Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Be the Great Unifier: Seeing what's the same

Thanks to Robby Ingebretsen, from whom I stole this picture

One of the most important things we can do as designers is back off to see the entire picture. This kind of holistic, pattern-recognizing thought style is valuable to teams because in the day-to-day push and shove, it’s all too easy to focus too closely on the trees and forget about the forest entirely.

Knowing each of the infinitesimal differences between this object and that is a necessity when it comes to getting a quality product out the door. It is the unavoidable result of the kind of careful, detail-oriented thinking that avoids bugs and creates elegant algorithms.

But switching gears from this detailed thought style can be very difficult. Once we know each of the infinitesimal differences between this object and that, it easily comes to a point where the objects seem COMPLETELY different to us. We forget that the reason these things have to interact, the reasons we learned the differences in the first place, is that they are often fundamentally the same in some way, or at least closely related.

This is where letting our more innately-human style of thinking take over can really pay off. We have to forget everything we know about object A and object B, and look at them in their normal context with fresh eyes. We have to take off our smarty-pants engineer hats, and put on our user hats. What similarities do we see? Do we often want to interact with them in the same way? Do we always want to interact with them in the same way? When are the differences between them important, and when are they not?

If the nature of a thing defines how users interact with it, then seeing the commonalities in disparate objects defines the common language through which both can be manipulated in the same ways.

It’s important that we not forget that the similarities and differences are highly context-dependent. For example, to someone who is concerned primarily about flavor of food, sugar and sugar substitutes are comparable, because they both provide sweetness. But in the context of a natural-foods-only diet, sugar substitutes are no longer an acceptable equivalent.

As always, the context of a situation must come from our users’ goals and mental models.

Taking a minute, an hour, a day, to go through this exercise can do immense good. If we’re thinking too much (read “more than our users”) about the differences, the result will be a clumsy system that doesn’t work intuitively. Our users will have to tell the system about what they want every time they want it, rather than the system understanding implicitly what should be done. But the same result will occur if we’re thinking less than our users about the differences. If our users think two objects are different and we treat them as the same, the user will have to go out of their way once again to tell the system what they really wanted.

Let’s always try to be Baby Bear: not too much, not too little, but just right.

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