Artistic Freedom is Bull$#!+

Streetlights in fog

Streetlights in fog

The other day, a wonderfully well-intentioned developer said to me, “Designers shouldn’t be limited artistically. If designers are thinking about how we write code they’ll be less creative and they won’t have artistic freedom to make the best designs.”

Bless his beautiful heart, he’s wrong.

Let me just put this here, in case I haven’t said it enough times. UX Design is NOT art. User experience designers are often artists, but the concept that they need or should have artistic freedom is completely invalid. Let’s examine.

1.  Art is an expression of your vision.  User Experiences are not about YOUR vision, they’re about your users’ needs.

You have to be willing to put your own preferences aside as much as possible and cater to the audience. Otherwise, people won’t use your product.  And what’s the point in a product no one uses?  To be indelicate, it’s designurbation.

Let’s face it – we all have side projects.  Hobbies, personal sites, etc. Those are the place, arguably, to practice artistic freedom. Not on your poor users and developers.

2. UX design is science, and subject to being tested and measured. 

It’s not really artistic freedom anyways, if the metrics say that my arbitrary giant green text with the lovely fading background doesn’t convert. Metrics are king, after all, and to be a professional designer you need to submit to the measurement of and subsequent improvement on your work.

3. Users don’t notice most of the incredibly subtle things that designers are passionate about.

I have never seen a non-design user ask for greater text kerning, or wish that line were one pixel wide instead of three.  They just don’t care. It’s arrogant to think that one out of ten tiny details is going to make all the difference for the average user.  Now, don’t get me wrong – the aggregate of those ten is what makes the difference and it makes all the difference in the world.  But if for some reason you have to give up one, it’s not the death of aesthetics. It’s just a crack in the china no user is probably ever going to see.

4. Usually a scientifically sound and consistent approach solves the problem as well as, if not better than, a random and arbitrary but beautiful design.

The scientific method, in case you weren’t exposed to this a zillion times in school: Hypothesize, Experiment, Measure, Re-hypothesize, Experiment, Measure, etc.  Beautiful designs might or might not test well with non-designers. More often than not, actually, plain or sometimes even ugly designs win the day. Users like simplicity and clarity and there’s an elegance in plainness that often triumphs. You can’t know unless you test. You can’t win unless you are willing to change your designs to fit the results of the test.

5. Disciplined design is easier for a user to get used to, and creates a subconscious level of trust and enjoyment in the user.

Consistent interfaces are easy to learn. It’s just that simple. So even if you didn’t design the most beautiful perfect charming icon for that action, as long as the ugly button is consistent your users are going to be able to find it and use it.  Probably. Would it be better if it was consistent AND beautiful? Oh yes.  But the consistency thing is the key. And the only way you can have consistency is if you think about EVERYTHING and give it rules.

6. Disciplined design is faster, allowing teams to produce more without reinventing the wheel.

If my dev team knows that my leading will always follow a certain formula, they don’t have to spend time measuring pixels in my psds to see what the line-height will be.  If they know that I am always going to use a certain font, they can code it into base classes and forget about it.  If I always use the same conversion widget, which I’ve tested into and proven works, they will be able to modularize it.  Think of how efficient your teams can be, if you give yourself constraints.

7. Designers need to consider themselves servants, not presenters.

User experience design isn’t about showing off.  That’s why the geniuses aren’t household names – my aunt has never heard of Jony Ive or Dieter Rams or even Luke Wroblewski, that dynamo of UX mastery.  UX is about receiving information and turning it into knowledge, it’s about looking at the complex upside down and making it simple.  That’s why we are servants – our whole reason for existing is to get the hell out of the way and facilitate communication between humans and computers.  Not humans and designers and computers; humans and computers.

8. Designers can be happy working within constraints.

Constraints challenge us. Especially when they’re self-imposed, we love them.  Why else would someone decide to build a replica of a church using matchsticks? Why else would LEGO be so popular? Constraints let us stretch our muscles in a way that keeps us from getting lazy and complacent.  They make us THINK, and we’re all thinkers, we UXers.

Summing Up

I’m always wordy. The TL;DR is totally that while User Experience designers should have some freedom of judgement and aesthetic, more than a little is actually harmful to everyone involved. UX is more science than art, and should be approached with the rigor that the scientific method supplies.

Today’s Interesting Link:

Underscores – This is a fantastic framework for wordpress.  Regardless of your opinion of WP as a whole, who doesn’t love a framework generator that leaves you complete control of the look and feel?  It’s a great place to start.

 Today’s Usability Quote:

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – Albert Einstein

Today’s Music To Design To:

Lindsey Sterling has a new album – Shatter Me.  It’s fantastic.  I’ve recommended her before, but lately I’ve had Shatter Me playing while I design and it’s total awesomesauce.  Think violin, with a strong electronic beat in the background, and occasional guest vocals that really blend perfectly. This is not your grandma’s violin, and Lindsey is totally not your grandma.  :)


Inside the Workflow: Sketching on Whiteboards

Today I want to give you a peek into my workflow, literally.  Here’s a picture:

Picture of my monitor and a whiteboard

Tackling the challenge

A product manager challenged me to incrementally improve an existing internal tool, keeping the potential engineering points very small.  He gave me the following constraints – I couldn’t remove any information from an already crowded search result list.  I had to add two additional pieces of information, and I could not use progressive disclosure – all information/functionality had to be visible at all times.

After I fought and lost the Get Rid of Information and Use Progressive Disclosure fights, I buckled in to work on a way to lay out this information and functionality in a way that would let the users quickly scan and act upon the data.

Like most designers, I think in pictures.  So, I whipped out my trusty UI Stencils Whiteboard and started sketching.  I used different color pens for each option and just started drawing every single idea that came into my mind.  I knew I couldn’t change things drastically, so I just pushed stuff around, played with encapsulation, played with methodology, and toyed with size and color.

You can see the result of my design work in the back, comped in situ in the page where it lives.  This may not be the final design – now it’s time to show it to my users and see if they can find everything they need to find in the list.

I’d really love for you to take two lessons out of this.

First, take the time to focus individually on every aspect of your page – even a list which takes up 25% of a whole deserves to be broken out of its context and explored in depth.

Second, there is no replacement for the speed and flexibility of sketching.  Since trees are a limited resource and tend to be much prettier when providing shade, save paper by using a whiteboard.  Plus, then you can erase the crappy stuff and there’ll never be any evidence that you had an idea that bad.

Today’s Interesting Link: – This website is so slow that I actually forgot about it.  BUT, it did compress a PNG from 756K to 250K with no loss of quality at all.  Can’t shake a stick at that.  Just upload up to 20 PNGs and walk away.  Have dinner, come back, see compression.  It’s a bad UX, but a useful tool.

 Today’s Usability Quote:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Today’s Music To Design To:

Brian Hazard is an old acquaintance and he’s been making music for ages.  Color Theory is his one-man musical escapade, perfectly named to be designer music.  Expect electro synth-pop for the old stuff, and slightly edgier, industrial shininess for the newer stuff.  My favorite album is Sketches in Grey, which if I remember correctly is the first. But it’s probably not the best, it’s just the one I like most.