Zack Design

by Zack on August 8, 2009

Zack Design

As a designer I’m primarily an engineer. I started writing software full-time in 2000. After spending a few years as a consultant all I wanted to do was write compilers, database drivers, and other tools that are only used by other engineers. My design philosophy was simple:

Phase 1: It works so stop complaining

Life didn’t exactly go as planned and I ended up working on an IDE instead of a server. Eventually I started creating and then designing new user interfaces. I cringe in hindsight, but I thought they were very good at the time. They had all the options I wished other software packages had and every other option I could think of for good measure. I wrote one search dialog with more than 24 check boxes. It got pretty ridiculous.

A coworker sat me down and changed my world. He told me that “everything on the screen is something the user must look at, understand, and decide if they should ignore.” He didn’t realize it, but he started a major shift within me and ushered in my second phase of design thinking:

Phase 2: Works well, looks bad

In phase two I made very functional UI. I cut out some of the features that really weren’t necessary and made everything more focused. The resulting software wasn’t easy to understand, but once you learned how to use it you could get your work done. I stayed in this phase for a couple of years learning how to understand user requirements and create software that solved real problems.

That worked well enough, but it was very frustrating. My small company was bought by a big company with a human factors designer. I finished one feature after another only to have him totally redesign all of them. The worst part was that his designs were infuriatingly better than mine.

So I started reading. There are a lot of books out there about creating user interfaces and most of them tell you how to work with a specific UI framework or when to use a radio button instead of a checkbox. They focus on how to create something and not what to create. After a few years of butting my head up against this wall I finally found salvation from an entirely unexpected source: Robert Bringhurst.

Mr. Bringhurst wrote The Elements of Typographic Style. It is all about choosing and arranging fonts. I started out just reading it for fun, but it changed everything and pushed me into my third phase of design thinking:

Phase 3: Functional beauty

The Elements of Typographic Style doesn’t have anything to say about computer software. Computers only show up in a few passing references. Instead it focuses on why certain configurations of type and space feel better than others. It taught me why some book layouts are difficult to read and others are easy.

That is what user experience design really is; creating something that feels good and makes sense the first time you use it. Everything on the screen needs to work well by itself, but it also must fit harmoniously with everything else. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. When something feels better to use more people will use it.

So here I am in my third phase of design thinking. This site is the culmination of that phase, and I’m just now realizing I didn’t do it very well. There is a whole lot of nifty, but not enough simple-to-use good advice. It doesn’t feel good enough to use.

Realization is the gift of concentration plus feedback. When you work hard enough at something you’re sometimes rewarded with a flash of insight that it isn’t what you thought it was all along. I thought this site was my playground and I’ve realized it can be so much more. I think the fourth phase of my design philosophy is coming soon and creating this site is making that happen.

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