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

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represented a resurrection of good old Swiss-German graphic design aesthetics from the 1950s and 1960s. Marcus says it was a smart way to bring some sanity back to the jumble.

A Universe with Many Centers

Like all big transitions, the latest one could come with its own minor backlash. Some users have had trouble adapting to the minimal new designs, and neither Microsoft nor Apple has gone out of its way to offer education or assistance (they’ve been lax about the “document” and “train” parts of Marcus’s UX development process). Also, not every culture adheres to the same set of meanings. Minimalism might imply luxury in some Western cultures, but in others it implies the opposite.

“There are studies that show that for consumers in India, if a phone interface doesn’t look rich and crowded enough, they will think it’s inferior,” Marcus says. “It should be bursting with icons, and by the way, a little gold wouldn’t hurt.” From an Indian point of view, “Swiss-German emptiness is the look of inferior design.”

Understanding, predicting, and sidestepping those kinds of cross-cultural friction points is one of Marcus’s current specialties. Marcus says he’s traveled to 37 countries, and one of his main observations is that “so many groups think they are the center of the universe.” It’s difficult enough to come up with designs that make sense to both men and women, or to both young people and old people. Creating a single interface that will work across all cultures is virtually impossible, he says.

Microsoft did it with Windows XP, which is still running on 500 million PCs around the world and is, by far, history’s most popular operating system. But most companies are probably be better off developing processes to localize and customize their interfaces for each group of users, Marcus says.

Sometimes companies call on his firm to do what he calls “cultural audits” of their software prior to translation. One company wanted to sell its English-language library management program in Saudi Arabia. Marcus and his interns interviewed Saudis and tried to identify terms, images, and concepts that might throw them, Marcus says. “You might have a very good translation of something which should never have been translated in the first place,” he explains. “They had a calendaring function that featured Jewish holidays, for example. That probably will not be necessary in Saudi Arabia. But there were other things too, like magic wands. To Saudis, that can look like wizardry and devil’s work.”

Lately, Marcus has been spending a lot of time flying back and forth to China, where he offers user-experience design training to companies eager to compete internationally. In 2012 he was named a Master at the De Tao Academy in Shanghai, which seeks to bring industrial expertise from around the world to China, and he’s an advisor to the Beijing-based Dragon Design Foundation, which runs design conferences in China and Europe.

Five years ago, Marcus notes, “no one had heard of Huawei,” the Shenzhen-based telecom equipment giant. Now it sells more smartphones than anyone except Samsung and Apple. “I can tell you, there are all kinds of companies like that. They are trying to create ‘Designed in China’ as a much stronger brand. I feel like I’ve been offered the chance to recreate AM+A in China.”

And as a free service to designers here in the U.S., his firm has published details about a series of “machines”—concept designs for applications intended to support various kinds of behavior change, borrowing ideas about persuasive technology borrowed from Stanford researcher BJ Fogg. The first, back in 2009, was the Green Machine, which showed how mobile-app builders might in theory help consumers use less energy by displaying data from smart-grid utility meters. It was followed by machines focused on health, money management, family storytelling, travel, innovation, driving, education, and happiness.

Today, plenty of commercial apps incorporate similar ideas. But helping to get these ideas into circulation was Marcus’s whole goal. “There are many startups creating stuff, but a lot of them create stuff which is not well researched,” he says.

The irony in trends like agile development is that today’s technology platforms actually call for more careful design thinking than ever.

“In the old days, chairs were one thing and books were another. They were rather simple and you knew how to operate them,” Marcus observes. “Now you can have chairs that tell stories and coffee cups that connect to the Internet. So computer-based products are challenging our expectations.”

But that doesn’t mean software developers can afford to throw out everything that’s been learned about the need for clarity and consistency. In fact, if they bothered to consult with veterans like Marcus, they might just avoid repeating some old mistakes.

“With all due respect to the brilliant young people creating all sorts of things, they often don’t have aged, wizened mentors who can provide a perspective—‘Oh yes, I see what you’re doing, it reminds me of what happened 20 years ago and it was a success or a failure for this reason,’” he says.

Marcus is hardly wizened; that’s a bit of playful self-caricature. And judging from his jetsetting lifestyle, 70 really is the new 50. But he does take the long view: all the way back to the beginning of computers in design, in fact. And that’s a perspective that’s completely missing at many of the Silicon Valley startups I talk with. Operating systems change. The way humans operate doesn’t.

Here’s a 2012 video of a Marcus lecture on mobile persuasion design and the firm’s “machines” project.

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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.