Category Archives: Design

Explaining visual hierarchy

Just playing around with some images and verbage to explain visual hierarchy and the subtle things that can have a big impact. I appreciate that I may be stating the obvious, but I’d appreciate any thoughts/comments on the following as a teaching tool.

Lets start off with this boring fella!

Impossible/difficult to say if any of the boxes attracts more or less of our attention. You could argue that top left may grab a bit more attention, but overall a pretty dull looking image.

What about this…

Have I given you a headache? What grabbed your attention most? Difficult hey. Too many top of the tree colours competing for your attention. If there is too much shouting at you it becomes difficult to know what to look at.

What about this…

Much easier eh! We can all agree that we’ll be spending more time looking at that big red box than any of the other boxes. And this simple technique can work on a much smaller scale…

It is the red one that wins again isn’t it, but don’t you notice yourself drawn to those other boxes a bit as well. So now we have established three levels of visual hierarchy – and you can guarantee that most people will be drawn to the red box and the area around it first. Good eh!

What is better is that this subtlety works when you remove things.

The absence of a box draws attention too!

As does slight differences in the boxes…

A little twist makes one box stand out so much.

So with all this subtle power at our disposal, why do we ever feel the need to create things that look like this?

So many websites (particularly home pages) have too many things shouting and fighting against each other for our attention. The more you need to accommodate, the more subtle the techniques you need to engage to highlight the different elements, or else you run the risk of overwhelming people.


UX Australia 2009

Idealism increases in direct proportion to one's distance from the problemI presented some thoughts around design pragmatism and idealism at UX Australia. I’ve uploaded the presentation to Slideshare, Pragmatism or Idealism: a user experience conundrum.

The presentation focussed on some of the interesting philosophical challenges I’ve found myself facing as I’ve taken user experience leadership roles on projects involving high degrees of complexity – and thus compromise.

I will extract the key themes from the presentation into a post over the next few days, but for the time being these images capture the essence of what I was attempting to convey.

Sometimes good has to be good enough

Design is compromise

I believe audio files and slides from the conference will be published soon. I am sure I’ll post links some of the talks I particularly enjoyed once I track them down.

How to create better products? Say no by default

I stumbled across Derek Sivers post, Say NO by default, via Joshua Porter’s Designing for the Social Web (which I’m sure I’ll write about once I’ve consumed it).

The post struck a real cord with me. Particularly the following:

Say no by default – in design, business, and even life. Simple is beautiful. Instead of doing something “because you can”, consider thinking “only if necessary”.

Also the anecdote about how Steve Jobs defended the simplicity of the iPod/iTunes concept to independent record label executives:

In June of 2003, Steve Jobs gave a small private presentation about the iTunes Music Store to some independent record label people. My favorite line of the day was when people kept raising their hand saying, “Does it do ___(x)___?”, “Do you plan to add ___(y)___?”. Finally Jobs said, “Wait wait – put your hands down. Listen: I know you have a thousand ideas for all the cool features iTunes *could* have. So do we. But we don’t want a thousand features. That would be ugly. Innovation is not about saying yes to everything. It’s about saying NO to all but the most crucial features.

The post is bang on the mark. Features should be argued in rather than out. Products should focus on doing a few things really well rather than being all things to all people.

Another favourite quote of mine on this subject comes from Richard Seymour:

Innovation starts with people, not with enabling technologies…if you forget this you risk delivering feature-rich rubbish into already overcrowded lives.

Sketching user experiences

This blog has been a bit quiet of late – a mixture of workload and life…

Anyhow, I’ve been reading Sketching user experiences by Bill Buxton and can’t recommend it highly enough. One particular observation about the state of design in product development rang bells for me. To quote:

“My perspective is that the bulk of our industry is organised around two all-too-common myths:

  1. That we know what we want at the start of a project, and
  2. That we know enough to start building it.

Like the sirens who tried to lure Ulysses to destruction, these myths lead us to the false assumption that we can adopt a process that will take us along a straight path from intention to implementation. Yes, if we get it right, the path is optimal. But since there are always too many unknowns actually to do so, the fastest and most efficient path is never a straight line. Furthermore, my experience suggests that embarking on the straight-line path, and then having to deal with the inevitable consequences, is the path with the highest risk.

At best, it is a route to mediocre products that are late, over budget, compromised in function, and that underperform financially. At worst, it leads to product initiatives that are cancelled, or fail miserably in the marketplace. And with it, design, such as it exists, typically is limited to styling and usability.

Hear, hear. Sadly the t-shirt version would be too small for anyone to read, but Bill is bang on the mark. I’ve been dancing around a number of design and development companies over the years, and the key distinction between the good and the bad is the recognition of the need for design time.

No that does not mean giving the information architects two weeks to design the entire site! It means giving someone, preferably someone with good research skills, time to explore user requirements and understand the design space. (Then giving the IAs 2 weeks to design the site!)

I can’t recommend Bill’s book highly enough.

London Olympics logo

Jeff Veen’s recent posting, Which international sporting event logo is the worst?, reminded me that I drunkenly expressed my opinions on the subject by email to the London organising committee. Well it is shocking isn’t it!

I particularly like London Major, Ken Livingstone’s response to news that the logo is apparently causing people to have seizures:

“If you employ someone to design a car and it kills you, you’re pretty unhappy about that. If you employ someone to design a logo for you and they haven’t done a basic health check, you have to ask what they do for their money.”

Hear, hear.

I encourage you to enjoy the fun on this subject at Jeff’s site.