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Interface Design Management:
The role of a mediator in the process of creating graphical interfaces
Horava & Associates
Michal Horava , MA, is the founder of Horava & Associates. He studied design at the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco, USA, and information design at the University of Reading, Reading, UK. His specialization is management of projects related to graphic interfaces. He works as a consultant, and leads workshops of user-friendly interfaces and design as a strategic marketing tool.
Human-computer interaction is a field where many scientific specializations have to come together. It is essential that these disciplines are coordinated within HCI design projects to produce a user-friendly and effective interface. The investor plays a central role in the process. At any stage of the project adequate information about the project has to be at his/her disposal.
This article introduces the role of Mediator as an integrating element in communicating the whole process of designing interfaces to both internal stakeholders of the project as well as to the investor. The Mediator is in charge of the project. He or she articulates the ideas which spring up along the way and creates scenarios which can be understood by everyone involved at any stage of the project. Mediator summarizes the results of the teamwork into arguments with the intent to gain the necessary buy-in from the investor, Mediator also defines the communication strategy aimed at future users of the interface.
This article’s aim is to open the space for discussion about the role of such person and its prominence in the process of designing graphical interfaces.
With the ever faster development of computer technologies the need arises for an increasing number of people to be able to handle and operate these technologies. Large proportion of the users are not specializing in computers nor technologies. This is why great importance is placed on the comfort and user-friendly interfaces.
Do attractive products work better?
Companies invest large sums of money into the development of interactive systems. Nevertheless, some of interactive products are more popular and successful from the user’s point of user than others. There are, most likely, a number of reasons: timing of the market entry, marketing support but also a very important factor directly related to the subject of this article – namely the interface. Can it actually motivate users to use a system more frequently? Can attractive design be the reason why users would prefer one product over another?
Donald Norman (2004), in his book Emotional Design, mentions Noam Tractinsky, who tried to replicate the efforts of Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura. Kurosu and Kashimura found that customers chose the ATM machine with a more attractive layout over another ATM with exactly the same function but without the attractive layout. Tractinsky arrived at the same finding when the experiment was repeated, this time in Israel.
We live in times of the iPod phenomenon, an MP3 player that became one of the most widely sold products in its class, despite the fact that it was missing a radio, and its compatibility was low when it was first released. Is design just fancy bait or is it a strategic tool?
Shneiderman (1997) claims that a comprehensible and predictable user interface should mask the underlying computational complexity. There is an increasing interest in how the user feels about interaction with devices (User-Centered Design). The idea is simple: devices are here for us; not the reverse. Design becomes a mediator between the user and the device. At the same time, design has the ability to organize data into logical structure and relkationships. Gestalt principles of design, according to Madea (2006), rely on our mind’s ability to fill in the blanks by synthesizing plausible relationships.
It can be argued that design heavily relies on emotion as well. According to Norman, people more readily adopt devices which subjectively look good and feel good. Norman claims: “everything we do has both a cognitive and an affective component–cognitive for to assign meaning, affective for assign value.” He describes three levels of the interaction of the user with the designer: Visceral (appearance), Behavioural (pleasure and effectiveness of use) and Reflective (personal satisfaction and memories).
It is also crucial to consider simplicity in design in designing interfaces. The users should not need to be concerned with the technicalities of the device in order to be able to solve their task easily and quickly. According to Madea, the key to an attractive device is its simplicity and ease of use. „People not only buy, but more importantly love designs that can make their lives simpler. For the foreseeable future, complicated technologies will continue to invade our homes and workplaces, thus simplicity is bound to be growth industry. Like a spare interface of Google search engine with its hidden technology in Silicon Valey.“
The terms usability and emotion are key words in the discipline called Interaction Design. According to Smithe (2007), “usability” means that the interaction design should guarantee the following parameters: clear mental model, reassuring feedback, navigability and consistency, and should be intuitive from the user perspective. In this field, the user forms the final shape of the interaction with the technology. By pay in ever more attention to the needs of the users, producers strive to accent a device’s ability to solve a problem rather than to boast certain technical features.
