User Notes

About User Notes (Long Version)

It all started with Don Norman’s book: The Design of Everyday Things. This is a book on design that completely changed the way I look at the world in which I live. It opened my eyes to the way design affects every single one of us, and how truly prevalent design is in today’s world.

It also showed me how truly prevalent bad design is in today’s world.

I am an engineer. I build and design things. In particular, I design computer software and Web sites. I am constantly making things that people use. I don’t make aesthetic things, although aesthetics are very important in my designs. The foremost qualifier for any one of my designs is that it be usable.

This is actually a fairly new philosophy for me. For most of my career, I approached the design process from an “engineering-centric” point of view. This resulted in products that were easy to build and test, but less than usable. After having the Customer Support people sit on my head for a while, I decided that maybe there was a point to usability engineering. What was really the clincher, however, was when I signed up on user forums, and heard people talking about my designs. These were customers. People who paid money for my products, and I heard them say bad things about my designs, about me and about my ancestors, which was quite a feat, as most of these people didn’t know who I was. After seeing this for a while, I took usability a great deal more seriously. I now subscribe to a couple of user discussion lists, and hear the unvarnished truth (and unvarnished untruth) about my designs.

Another big watershed was when I started to seriously design Web sites. Almost all of my work has been done as pro bono work for nonprofit organizations, designing sites meant to cater to relatively disadvantaged people, for organizations on a budget (zero is a budget amount, right?). I learned volumes about usability and accessibility in this work. I read many books on the subjects, and I have made it a point to try and design sites to meet these exacting standards.

I have also been very disappointed with the sheer ugliness of many devices and Web sites that have been designed for usability and accessibility. I think that we (as designers), can all do better. We need to design attractive, useful things that make a difference in the myriad “small” things that annoy us, or help us. With this in mind, I decided that I would walk through life with not only a jaundiced eye, but a digital camera and a notebook. I am now on the lookout for all those little things that I forget about after fifteen minutes. I will now take note of them, photograph them, and pontificate about them on this site.

Of course, it is easy to bellyache and complain, and another matter entirely to do. In each of my essays, I’ll have a “Suggested Solutions” section. I am an engineer and a designer. I know exactly what is involved in designing products, and I can completely understand why many of these decisions were (or were not) made. Engineering is a very practical endeavour, where the goal is to make it happen. Engineers are not lazy or thoughtless. They usually deal with projects so complex that your head would explode if you tried to do the same thing. It is simply a matter of priorities and experience, not ability or work ethic.

Why aren’t you writing about software and Web sites?

Good question. I’m a software engineer, and an experienced Web designer. You would consider these to be my strengths, and the best platforms from which to pontificate. However, there are hundreds of usability blogs out there already on Web sites and software design, and I like to promote the idea of learning from venues other than our favorite haunts. I will cover software and Web design, but usually only as part of some integrated product. I think that product designers have been doing this for a lot longer than us softies, so there is a much larger pool of examples. Also, more people can relate to product design than software or Web design.