The five team projects I completed throughout the course reaffirmed aspects of my design philosophy while challenging others. I was able to justify my own likes and dislikes, such as minimalism versus skeuomorphism, rationalizing the pros and cons in terms of usability. By applying the design principles I learned, some new and surprising values emerged through my work, namely personality, honesty and levity. Finally, by employing various methods of ideation, I was able to find out what approach works for me.
Minimalism and Usability
While I always knew my own tastes fairly well, this course helped me formalize precisely why I believe that minimalism, when used right, constitutes “good design.”
The concept of “skeuomorphism” is something I’ve come across before taking this course. Put simply, a design is “skeuomorphic” if it is made to look like its real-world counterpart, such as a clickable button made to look glossy and three-dimensional.
I think the disappearance of skeuomorphism in UI is a natural progression. Computers are becoming so ubiquitous that we’ve learned a set of glyphs, such as a simple cross to exit, three lines to expand a menu or three dots to reveal more information. The average user is far more computer literate compared to a decade ago. Reducing skeuomorphism is a way to respect the user’s intelligence. At the same time, removing the unnecessary visual noise of skeuomorphism makes an interface more usable, provided that the user is already familiar with the visual language of modern UI. In 2018, I’m inclined to say that this is a fair assumption for most cases. This mentality served us well in our first group design project. By using examples of now-conventional minimalist UI elements, we were able to improve the aesthetics and increase usability for our “young entrepreneur” demographic.
Does this mean that minimalist UI is inherently harder to use for the less technologically literate? Possibly at first. Skeumorphic details can teach a user what they can click, slide and toggle. While skeuomorphism teaches a user “how to move the pieces around” and assigns elements meaning through analogy, minimalism can accomplish the same thing by stripping away visual clutter and creating a clear set of iconography. According to another discussion from class, people are more likely to perceive a “minimalist” design as easier to use, even if that’s not initially the case. While skeuomorphism aims to make an interface appear intuitive, minimalism makes it inviting. Perhaps just looking attractive is good enough to get over the initial hurdle. The hope is those beginner users are willing to learn the meaning behind the visual language minimalist UIs provide. When crafting my 3D earthquake visualization, I learned that carefully applied minimalism can highlight the important information, making for a more focused experience.
There are many pieces of software for professional use that provide an abundance of information. Scientific research was not the goal of my visualization, however. By using a monochrome globe that the user could rotate with the mouse, I was able to create a focused, aesthetically pleasing experience that didn’t require much instruction at all. This project also showed me how user testing can offer discrete and concrete ways to improve an experience. The feedback helped me polish details such as the click-and-drag interaction.
The experience of working within the bounds of minimalism taught me that it’s more than just an aesthetic. By paring down the clutter in my visualization, I was able to enhance the usability of my demo—minimalism truly felt like a useful tool.
Minimalism and personality are not in direct contrast with one another. One of my favorite examples of this is the Cards Against Humanity box, which is pictured below.
The design on the box is very simple, consisting only of closely kerned Helvetica on a black background. At the same time, the simplicity makes the line “A party game for horrible people” seem hilariously flippant. The fact that there’s no art or words or other design motifs to back this up implies that the contents of that box must really speak for itself. It’s like a graphic design equivalent of a deadpan delivery.
The “Design for Tension” allowed me to test just how much personality you could pack into plain text. Our gerrymandering debate bot “Gerry” was written with an attitude, and it showed during user testing. The Google Design article “Conversation Design: Speaking the Same Language” highlighted the importance of considering personality when designing a chat interaction.
One article that caught my attention was “Why You Want Your Drone to Have Emotions.” While I’m still dubious about whether drones should really have emotions, the researchers were able to show that simple motions could convey a lot of emotion, giving inanimate objects such as drones the semblance of personality. The sluggish drones were interpreted tired, while the responsive, acrobatic drones were interpreted as adventurous. This idea ended up being useful in the “Design for Another World” project, where we created a prototype for a VR pet. We were limited to scaling, rotating and translating a model of a rubber ducky for our animations. By using these simple tools and adjusting timings accordingly, we were actually able to portray quite a bit of personality. The duck’s happiness influenced various attributes as well, such as his responsiveness to commands and speed. A video preview of the VR demo can be seen here.
Honesty and Levity
In the project “Design for Well-being,” it’s all too easy to take the idea of “well-being” in an overly-serious direction and start thinking about how a piece of software could administer therapy. I’m certainly not trying to downplay the mental health benefits HCI solutions can provide. In fact, I believe that computers can be tremendously helpful in this regard. At the same time, when I hear things like “chatbot therapist” I can’t help but think it’s an ill-fated endeavor. Unless we invent AI like in the movie Her, we should probably stop pretending that computers are sensitive enough to understand our emotions in a meaningful way. Right now in HCI, the most humane thing we can do is be realistic about what software is capable of understanding. Since the facial recognition library Affectiva had some difficulties with reading emotion accurately, making generalized statements about the user’s mood based on the output didn’t seem appropriate. Instead, we created a game that encouraged users to act and be goofy. The game showed exactly what emotion the program was registering, keeping us honest about the kind of noisy output we were working with. By steering towards levity and creating a game with funny videos, we created an experience that matched the underlying capabilities of the library.
When I’m approached with a project, my first inclination is to get coding as soon as possible. In many cases, I still believe this is a great approach. The flexibility of higher level languages combined with the conveniences of web technology allows us to build small things quickly. Working with code as a sketchpad during ideation is underplayed—some people view code as something that’s inflexible and hard to get working, but often it’s precisely the opposite. Anyways, it’s satisfying and motivating to get bare-bones functionality working.
At the same time, giving special attention to the raw pen-and-paper brainstorming session is important too. The rationale behind strategies such as the Five Design Sheet Methodology for Visualization is excellent, but I did not get as much out of that structure kind of structure as I had hoped. I found my team worked best when we jotted down ideas organically while holding an enthusiastic discussion, exchanging our thoughts. Perhaps in larger groups, more structured brainstorming is necessary to keep ideas flowing, and to make sure all voices are heard. At the same time, when it’s observed that rigid ideation guidelines aren’t necessary due to the group dynamic, there should be no shame in ditching the rules.
While I’ve always been interested in design, the readings and projects I engaged in throughout the course gave me the ammunition I needed to formalize my own thoughts. My own design philosophy breaks down as follows:
While minimalism is not inherently good design by itself, it can be used as a tool to enhance usability. Honesty is important; it’s better not to shroud the inner workings, since this can lead to frustration or distrust. In an age where we connect with our devices on a more personal level, personality and levity strengthen the connections we are able to make. While pen-and paper brainstorming is excellent, we shouldn’t ignore the modern tools we have to make our ideas quickly take form on screen.
I feel that I’ve outlined a good set of principles that pertain to my own experience, but none of this is set in stone. In fact, I hope that all of these ideas evolve as I continue to explore the field of design.
If you’re interested in the projects I talked about, visit my project portfolio for links to other Medium posts and playable demos.
Project portfolio: https://bandaloo.github.io/hci-final.html
Apple designers divided over skeuomorphic design: https://appleinsider.com/articles/12/09/11/apple_designers_reportedly_divided_over_use_of_skeuomorphic_uis
Conversation Design: Speaking the Same Language: https://design.google/library/conversation-design-speaking-same-language/
Chatbot Therapist: https://www.wired.com/2017/06/facebook-messenger-woebot-chatbot-therapist/
Five Design Sheet Methodology for Visualization: http://fds.design/
Drones with empathy: https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/drones/why-you-want-your-drone-to-have-emotions?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+IeeeSpectrum+%28IEEE+Spectrum%29