What are then foreseeable tendencies in interactive systems? Myers (1998) notes that user interfaces are likely to be one of the main value-added competitive advantages in the future, as both hardware and basic software become commodities. The trend is toward rapid improvement in processor power and the capacity of systems. We can see employing animation in interfaces that serve users better and aid understanding and ability to interact with the system. Consistent with this trend, we have begun to use touch and voice more broadly in managing systems.
Human-Computer Interaction is an interdisciplinary field
The key milestone in the interaction with systems was the first interaction that used the pointing device (light pen), demonstrated by Ivan Sutherland in 1963. The next presentation by Doug Engelbart was conducted at the Stanford Research Laboratory in 1965, using the mouse. (Myers, 1998).
In an article by Hewett (1992), human-computer interaction is described as a discipline concerned with the design, evaluation and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of the major phenomena surrounding them. The long-term goal of this activity, then, is to minimize the barrier between the needs of the user and the abilities of the computer to assess users’ needs correctly. The field is highly interdisciplinary. It connects several different disciplines and each of them focuses on a different aspect. These fields are: computer science (application design and engineering of human interfaces), psychology (the application of theories of cognitive processes and the empirical analysis of user behavior), sociology and anthropology (interactions between technology, work, and organization), and industrial design (interactive products).
HCI thus becomes a field where many specializations have to come together. For the benefit of individual projects it is crucial to be able to coordinate these disciplines (and, above all, the specialists in these disciplines) in such a manner that functional and user-friendly interface is the end-result.
In addition for the process of creation of interactive devices it is, in our experience, essential to be able to test the product at any stage of the development, as well as effective communication among all the parties participating in the process.The main cornerstones of the process are research, creation of the prototype, programming and implementation. During this interdisciplinary process, it is critical to: Maintain and facilitate communication between all participants throughout the entire project and test the product’s development at various stages of the process.
How to ensure that this relatively complex process leads to the desired outcome? We have experienced good results when using people in charge of communication throughout the process – Mediators. This individual deals with all participants and stakeholders at the same time, and should be capable of communicating, interpreting and negotiating the needs between the following groups:
2. Disciplines involved in the process
3. Experts within the disciplines
How to communicate design?
Design serves to achieve particular goals given certain constraints and limitations. The designer must balance objectives against constraints. According to Madea, design serves to hide the complexity of the technology through brute-force methods. “A classical example is the Swiss army knife. Only the tool you wish to use is exposed at any given moment, while the other blades and drivers are hidden.“
One of the biggest practical challenges of design is how to judge its functionality and how to test it. Design is often subjective and therefore hard to measure and test. Another problematic part is sharing information about design. Design as a field is associated with expertise.
Designer must be able to repeatedly use proven schemes and solutions. This is often challenging given the expert nature of the knowledge involved in these schemes and solutions which is difficult to explain and share.
Design can be also understood as a cultural phenomenon. All symbols and colors come with their own meanings. King (2000) argues that neither the meaning nor the codes that transmit meanings are inherently rational, but a result of a social contract. “If we see a symbol that we understand or whose meaning we have learned, then such a symbol transmits meaning. By analogy, if we do not understand the symbol, we implicitly assume that it does not carry any meaning. This phenomenon is closely related to the cultural background of the user.“
One of the first attempt to solve the problem of communicating design was ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education) – standardization of graphical symbols. Isotype was created by an Austrian social scientist, Otto Neurath in cooperation with the illustrator Gerd Arntz. It was created as an iconographic representation of statistical data intended to convey the key message to a wider public. Originally, it was devised as a learning tool for children. The system was very successful in terms of understanding the information that was presented (Twyman, 2006). The idea of an ISOTYPE system had considerable influence on subsequent efforts to design public signs, statistical graphs and information graphics. In its early days, ISOTYPE was used to interpret quantitative information from civil administrations – for instance, the number of workers building cars, and the feasibility of building goods like flour and sugar.
Neurath coined the term Transformer, which he defined as a person interpreting scientific data for a broader public. The scientist draws a draft of his idea on piece of paper and the transformer interprets and conveys the draft to the designer using the designer’s taxonomy. The designer then crafts the idea. The success was judged by whether the public could understand what the scientist had intended and whether the scientist found his thought clearly visualized as he conceived of it.
