The Design Center / DT&G / Web Design & Review / Usability: fact or fantasy?  

Some time ago we talked about the book from Jakob Nielsen "Designing Web Usability". As I ventured off for my summer workshop tour and a few days of rest and reflection I began pondering the message of Nielsen's work in relation to all the design background I've had over the years. Could the human animal have changed that much?

Usability: fact or fantasy?

The most important work that has crossed my desk in many years is the new book from Dr. Colin Ware called Information Visualization: Perception for Design. Colin is a Ph.D. in both computer science and the psychology of perception. He is a leading expert in information visualization most recently appointed as director of the Data Visualization Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. Information Visualization is perhaps the most well documented text book on how humans see, interpret and act upon visual stimuli ever written.

Colin's work seems to echo the teachings of Rand, White and Conover and the design innovators at the Bauhaus in the late '50s and early '60s. While there could possibly be two different ways we see and act upon visual input -- one for printed material and one for web material -- the notion is somewhat unsatisfying to me.

The whole topic of usability, these days, seems to apply more to functionality of a web site [or online information purveyors be they kiosk, CD-ROM or even interactive TV] than aesthetics or visual design and layout. I want to caution my readers about the distinction between these two aspects of design. While visual allure and functionality go hand in hand, in order to be effective designers we must not confuse them.

Rule #1: Functionality is a delayed factor

Functionality kicks in after you've convinced the reader to delve deeper into the visual window of approach. Remember that upon arrival the reader first looks at the window before taking action. The ensuing action is nearly 100% the result of what the viewer sees and how that visual information is interpreted in the first moments of arrival. In my workshops you'll hear me constantly refer to the visual window of approach, and the visual arrival point. These concepts in visual design dictate what happens in the first moment or so of recognition. Upon rereading the two leading books on the subject, I realize that these two all-important design considerations are largely ignored. The science of usability design seems to assume that the reader has already made the commitment to stay and delve further into the subject of the design -- an assumption that visual designers should never make.

In "Pictorial Communications in Virtual and Real Environments" (1991) B. Bridgeman closely examines the power and effect of visual representations for perception and visually guided behavior. Bridgeman agrees once again with design axioms that have withstood the test of time. Visual stimuli needs a direction force in order to entice the human eye to move into more difficult visual work. Text, no matter how masterfully crafted is perceived by the subconscious human mind as work. The designer must study and learn effective ways to fool the eye into embarking upon this work, otherwise the message is lost.

Rule #2: One-impact - One View.

Anyone who has attended my workshops, or studied the works of various research projects in visualization and reading, knows that there is a three-step reader eye-flow ideology which affects all western readers. (It doesn't necessarily apply in its entirety to the peoples of the Asian or middle Eastern countries.) Even though language and media has changed, this is one of the "Seven Gestalt Laws" of visualization which have withstood the test of time. These laws were first expressed through studies in the Gestalt School of Psychology (1935) by Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler, and have, through the years, been the subject of the teachings of the world's leading designers. These laws more closely parallel the studies and writings of Dr. Colin than those of Nielsen's.

Throughout Prioritizing Web Usability Nielsen references web sites like and While these sites are considered successful, to say they're successful because of "design" is stretching the truth a bit. They may be successful because they deliver the widest ranges of content to the widest possible market; or perhaps because of the millions in advertising dollars driving the sites. These sites purvey and rely heavily on an overwhelming, perhaps dangerous, visual information density.

In Information Visualization, Dr. Colin goes into some depth explaining the works of Horace Barlow . This fascinating chapter caused me to investigate Barlow's studies a bit further. In the interest of brevity in this article, let me summarize by saying Barlow's research established that an "uncertainty" principle affects the way in which humans react to visual information -- and that this mental uncertainty is driven by visual spatial-location, spatial proximity and spatial-frequency in the visual arrangement of the design elements. Visual elements such as color, texture, hue value and shape all affect perception to either draw the eye into an element, or away from it. Spatial-location and proximity seem to be the driving force which then determines the action taken by the viewer. The results of the principle are simple: if information density is too high, then spatial-location cannot motivate the reader to put forth sufficient work to absorb the information.

Many of my activities in the past few years have taken me into the classrooms of middle-schools and high schools. This has given me the unique opportunity to observe and learn how today's design is affecting humans during the important learning years. I am constantly reminded that these are the people who will be in power some day, and will in all likelihood have a hand in our generation's quality of life. It's interesting and somewhat disturbing to realize that design in visual media does have a decided effect on viewing, reading and learning patterns in these young people. The subject of the design is being driven by trend and peer approval -- then reflected and exaggerated over and over again, back into society by the viewers themselves. The sheer increase in information density is having the effect of shortening attention span, and lessening absorption of the information. In other words: the window of approach is having an affect, but the message is not getting through -- which is the exact opposite of the mission of the designer.

Take control of the reader's eye

One of the reoccurring themes in my seminars is that the designer must take control of the reader's eye very early in the arrival in order to manipulate them to understanding of the message. In displaying makeover solutions in my web design and creative layout technique seminars, I ask the audience to look carefully at the slides and guess where the reader will look first, next, and so forth. In every case I can usually predict what the viewers will say because I have manipulated the spatial-proximity of the visual elements to force my own desired results. They are usually 100% in agreement, and 100% correct.

In examples I show to the contrary of this technique (Cnet being one of them,) the viewers are almost always confused and in disagreement about the solution. Additionally, I've observed that in the majority of instances the audience has selected eye-destinations away from, or not associated with the visual target most necessary for the delivery of the message. In many cases there is no message. To me, this sets up an insurmountable contradiction to the "Usability" designs many popular authors are praising and writing about.

In future seminars, I intend to investigate this phenomenon in much more detail, and with visual examples. It is my hope to help clarify these conflicting design principles in the minds of all who wish to learn them. Both usability principles and visualization principles are equally essential to successful design -- however neither should replace the other. I believe this is an important stage in the development of the designers' eye, and one that will effect the designs of many new and upcoming designers over the next few years -- not just in electronically delivered visual media, but in print as well.

Fred Showker
Editor / Publisher: DTG Magazine
We welcome your comments and reflections on this essay

cover Recently updated -- Dr. Colin Ware's "Information Visualization" is the most significant work since Designing Business by Clement Mok (Adobe Press/Macmillan) and Information Architects by Richard Saul Wurman, Peter Bradford (Graphis Press). It is a masterful and deeply enlightening work which will bring you up to date with the current scientific study of data visualization. It will be a fascinating and practical resource for anyone who must forge information into persuasive and meaningful visual media.
Watch for Information Visualization in the "Editors Choice" position at the, and watch for the opening of my upcoming Creative Layout Techniques seminar.

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