The Lifecycle of Design: Part 3

This is part 3 of a conversation with Luke Wroblewski on design lifecycles.

In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 on Luke’s site.

Joshua Porter
First off, I think that Craigslist and MySpace exposing their full content is a design decision…maybe one made without much thought but a design decision nonetheless. If *all* sites simply exposed their content to the world like these two sites, we would probably be better off. So many successful things have come from happy accidents that it doesn’t bother me to think that MySpace might be a happy accident…until you read how relentless they are about updating the site with useful things. Kathy Sierra’s talks more to this

This is part 3 of a conversation with Luke Wroblewski on design lifecycles.

In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 on Luke’s site. Continued in Part 4

Joshua Porter (me)
First off, I think that Craigslist and MySpace exposing their full content is a design decision…maybe one made without much thought but a design decision nonetheless. If *all* sites simply exposed their content to the world like these two sites, we would probably be better off. So many successful things have come from happy accidents that it doesn’t bother me to think that MySpace might be a happy accident…until you read how relentless they are about updating the site with useful things. Kathy Sierra’s talks more to this.

Del.icio.us and Craigslist are well designed because they solve a problem for users. Del.icio.us is great for bookmarking and Craigslist is great for personals. Although it seems obvious after the fact that bookmarks and personals are compelling…it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Someone made the decisions to expose this content, and designed a system in which people could add such value. The sheer simplicity of the idea is obscuring the sophistication of it. That’s a recurring theme: the best ideas are the most obvious ones (in hindsight).

You’ve made a distinction between compelling content and good design. I would argue that you’re taking compelling content for granted. Most people would kill for the compelling content on those two sites! As content is king, if you have compelling content you’re well on your way to the big time. Much of the energy in the design world is now about user-generated content…actually getting people to use a system over time and add their content to it.

If design is how something works, it is impossible to separate content from design. Design is not simply the presentation of the content, it is how the content works to solve the problem of users. That means that content isn’t this black box…choosing the right content makes or breaks the design in many cases.

We’re highlighting a common problem here. Web designers are often tasked with the presentation of content without having any role in what content they’re presenting. But if design is how something works, then it’s all design. Both the selection of the content and the presentation of it.

There is an implicit assumption in my argument, and that is this:

Usefulness precedes usability precedes style.

Usefulness comes first, always. So, when assessing the merits of Craigslist and Del.icio.us, we have to ask, are these sites useful? Yes, they are. Then, after we’ve fully explored their usefulness, making them as useful as is possible, then we can turn our sites on usability. I agree with you that both Del.icio.us and Craigslist could be designed better. It hasn’t hurt them thusfar because they’ve had few competitors. But when strong competition comes, the battlefield with shift to the usability front, and both Del.icio.us and Craigslist will have to scramble to stay ahead. This is happening already…Del.icio.us in particular has been refining its interface.

So, being well-designed is temporary because context matters. In three years Craigslist will be poorly designed if it doesn’t change to suit the needs of its users. Indeed, Luke, I think you might say it already is. :)

Luke Wroblewski
Again, from a hierarchy of needs perspective I don’t disagree with “Usefulness precedes usability precedes style.” But I still didn’t hear a clear answer to “why does usability have to wait until a product enters a different ‘stage’? Why not have something that functions well and has great usability?”. To that end why not make something both useful and beautiful out the gates?

Seems to me our actual point of disagreement may be a definition problem. When you say “design is how something works”, I find that to be a bit too broad. The way something actually works -meaning how it is built- that’s really engineering. Design is how that function is presented to people so they can interact with it. So from an end user’s perspective, yes “design is how it works” but only because they aren’t ever exposed to how the product “actually” works. They only knowingly interact with the interface layer. Behind the scenes they may be writing to a database or running complex algorithms.

Also, design isn’t really content. Design is the addition of style (based on situational context) and organization (mainly hierarchy) to content to aid understanding and interpretation. A great example is Edward Tufte’s Challenger information design. The content explaining the issues with the Challenger shuttle existed. Tufte did not create that information. Instead he designed the presentation of the information. He assembled a prioritized narrative that illustrated the meaning of the content in a way his audience could quickly and easily understand. To me, that’s design.

Continued in Part 4

Published: September 21st, 2006

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