The question arises, what makes a transformer different from a project manager? The project manager must be able to manage the projects, whereas a transformer must also understand the technology involved in terms of capacity, limits and platforms, understand the users from a social and cultural perspective, and utilize basic psychological and ethnographic tools, and understand design principles and the design process. These then are very specific requirements.
Another alternative – Mediator
The Mediator must also know the taxonomy of the professionals involved in the project. It is not necessary that the Mediator possess a profound knowledge of each profession; yet he or she must understand it enough to be able to interpret it for all in a manner that is mutually intelligible.
Mediator is in charge of projects and articulates ideas that emerge through the projects. The Mediator creates scenarios that are understandable to all participating at each phase of the project and summarize the results of teams in the form of arguments that are crucial for the decision making of investors. He also defines the communication strategy for future users. The Mediator, in this sense, makes the team truly cooperative and confident.
However, there is a possible downside of using a mediator in the process. The main limit for any Mediator lies in his or her potential inability to recognize key moments when it is necessary to leave the original plan and seek new solutions. This can be eliminated by throughout and accountable design of the team at the beginning of project. It also helps to plan for regular strategic assessment of the project.
Yet another close alternative to mediator is the figure of Design Communicator – as defined by Cooper: “the person who helps others see more clearly and able to salivate at the thought of writing actionable user research documents with detailed design specifications that developers actually want to read.” He/she “synthesizes ideas in verbal and written form and lead (organize the project and help others become more effective and efficient).
A Design Communicator becomes, in fact, something of a grey eminence in the whole process. For instance, when a designer briefs programmers to use three colors – green, blue and yellow – the result of shades can be far from what the designer considers correct, trendy or visually satisfying. The same three colors can result in emotionally and esthetically disparate experiences. Also, he is well aware that selecting the wrong color can have far-reaching consequences for the work of the whole team. That’s why he strives to eliminate such problems in advance. (In this case by precisely defining the color shades and then checking whether these shades were actually used.)
In our experience, we have found Design Communicators very useful, particularly in relationship with investors. The downside, however, is the subjectivity of the management of projects. Highly professional Design Communicators can help produce revolutionary product with no compromises.
Yet when professional Design Communicators isn’t competent enough or the project is too complex for her, then her presence can limit the potential of the team that he or she leads. In this case, the design communicator serves as a bottleneck.
Conclusion – Points for discussion
Communications is a basic premise for successful results – user-friendly devices that address existing needs. It is therefore crucial to decide in advance which expert is more suitable for designing interactive products. It could be either 1. Design communicators – accent on ideas where the benefits for the process is strong leadership and the downsize like bringing about the bottleneck effect or 2. Mediators – accent on the task and the particular agendas of participants where the benefits for the process is make the team truly cooperative and confident with dowsizes like Inability to recognize key moments when it is necessary to leave the original plan and seek new solutions. The differences are:
Generosity of assignment given financial resources = Design communicators
The scale of envisoned trade-offs and restrictions of the assignment = Mediator
King, Andrew J. 2000. On the Possibility and Impossibility of a Universal Iconic Communication System. Iconic Communication, edited by Masoud Yazdani and Philip Barker, Bristol, UK: Intellect.
Hewett, T. 1992. ACM SIGCHI Curricula for Human-Computer Interaction. Technical Report. ACM Press.
Maeda, J. 2006. The laws of simplicity. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Marcus, A. 2003. Icons, symbols, and signs: visible languages to facilitate communication. Interactions 10, 3 (May. 2003)
Myers, A. Brad. 1998. A Brief History of Human Computer Interaction Technology. ACM interactions. Vol. 5, no. 2:44-54
Norman, Donald A. 2004. Emotional design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York: Basic Books.
Shneiderman, B. 1997. Direct manipulation for comprehensible, predictable and controllable user interfaces. In Proceedings of the 2nd international Conference on intelligent User interfaces (Orlando, Florida, United States, January 06 - 09, 1997). J. Moore, E. Edmonds, and A. Puerta, Eds. IUI '97. ACM Press, New York,
Smith, C Gillian. 2007. What is Interaction Design?. Design Interaction edited by Bill Moggridge. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Twyman, M. 2006. Lecture at the University of Reading, United Kingdom
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