC continent:

IDC estimates that in South Africa, 800,000 PCs were shipped in 2010 and the number is expected to decline by about four percent annually to reach 650,000 by 2015. Meanwhile, 1.3 million handsets were shipped in 2010 and that rate is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nine percent to reach 2 million annually by 2015.

You have to ask yourself: how long can BlackBerry keep its apparent dominance in the smartphone market in South Africa? As mobile demand increases it appears that they will simply be unable to produce hardware that can keep up with consumers’ ever increasing smartphone requirements.


The struggle between Writing and Design, or Why everyone should write

Thinking about writing at Melissa's Food Shop, Cape Town.

How good I am at my job as a software Product Manager depends on my ability to do two things: Understand the needs that real people have when they go online (whether they can articulate it or not), and building products that satisfy those needs as well as meet business goals. It occurred to me this morning that in many ways writing is about doing the exact opposite. To a large extent, writing is about being selfish.

Virtually any book or article you read about writing gives the same advice: Write what you know and what you’re passionate about. Write what’s in you, not what you think people want to read. Just last week James Shelley reminded us that people cannot help but notice an individual with passion. In another post he says:

Although passion may at times appear dangerous, the planet does not need less human passion right now, it needs more passion than ever before “” passion that refuses to be immunized by the lulling caress of consumption and the crippling inundation of knowledge.

But it is this apparent struggle between Design and Writing (with a big D and W) that makes it so damn difficult to write sometimes. As user experience designers we’re trained to get out of our own shoes and into those of others. It’s about their needs, not our likes and dislikes. “You are not the user,” we often say.

But I have a feeling that the best writers (and designers, for that matter) are those who are able to balance this apparent conflict between user needs and internal passion effortlessly. Writers and designers who truly astound us with their work are those whose understanding of what people need are so ingrained in their beings, so much part of them, that they’re able to express their passion in a way that meets those needs “without fuss or bother,” as the NN Group definition of User Experience states.


Humble Design

I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of humility in design. About a month ago David Gillis said the following in a great article for UX Magazine:

When it comes to designing experiences, cultivating a humble approach is absolutely essential. The sheer complexity of the design challenges we face demands open-mindedness – a willingness to test and modify assumptions, to make mistakes and be proven wrong.

Humility is about knowing what you don’t know, and when it comes to dynamic, interdependent, multi-platform systems, there are an awful lot of unknowns.

And then there’s this tweet by a good friend that’s been on my mind for a while now:


Ain’t that the truth.



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