Ux is not always sustainable (and how it could be)


User Experience (Ux) has become an important part of web design and development workflow, and is highly effective at making websites usable by their intended audience. But does usability imply sustainability? Are there any significant points where a Ux perspective will lead the site – or the user – into less sustainable practices online?

The “Designer Problem” and Ux

First off, one would expect User Experience thinking to enhance sustainability by factoring the User into visual design. One of the most common problems with web design is “designer-centric” thinking. This problem, often inherited from the kind of post-post-postmodern self-referential design taught at many art schools, encourages the designers to create for themselves and their fellow designers. While this may be just fine when one is creating a portfolio of their work, it is not appropriate for a website that lets consumers pay their utility bills.

Here is a plus for Ux. Designers will sometimes demand maximum creativity at the expense of the audience. The justification is a sort of quasi-missionary approach to the audience – they will be “uplifted” by design. Now, a short session with users actually testing designs in a Ux process shows how rarely “great design” in isolation accomplishes uplift. Instead, it hinders people from completing the tasks they want to perform. Sustainable use of a site implies that users understand and can use the site. Uplift, in the rare cases it actually happens among “ordinary people,” is a separate goal, however worthy. When it conflicts with the user, sustainability suffers.

Another area that Ux addresses, in a positive way, in relation to sustainability is the design process or workflow. When one looks through aging posts written during the “Flash Wars” several years ago it was clear that many designers preferred Flash over simpler HTML and CSS. The reason, cited regularly, and with passion, was the “freedom” the Flash design tools gave them to explore concepts. A typical pro-Flash post had the designer saying they could be “more creative” in Flash than elsewhere. The subtext was that the increased creativity justified the various problems users ran into trying to use Flash sites. If pressed, designers would sometimes revert to a missionary stance, claiming that they needed that flexibility to bring more “creative” design to the masses.

This sort of thinking is anathema to User Experience, whose motto is often described as “design as if people mattered.”  According to Ux, the designers elevating creativity over utility were thinking in a designer-centric “false consciousness” (for you lefties) and Ux was the cure. The best interface is no interface, according to Ux. Along with proprietary standards (a direct issue for sustainable web design), SEO issues and buffer overruns, this sealed the fate of Flash.

Is Ux zapping overly self-referenced “creatives” a plus for sustainability? Yes. Remember that sustainable design requires inclusive design, and Ux strives for inclusiveness. Design choices that push some people into inferior experiences while “elevating” others are just plain wrong, since it violates the principle of maximum inclusiveness found in most sustainability frameworks.

Now this may not be as big as problem as some imagine. Evidence comes from how frequently Graphic Designers cross over into a Ux career. The majority of designers don’t take the “missionary” attitude with their design, and in fact some great design work was done in the Flash IDE over time.  If anything the problem is more with the design tool creators (yes, I’m bashing Adobe again). However, with the explosion of online GUI design tools, there is a chance that we’ll see less of this kind of GUI enabling over time.

The “Codebeast Problem” and Ux

Ux is also helpful in bashing developers for their “developer-centric” work. While teaching code and interaction design in parallel this quarter, I was struck by the differences between the visual “interaction design patterns” and the “code design patterns” originally articulated by the Gang of Four, and elaborated over time for other languages including AS3 and JavaScript. In both the code and interaction design realm, design patterns solve problems in a repeatable way, often via a counter-intuitive approach. Right away this reminded me that code is just “design by other means” and this both visual designers and coders are just designers, often using relevant design patterns.

On code-heavy sites with big back-ends, the developer does a lot of the work. In order to code effectively, daresay creatively (“creative programmer” is a formal job description at companies like Deutsch), programmers will build beautiful, maintainable cloud castles of “framework.” By encouraging re-use of code, the classic code design patterns increase sustainability, since CPU and memory resources are minimized, and you get a more energy-efficient system for online delivery of content.

The problem comes when developers, un-trained in visual design and interaction design, get their paws on the app interface. In complex “web apps,” especially those automating elaborate services like education or Human Resources, the end result is that the “bones” of the system are exposed. Users contend with programmer design patterns. Visual designers are told to shut up and sing within the clunky constraints of the layout created by the developers. A quick check of the clumsy interfaces of systems like eCollege or mega-systems like SAS revels the users operating in the structure of the code and database, not the visual GUI they are trying to use. A visual designer with aesthetic hubris is bad, but a “codebeast” writing code design patterns into a Ui is just plain awful.

