Aaron Marcus, Berkeley's Bard of User-Centered Design, Battles "High-Order Crap"

Aaron Marcus, watching from his perch on Euclid Street in the Berkeley hills above San Francisco Bay, has seen the business world’s infatuation with design rise and recede, rise and recede.

Ten or 20 years ago, if you’d traveled to San Francisco or Silicon Valley in search of help designing a consumer product or a software interface, you’d have been directed to one of two marquee firms: Ideo or Frog Design.

Both companies offered industrial design and user-interface design services; both had histories that intertwined with Apple Computer and the revolution in personal computing wrought by Steve Jobs back in the 1980s; both employed a panoply of hypertalented artists and creative types; and both had showcases full of the famous products they’d helped to create, from the Apple IIc computer (Frog) to the first smartphone, the Handspring Treo (Ideo).

Ideo and Frog are still around today, each employing hundreds of people at their offices in the Bay Area and around the world. But these days, Marcus notes, they have a host of smaller competitors, like Carbon Design Group, Essential, Lunar Design, Smart Design, and Whipsaw. On top of that, there’s a new vogue at many Web and mobile companies for shipping “minimum viable products” that are hardly designed at all. In response, Ideo and Frog have scaled back their design practices and moved up-market into organizational consulting and “innovation consulting,” competing with larger firms like McKinsey and Deloitte.

Marcus, meanwhile, keeps doing what he’s been doing for the last 34 years in his consultancy, Aaron Marcus and Associates: the hard work of helping clients visualize and manage information effectively, using an approach that, in his words, “combines reason and emotion, with design as a middle ground between art and science.”

Like bits flowing through a network, Marcus is a little hard to pin down. He’s part physicist, part graphic designer, part ethnographer, part programmer. You could label him a user experience designer, an interaction designer, an information designer, or a proponent of user-centered design, and all of those would be right. But whatever you call it, Marcus has been doing it, and making money at it, longer than just about anyone else on the planet.

“I am the first graphic designer ever to use computers, that I know of,” Marcus says. His fascination with code and interfaces dates back to 1967, when he was a summer intern at Bell Labs in New Jersey and worked on computer-generated art, alongside the programmers who were inventing Unix. Fifteen years later, using a big grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, he started his firm and developed one of the first systems for making computer code more readable; thanks to Marcus, software developers’ comprehension of their own once-cryptic scribbles went way up.

That success set the stage for some 500 subsequent jobs for more than 300 clients, across government, industry, education, and consumer markets. The firm contributed to the design of the first version of AOL and the first versions of Travelocity and Orbitz. It helped BMW improve iDrive, the first successful in-car infotainment system. These days, Marcus travels extensively in Asia, and he’s become known for his studies of localization—that is, finding ways to adapt design so that they remain effective even when transported across cultural lines.

Through it all, Marcus, now 70, has remained the firm’s only full-time employee.

“Ideo has grown to be, what, 500 people? We are 10 to 15 people,” counting interns, Marcus says. “So, in a sense, we are a mosquito compared to them.” But while the big firms are good at marketing themselves through slogans and frameworks, Marcus thinks smaller firms like his are probably better at handling complex design problems. And behind the friendly (or not-so-friendly) rivalry, what preoccupies him is the conviction that there’s a common set of principles underlying good product design, good interaction design, and effective visual communication. Today’s high-tech entrepreneurs all too often overlook these principles, only to be forced into rediscovering them, he argues.

Even the biggest design-related technology story of the past year, the introduction of Apple’s stripped-down iOS 7 mobile operating system, was really about the company confronting the fact that its designers had built a lot of “high order crap” and deciding to get back to basics, Marcus says.

At the humblest startups and the world’s biggest technology companies, what’s old is new again. There’s a realization that interfaces need to be simple and consistent. In an era of touchscreen tablets and smartphones, when the form of a device says nothing about its function, designers must carefully shepherd users through interactions, providing them with obvious navigation cues and mental models that are internally consistent. (Tasks, by the way, that probably can’t be crowdsourced to users themselves, the way many “agile” startups try to do.)

“There is now a fad of emphasizing design thinking, and I find that a little amusing, because for us professional designers with some history, that’s what we learned in our first semester” of art school, Marcus says. “Now it’s being peddled as the secret sauce for the creation of successful products and services. But some of these techniques are no more or less than what user-centered design has been promoting for decades.”

A Jumble of Icons

Interaction design wasn’t even a recognized field until the mid-1980s. Many of its precepts are borrowed from the much older field of graphic design, which is where Marcus got his start. Problems crop up, he argues, when software builders overlook this legacy. In their rush to build systems of buttons, menus, and gestures for navigating graphical user interfaces, they have forgotten how people actually learn and comprehend.

A pair of examples underscore Marcus’s point. One is about Computervision, a Massachusetts company that, back in the 1980s, was an early pioneer in computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing, or CAD-CAM (Parametric acquired it in 1998). It was the golden era of icons—if you are old enough, you probably remember your delight the first time you dragged a file into the Apple Macintosh’s trash can and heard the little crunch sound. The issue was that early builders of CAD software thought they could … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Aaron Marcus, Bard of User-Centered Design, Battles “High-Order Crap””

  1. I got such a kick out of this comment: “There is now a fad of emphasizing design thinking, and I find that a little amusing, because for us professional designers with some history, that’s what we learned in our first semester” of art school.”

    As an industrial designer (and graphic designer too) I have really struggled to understand the exuberance over “design thinking.” I’ve even gone to lectures about it to figure out if I am missing something…and then I finally realized for a designer it is so basic it is like telling someone they need to breathe.

    I also loved the way Marcus vomits on another trendy sacred cow: agile development and MVP’s. I worry about a developer or designer who thinks exclusively in the equivalent of 30-second commercials instead of short films and feature length movies. Projects come in all sizes.

    • Wade Roush says:

      Thanks so much Jules. I wanted to put the spotlight on Aaron because I thought it might serve as a bit of an antidote to overhyped trends like agile development, lean startup thinking, and “design thinking” as a buzzword. I suppose everyone who reaches middle age looks at the youngsters and says “Oh, we were doing that 20 or 30 years ago,” but Silicon Valley’s memory seems especially short. Sometimes “these kids” talk as if they really do think they’re inventing the wheel.