I am an interaction designer who loves minimalism, elegance, flow and agile.

Verbosity does not equal usability: why you can’t solve design flaws with wording

A recurring theme I come across – particularly when dealing with larger organisations – is the tendency for people to try to fix design flaws by throwing more words at the screen.  These have a way of quickly adding up like spitballs, creating screens full of mushy fragments of content that don’t really add up to anything cohesive or useful.  The catch-phrase used at a large bank I recently did some work for was “that’s ok, we’ll just put some wording in there” and it was uttered repeatedly every time we ran usability testing sessions.

Despite being well-intended, it doesn’t work.  In fact, it usually makes the problem worse.  This is because content problems need to be fixed by content and design problems need to be fixed by design.  If people are confused by something there is often a good reason for it.  Is the label poor?  Is the visual hierarchy at odds with the logical hierarchy?  Is the sequence out of step with customer’s mental models?  Is there a disconnect between the action and the entity it acts upon?  Should the action be there at all?  Throwing wording at broken designs just weighs them down more and reduces the relative visibility of everything else on the screen that is actually important.

Repeat after me: verbosity does not equal usability.  ”Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” is the oft-quoted wisdom of Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Can you spot the content in the following example that might be considered tedious verbosity?

The area of the screen that is visually strongest here is that which conveys the least content.  In fact I would go as far as saying that it actually conveys nothing at all and this screen would be clearer and more usable without it.

You can’t iterate your way out of a bad design: Multivariate testing and the problem of local maximum

At the most recent Fantastic Tavern we debated what the recent emergence of multivariate testing means for ‘designed’ experiences and design as a discipline.  Taken to the extreme, will we see experiences that essentially evolve themselves into some optimal form that no designer could have ever conceived through a Darwinist, survival of the fittest process?  Will the designers of today be replaced by some great crowdsourced process that runs on cold hard data?

Absolutely not.  Why?  The problem of the local maximum.

This is a concept that I came across as part of my Information Architecture Masters course and although it is usually talked about in mathematics circles, it has some big implications on design – particularly iterative design.  In a design context, local maximum describes the fact that an ‘optimised’ design is fundamentally anchored to its original concept.  To put it as bluntly as possible: You can’t iterate a bad design into a good one.

Local maximum illustration

Local maximum illustration

I will dig up more visuals to illustrate this clearly but indulge me in this thought exercise in the meantime.  Imagine a mountainous landscape with some molehills, some hills, and some mountains.  Now imagine that these all represent alternative designs – and the bigger the mountain, the better the design.  Suppose that you were parachuted in with the goal of scaling the highest mountain.  To do this you would obviously need to land somewhere on that mountain and climb from there.  If you landed on the smaller mountain next door and just started climbing, it doesn’t matter how long and hard you climb, you can’t climb higher than its peak (the local maximum!).  Although this might represent quite a climb, you will never reach the height of the bigger mountains around you.  You are fundamentally constrained by its lesser height.

Hopefully the leap from this metaphor across to what I’m trying to explain for design isn’t too far.  When you put a concept together you are defining a starting point.  That starting point has a local maximum.  Whether you reach that local maximum depends on how long and how well you iterate that concept, but regardless of how much time, money and technology you may have – you will never exceed it.  How do you get past the local maximum?  By coming up with a different concept, a different starting point that has a higher local maximum.

Tools like multvariate testing are giving us better quality data and insights that allow us to increase the speed and progress that we can make towards optimal designs.  But if you try to iterate a bad design into a good one you are ultimately polishing the proverbial turd.  Thanks to the constraints of iteration, we designers aren’t going anywhere soon.