Once again, Ux comes to the rescue. Ux is equally adept at uncovering clumsy design, whether motivated by avant-garde graphic design magazines for a ongoing fetish for Node.js. In both bases, the user is put in the front, ahead of both kinds of “creatives,” and the resulting design will cause people to be more efficient and effective, reducing their use of resources.

What’s not to Like? Plenty

Thus far, Ux looks like a real winner in terms of sustainability. But there are times with Ux might reduce sustainability of virtual design, by application of its most cherished principles. Ux focuses on the User, and looks to maximize the quality of the User’s experiences. Can that ever be wrong? Let’s consider some possibilities.

One example where we can question the wisdom Ux provides is when new concepts are entering the Internet. A good example would be the “motion graphic” interfaces which started with iOS, and spread rapidly as CSS3 came online. On the original iPhone and its descendants, there were several interfaces (the page flipping to its reverse side comes to mind) that couldn’t be understood without said motion graphics.

A deeper problem with Ux surfaces when we consider the all-important focus on the User. Irritated visual designers are often wrong about the value of their design, but in some cases they will be right. Much of modern computers interfaces had to be learned, over a period of decades, by the computer-using public. It is sometimes hard to remember that the operation of a simple hyperlink – that clicking on a link in a page took you to another page – was not intuitive for many.

I remember a client from 1994 having their first experience with the web. On a long conference call, they grew ever more frustrated with us as we tried to explain the site we had built for them. “Why does nothing happen?” was the client’s response to all our comments. Finally, after most of an hour, we dropped into micro-mode, and told the client exactly how to position and move the mouse. We got them to click a link, and – things changed? But their next comment was “why did it stop?”

In short, this client, a seasoned  veteran of the entertainment industry did not intuitively understand the click->page->click->page browsing method. When he finally “got it” he as so excited he hung up the phone and got busy surfing. Before that, however, his “mind map” had modeled the web in terms of a television broadcast – hence the confusion about things not happening.

If Ux had been around in 1995, would it have recommended against widespread use of hyperlinks as opposed to slideshow-style websites? Probably. Sometimes, you do have to “push” the almighty User to learn new things. Great designers (as opposed to the ‘art school’ variety) know how to “train” their users progressively into new ways of thinking, which often might result in more sustainable User behavior online. Ux analysis would generally start in opposition to this work.

The Higher Things

The most fundamental issue with Ux is whether we are supporting users, or “enabling” them. In other words, if we maximize User Experience and promote bad habits, have we done our job? With a focus on Users completing tasks, Ux will tend to provide users with the tools to complete said tasks. But adapting to user needs, may, in the big systems-theory picture, let users run in the wrong direction. The take this approach, you have to believe that everything is not just a relativist social construct, and some ways of doing things have greater “meaning” or are even more “moral” than others.

In some cases (with a great design team), designing for behavioral change in users can work. Under sustainable design, it is justified, whereas too static application of Ux might work against it. The Ux focus on “sheltering users” from the arty designers and marketing wonks might not always be for the good.

So, imagine we make it easy to share photos via extensive Ux applied to app-building. If this results in a flood of images online, the trade-off is that the Internet has to grow in energy and resource consumption to support all that file-swapping. Ditto for video streaming and other resource-intensive services on the Internet. And what if our Ux makes it easier for people to drive more miles every year in their car? The overall system takes a hit. What if our studies reveal that users prefer elaborate animation over static images? The electric grid takes a hit.

This kind of argument tends to look like those that hubristic designers make, but with a difference.  In the case discussed above, aesthetics was taking a hit from Ux. In the latter, the environment, or rather the virtual ecosystem of the Internet can be at risk.

Adapting to user needs may lead the user in the wrong direction, when the good of the whole is considered.

Sustainable Virtual Design does need Ux, as it needs visual design and programming. But all of these disciplines need to be analyzed for their impact on the larger system to achieve a real, rather than faux, sustainability in the virtual world.

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