Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Thursday Quote - Jason Hong

"Given the sharp contrast between traditional methods in HCI [Human-Computer Interaction] and the methods used at Apple, and given the clear success of Apple's products, do HCI methods actually matter?"
Why is Great Design so Hard (Part Two)? by Jason Hong, from BLOG@CACM August 23, 2010

Whatever the reasons are that have kept Apple computers off the desktops of so many millions of people over the past thirty years, it is certainly not the quality of interface design. In fact, if it wasn't for the superior interface design, the insufferable arrogance of its founders and its supporters alone would have been sufficient to drive Apple into oblivion, never mind other factors like a lack of support for outside hardware and software developers... but that's a rant for another day.

No, it's like the folks at Amdahl used to say back in The Day, if Amdahl mainframes weren't better than IBM's then nobody would buy an Amdahl: if Apple's interfaces weren't better than other people's then nobody would buy an Apple... certainly not after 1984...

So it's interesting to read Jason Hong's blog post about how Apple does, and especially doesn't, do interface design... as they say, food for thought.

Here's an excerpt to show the wider context:

Another surprise was how different Apple's design methods were from "standard" best practices in human-computer interaction (HCI). For example, a typical method we teach in HCI is to start with ethnographic field studies to gain deep insights into what people do, how they do it, and why they do it. Another best practice is to do iterative user testing with benchmarks, to ensure that people find products useful and usable.

From what I can tell, Apple doesn't use any of these methods.

Instead, people described three different methods used at Apple. The first is that Apple preferred having subject matter experts who have many years of experience in the field be part of their teams.
. . .
The second is that people at Apple think really long and hard about problems. From that perspective, certain solutions will pop out as being obviously better ways of doing things. Thus, part of Apple's strategy is to guide people toward that way of thinking as well. If you see problems the same way that Apple does, then the structure and organization of an interface will make sense.

The third is that Apple tends to design by principle rather than from data. In classes in human-computer interaction, we emphasize making design decisions based on evidence as much as possible, for example, from past user studies on previous iterations of the interface, or from the ethnographic field studies. In contrast, at Apple, more weight is given to design decisions made from first principles.

So what does this all mean?

I have two closing thoughts here. First, should we just throw away existing HCI methods for design? Given the sharp contrast between traditional methods in HCI and the methods used at Apple, and given the clear success of Apple's products, do HCI methods actually matter?
After having seen so much of what traditional methods have given us, surely perhaps the answer is "No!"

Next week: Srikanth Nadhamuni, Vince Beiser

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