Uselessnism on the Web


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Uselessnism is a term coined by Jasper Morrison, an English product and furniture designer who designed the Magis Air Chair, commonly seen in public spaces over the world. I would like to talk about uselessnism as seen on the web, its negative effects on user experience and how people involved in creating websites can embrace utilism to create not just usable but also enjoyable online experiences.

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  • Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,

    Some of you know me, some of you don’t. For those who don’t know me, I am a Designer. I design websites, user interfaces, brands and I use design to help people do better business and ultimately make people happy. I work from my office, my home studio and very often in cafes, you know... Starbucks.

    Last Saturday, to get some work done and dinner, I went to a Starbucks in Holland Village. Holland Village is a really great place to find good food. So I took the train to Orchard to transfer to a bus that goes directly to Holland Village. While waiting for my bus, there was this caucasian couple who were asking around for directions. I could hear them asking how they could go to the Singapore Botanical Gardens. Like in every other Asian country, Singaporeans are usually very friendly and helpful towards people with blonde hair and fair skin. Then a Chinese lady, presumably local, told them they were at the wrong bus stop and pointed them to somewhere else. I couldn’t hear them clearly but it sounded far away. Not an interesting story you might say but what if I told you the bus I was waiting for actually passes by the Botanical Gardens? I give the Chinese lady credit for being helpful but I pity the couple for getting useless advice.

    So today... I’m going to talk to you about useless things.
  • Like this! Look at that genius invention of a swiss-army ten-in-one farming tool. How many of you are farmers here? ..... can you (so no one can) tell me whether something like this is useful or not.

    Just kidding, I’m not going to talk about useless farming tools. I’m going to talk about uselessnism on the web.

    What is uselessnism?
  • The term uselessnism was coined by Jasper Morrison and Andreas Brandolini, both product and furniture designers. Jasper and Andreas came up with the term “uselessnism” to describe an approach to design or architecture which seemed to ignore the fundamental goal of being useful. In his book “Everything but the Walls”, Jasper wrote, “It seemed to us that a lot of projects were being made with the sole aim of courting publicity and raising individual profiles, without any genuine effort to be helpful.”

    Like in architecture and furniture design, the web has it fair share of uselessnism.
  • Let’s talk about Uselessness in User Interface Design. The user interface is a set of graphical tools that a user can use to interact with an application or a website. You interact with an interface when you check your mail, write a blog post, play songs on your iPod and search for places on Google Maps. Unlike those shown here, many user interfaces out there suffer from poor design and very often makes it difficult for the user to get things done. Let me give you some examples.
  • AJAX stands for Asynchronous Javascript and XML. With AJAX, web applications can asynchronously send and receive data from the web server in the background without interfering with the display and behavior of the existing web page. This means that you processes that required page refreshes, such as form submission, no longer need page refreshes. By not refreshing the page, the browser does not need to reload unchanged graphics and elements such as the page header and footer, etc.

    AJAX is useful if done right but it will do more harm than good if it is used inappropriately. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen, conducted a test in 2007 on 100 e-commerce sites with AJAX shopping carts. These shopping carts usually have flashy drag-and-drop interactivity but the problem is, users often overlooked modest changes, such as when they added something to the cart and it updated only a small part of the screen. He goes on to say “It's deadly for e-commerce sites when users can't operate the shopping cart, so it's usually best to stick to simple shopping-cart designs that everybody understands”.

    Next on list of useless things is…
  • Animation.

    Moving images have an overpowering effect on human peripheral vision. This is a survival instinct from the time when it was of supreme importance to be aware of any saber-toothed tigers before they could sneak up on you. These days, tiger-avoidance is less of an issue, but anything that moves in our peripheral vision still dominates our awareness: it is very hard to, say, concentrate on reading text in the middle of the a page if there is a spinning logo up in the corner. You know what, I am still getting web design requests from clients that include the requirement of Flash intros.

    So never animate unless what you are selling actually moves or your product is so beautiful that static images does not do it any justice.
  • Everyone has seen them. They are all over the web. Although pictures speak a thousand words, plastering cliche stock images on a website, instead of crafting good copy and marketing messages is just lazy. Contrary to what these companies believe, the images actually portray a more negative image. Here’s why...

    Handshake pic: What they think they are telling us “it’s going to be a good partnership”, What it really says is “We just want to make sure you think we can work together. Whether we will is another matter.”
    Callcenter girl pic: What they think they are telling us “Our support is top-notch, our operators are standing by”, What it really says is “Potentially another 5 minutes of my live wasted with an incompetent idiot.”
    Skyscrapers pic: What they think they are telling us “We are a really big multi-national company with 200 employees”, and what it really says is “199 of them are from India”.
  • Features. We love them and we hate them. Features you need, enhance your ability to complete tasks, and are easy to love. Features that get in your way or add extra effort, interpretation or exploration, can be a pain.

    The field of Usability Engineering has proven that features if integrated tightly into a user's task flow can be powerful. Features born out of marketing or engineering ideas, not validated with user behavior, can end up being pains in the ass.

    Some people think, there more features a product has, the more useful it is and the more people will buy it. That is absolutely not true. A product is more than just a collection of features. It is an experience. Unnecessary features create unnecessary work for the user and add needless complexity which will ultimately result in poor user experience. Look at this Swiss Army knife and you will know what I am talking about.
  • So, what causes uselessnism? What are the major contributors to pollution on the web? Let’s see...
  • I’m sure most of you who are either designers or developers and have worked for a company with a marketing department have encountered marketing people who are also experts in design and information architecture. It is as if they were thought how to build websites using Microsoft Word or Powerpoint and they are so proud of their expertise they have to make good use of it.

