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

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engineers, marketers, business managers, or regular old office workers or consumers. In a true user-centered design project, each step is built around understanding those stakeholders and their needs.

In Marcus’s view of good UX development, there are at least nine steps:

  • Plan
  • Research
  • Analyze
  • Design
  • Evaluate
  • Implement
  • Document
  • Train
  • Market

The content of these steps—the actual things designers are research, analyzing, and designing—break down into five components, more or less:

  • Metaphors: basic ideas communicated through images, words, sounds, textures, etc.
  • Mental models: an organization of functions and data, or content and actions, or users and tasks.
  • Navigation: how users move through the mental models.
  • Interactions: all of the input and output behaviors of the system, including text, speech, and graphics.
  • Appearance: color, typography, language, gestures, and the like.

If you hire Marcus to help design a new software product, that’s the way of thinking he’ll bring to bear. Of course, every design firm has its own toolbox of models. Marcus’s own marketing pitch boils down to this: more brains, less branding, more personal attention. “I believe our level of education and intensity and business focus is much deeper” than what Ideo and Frog offer, he says.

And if you hire him, know this: he doesn’t believe in shortcuts. There’s a whole school of product development these days that is basically anti-design (at least by Marcus’s definition), and unsurprisingly, he’s a skeptic. I’m talking about companies built around “agile” software engineering and the lean startup methodology, which calls for rapid cycles of iteration: developers build, ship, gather customer feedback, rebuild, ship again, and so forth. In that environment, Marcus says, there’s little time for planning, research, or analysis.

“A true UX designer would say we need to study the users, and sometimes we want to study them for one to six weeks,” Marcus says. But in an agile shop, “The other team members are saying, ‘What are you talking about? We’re in two-week sprints and by the time you deliver something we are three cycles beyond that.’”

Granted, many companies devoted to agile development and lean-startup principles would say they iterate precisely in order to gather and analyze feedback from users, the better to refine their ideas. But in Marcus’s view, you can’t sidestep the work of thinking about the metaphors, models, and interactions embodied in your software; otherwise, you’re just throwing features at the wall to see what sticks.

“It’s outsourcing the innovation process to everybody, so in a sense, everybody suffers along as you incrementally improve,” he says. “It’s certainly a cheap model for startups. They don’t have to pay for a lot of testing. But it does mean that a lot of crap is produced that we all have to live with.”

Good user-centered design, in other words, is more like a marathon than a sprint. Design thinking is hard, Marcus says, and only a handful of companies have a long heritage of doing it well; he points to names like Herman Miller and Nike. “Even with Apple, we live with crap. It’s just very high-order crap,” he says.

A Brontosaurus of Horrendously Inappropriate Form

Apple’s recent housecleaning with iOS 7 pointed to an interesting tension in the design world, between two camps that Marcus calls the “Apollonians” and the “Dionysians.” The Apollonian philosophy is restricted, limited, and controlled, he says. The Dionysians are expressive, exuberant, complex, zany.

In industrial and graphic design, the Apollonians are probably best represented by the Swiss-German school—people like Dieter Rams, the designer behind Braun, and Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of Frog and the originator of the spare, beige-box “Snow White” design that Apple applied to most of its products in the 1980s. The Dionsysians have people like Saul Bass, the iconic graphic designer, and Milton Glaser, creator of the sentimental “I Heart New York” logo and the famous rainbow-hair cover image for Bob Dylan’s Great Hits album in 1975, as their heroes.

Usually, you want people from both camps around. And Marcus confesses to having a zany side: In one recent side project, he designed a fake currency called Facebucks, with Mark Zuckerberg on the $100 bill. But a mobile touchscreen device can instantly morph into a phone, a camera, a compass, or a game board, which puts an enormous burden of clarity on software designers. Under those conditions, zaniness can get old pretty quickly, Marcus says. “It’s one thing to do funny, wild, and crazy things, and another to create large systems of signs that people need to learn and use.”

He cites Google’s ever-changing home page logo as one (relatively benign) example of excessively Dionysian design. He thinks the skeuomorphism that accumulated in Apple’s OS X and iOS, prior to the overhaul initiated with iOS 7, was another. The imitation dials, buttons, shadows, and textures that used to turn up throughout iOS may have helped to make early users of touchscreen interfaces feel comfortable. But as the wood veneer, green felt, and torn paper piled up over time, they came to feel unnecessary, even inconsistent. And they never had very much to do with the actual content being conveyed.

Apple’s old Address Book app, which looked like a real leatherbound address book, was one of the worst offenders, in Marcus’s eyes. He describes it as “a brontosaurus of horrendously inappropriate form that someone thought was going to be cute.” What made the app especially irritating, in his designer’s eyes, was that it used mental models and interactions that were inconsistent with those in other Apple programs like iTunes or Mail, even for simple actions like pasting text or moving between pages.

“At a certain point, people say ‘Wow, that’s cute, but how do I use this?’” Marcus says. “If I interpret this as meaning X, Y, or Z, are you going to pull out the rug and have it mean something else when I go to another screen? That’s a recipe for driving people insane.”

In 2012 and 2013, as it happened, both Apple and Microsoft went through Dionysian-to-Apollonian conversions, adopting slimmer typefaces, flatter designs, and simpler interactions for Windows 8 and iOS 7. Some hailed the changes as radical and shocking, but in fact they … 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.