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Design vs. Usability: which side are you on?
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 7]

Internet users have any other web site just a click away. What will make them stay in ours?. Wonderful graphics (that take precious time to download) or careful organisation that makes it easy (and quick) to find what we are looking for?.

I've had the opportunity to read the interesting article 'Usability Experts are from Mars, Graphic Designers are from Venus', by Curt Cloninger (thanks to Bill Sullivan that sent a comment on it to the very commendable list on Information Design ID-Cafe.

The article argues that there is a war between graphic designers and Usability experts, represented by Gene Na of the prestigious firm Kioken and by Usability guru Jakob Nielsen.

It could be said that each one represents a different side of the human brain: Usability is more analytical, based on figures and statistics, more rational. That of design per-se, based on emotions, feelings and sensitivity.

These two worlds would be irreconcilably set against each other due to their particular standpoint:

  • On one hand, the Usability experts would only measure the ability of users to find what they are looking for in Internet.
  • On the other, designers wouldn't be worried about the graphics downloading speed and ease of use but only in creating emotion and the feeling of having a different, unique experience that other web sites do not provide.

But, what remains of Usability when what a company wants to communicate is brand image?. In this case Usability is a completely secondary issue and a good design can be fundamental. As an example see Levi's web.

And what remains of beautiful graphics if, after all, there is no content in your web, if it's only a void envelope?.

With regard to this, the book of Jared M. Spool "Web site usability, A designer's guide" says that graphics are irrelevant when looking for information. Nevertheless they can be very important to better understand some information or to communicate the prestige of the web creators.

The fundamental issue is to have clearly in mind who our potential customer is and what we want to communicate with our web site. Do we want to transmit emotions or knowledge?.

It's clear that we humans aren't 100% brain oriented nor 100% emotion oriented. We have a good deal of both brain hemispheres. Design has always been a part of science and of art; both calculation and intuition.

The final result cannot, and should not, go one without the other, even if there is a preferred orientation.

Links of this issue:

http://www.alistapart.com/stories/marsvenus/  
http://www.infovis.net/printRec.php?rec=publicacion&lang=2  
http://www.kioken.com  
http://www.useit.com  
http://www.infovis.net/printRec.php?rec=glosario&lang=2#Usabilidad  
http://www.vintage.levi.com/  
http://www.infovis.net/printRec.php?rec=llibre&lang=2#WebSiteUsability  
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