    I had the experience of working as a user interface design for a company based in Utah which developed applications for retail and supply chains and at the same time, needed a redesign of their corporate website. Before I joined the company, someone else was already working on the web design. That person, you guessed it, is not a designer. She is Miss Marketing from hell. After some discussion among the decision makers, the task of redesigning the website was eventually transferred to me. Miss Marketing from hell was furious. She turned from a designer, to a control-freak. Fortunately we had everything under control.

    These people are already deadly enough as individuals, but imagine the real terror when they come in groups. This is what is known as “Design by Committee”. When you get a bunch of people, who think they are experts in fields they are not, blinded by needless politics and with the mentality that they have to do something in order to impress the boss, and who have friends and spouses who think some color is a better color for --fill in the blanks-- than another color, what you end up with, 100% of the time, is crap. I’m not saying no else should have a say other than the designer. What I am encouraging is for the business people to communicate the goals to the designers and ensure everybody is clear and focused on the direction and share appropriate feedback when a submitted design is not meeting the goals. That is how it should work.
  • Let’s go higher up the scale. Decision makers, cause the biggest destruction if they lack the ability to look far ahead. Stakeholders and often CEOs often failed to look beyond the money. Their short-sightedness often leads to poorly-designed and feature-laden products released to make a quick buck. They spent more money on advertising than on making their products usable and enjoyable. They invent problems and tell us we need their help and we ned to buy their products. They value our money more than our feedback, even the valuable ones. These companies has something in common with men, some of them. Like boyfriends, they are super friendly and nice before we buy their products and after they have our money, they become husbands.

    It is important to look far ahead. Instead of short term profits, it is more valuable to look at brand value, customer loyalty and other long term benefits. Take for example Apple, which despite having considerably lower market share than its competitors, enjoys a larger profit margin. Instead of crunching out mediocre products for the masses, Apple instead went in the direction of innovation and excellent product design. Although Apple products are usually priced higher than their competitors, they capture the long tail of the market, the geeks, the professionals and those who are serious enough in their work to want better computers that comes with a superior operating system. The result is long lasting brand value and huge fanbase. You don’t see much arguments on the internet on whether Coca Cola or Pepsi is better, but everyday you see Mac vs PC debates, Microsoft trashing and Mac Fanboy dissing.
  • As you can now see, the effects of uselessnism can be detrimental to a website. How detrimental?

    Here we have a graph, shaped like a funnel. Biggest on top and smallest at the bottom. What you are seeing is the illustration of how users flow from first visiting a site and then achieve their goals or eventually convert. Conversion can mean signing up as a member, paying for a subscription service, completing an e-commerce transaction or even leaving a comment on a blog. Each segment of the funnel represents each step users have to take to reach their final destination, and shows how many users actually make it to the next step. The steps in the middle can be reading an introduction of what the site is offering, taking a video tour of the benefits of using this particular product, figuring out how to sign up as a member, adding stuff to a shopping cart, verifying an account after sign up, and so on. At every step, the website loses users and eventually at the bottom of the funnel, only a fraction remains. Every unnecessary feature, every popup ad and distraction, every piece of poor design, every feature that fails, contribute to this erosion.
  • What we want is a cup. With less steps in between, less barriers preventing users from achieving their goals, and greater ease of use and idiot-proof simplicity to ensure users don’t leave because they cannot figure out how to use the site. The wider the base of the funnel is, the more it looks like a cup, the conversions you will get and that means more profits. Users who feel happy using your website are bound to to tell their friends about it. There are endless benefits to getting rid of useless stuff from your website.
  • We need to identify what can be useful to avoid adding useless things to our websites and applications. There is an interesting method I have read about called the “AOF” method.
  • AOF stands for Activities Objects and Functions. When you build an application or a website, you need to know what exactly users are going to do with it. For example, people shop on Amazon, communicate on email, chase clients for money on Blinksale (which is an online invoicing application), waste time on Facebook and share photos on Flickr. Objects are the “things” of the application or websites. For example, on Facebook, objects can be people, groups, events, applications and wall posts. Functions are how users can interact with object to in order to carry out the activities.

    Lets take a look at Flickr.
  • Describe Flickr AOF.

    By using the AOF method, you can easily identify the actions that users can take and translate them into features of the application or website. Because the features are focused on actual user activities and not based on marketing whims, you can ensure that your users are well-equipped enough to interact with your application and you don’t end up with feature creep.

  • Uselessnism on the Web

    1. 1. Uselessnism Saturday, February 28, 2009
    2. 2. Uselessnism Urrrgh! Saturday, February 28, 2009
    3. 3. Jasper Morrison That’s really useless! Saturday, February 28, 2009
    4. 4. User Interfaces Saturday, February 28, 2009
    5. 5. Saturday, February 28, 2009
    6. 6. Saturday, February 28, 2009
    7. 7. Cliché Stock Images Saturday, February 28, 2009
    8. 8. Feature Creep Saturday, February 28, 2009
    9. 9. Major Causes Saturday, February 28, 2009
    10. 10. Miss Marketing from Hell Saturday, February 28, 2009
    11. 11. Short-sightedness Saturday, February 28, 2009
    12. 12. The Funnel Visit Goal / Conversion Saturday, February 28, 2009
    13. 13. The Cup Visit Goal / Conversion Saturday, February 28, 2009
    14. 14. What can you do? Saturday, February 28, 2009
    15. 15. A Activities O Objects F Features Saturday, February 28, 2009
    16. 16. Activities Objects Features View, edit, upload, share, add Sharing, Photos notes, tag, organize, search, storing and favorite, order prints exploring photos Comment Write, edit, flag, reply, format, permalink s Making Friends Add as contact, message, People view profile, view map Statistics View, filter, sort, etc... Saturday, February 28, 2009
    17. 17. Thank you. Saturday, February 28, 2009
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