Sunday, June 3, 2007

VUI best practices Pt. II - good or evil?

In my last entry I discussed one of the disadvantages of following user interface design guidelines: if the guidelines are poorly written then the quality of the designs based on the guidelines will suffer (and the interface designers who must follow the guidelines will push back). That much should be obvious. What about well-written guidelines? As pointed out in the previous entry, following even well-written design guidance have disadvantages.
  • The second danger of standards and guidelines: if taken as gospel, they constrain active thinking by the designers who rely on them.

Designers who make informed judgments about stepping outside of common practice to try something new are engaging in what Diego Rodriguez and Ryan Jacoby call "design thinking:" the act of taking risks in order to produce distinctive and usable products. Rodriquez and Jacoby's excellent article on design thinking asserts that designers take risks in order to learn and to excel, but mitigate risks using skills that should be in every designers skill set: prototyping, storytelling, and the ability to actively listen to customers.

So where does that leave user interface guidelines?

In fact, knowing when to ignore rules and push boundaries and when to re-use portions of previous designs and previous practice are both characteristics of good designers. Well-written guidelines are one way that re-use is achieved, and re-use is generally a good thing. The best guidelines are created (designed) from user data and from practice. They're a way of capturing the experience designers have with their designers and putting it into a usable form. The trick is in knowing when to re-use and when to take a chance and design something truly novel.

The VUI design world, in particular, suffers from a lack of published, reliable data on which to make informed decisions about VUI design. Go to any CHI or HFES conference and you'll find loads of studies on web and GUI applications - those domains have been under investigation for years. Not so in VUI design. As some speakers at VUI conferences insist, we really do need better guidelines for design. Before we get there, though, we need more and better data.

Take home message: yes, "design thinking" is good. Guidelines can be misused if taken as gospel. But we need a way to re-use our successes without resorting to copying. That's design thinking as well.

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