I’d appreciate it if you read this entire article before commenting.
So there I was, in a RyanAir Boeing 737-800 coming back from FOWA Dublin. Having just spent three days partying it up I was a little under the weather. It was late, it was raining, and I wanted to sit
back bolt upright, read my Jeremy Clarkson book and drink my €5 Coke.
During take-off, the crew turn off all the lights in the cabin. I like to imagine this is because the pilots think it’s more fun taking off in darkness. I was surprised, though, to hear the sound of chimes from all around me, as passengers pressed the “I need a napkin” stewardess button. Were they so frightened of the dark that they wanted a hug and a €3 cookie? I shrugged it off, and reached for the light-switch so I could continue reading.
I was confronted with this:
That’s right – the buttons have no lights on them. So, when the cabin lights are out, you can’t see which button does what.
Now, the 737 is a good plane, built by clever engineers, and even when bought by the lowest bidder and covered with advertisements, it’s still an engineering miracle. It weighs 80,000kg and is capable of carrying 189 people 5,600km at Mach 0.8, which is no mean feat. Clearly the people who made this machine know what they’re doing. So why couldn’t they, at a cost of about €5 per seat, light up the buttons on the ceiling? I don’t know, but I have my own theory:
Usability is difficult.
As with many things, usability comes from a military background. The concept was invented during the course of World War 2, when the Americans realised they were blowing themselves up with grenades a bit too often to be statistically viable. So they streamlined the product, gave their chaps instructions like “throw it toward the enemy”, and then, as far as the film industry would have it, proceeded to stomp all over Europe smoking cigars and shouting at one another. The P-51 Mustang was a miracle of simplicity too – by reducing the number of switches and dials and buttons, they let the pilot concentrate on what he was doing – which is vitally important when you’re whizzing about over France upside-down at 700 miles per hour.
So clearly, removing things is the shortcut to usability. Everybody’s heroes, Apple, Google, and 37Signals do this to great effect. The fewer buttons I have on my page, the more I start to feel like that Mustang pilot. My Macbook Pro is the Cadillac of the Sky.
The problem is, though, sometimes just removing things isn’t the whole answer – as with the 737 and its buttons. Usability is something that you need to study, and practice, and think about. It doesn’t just happen.
This brings me to Balsamiq. Sure, it’s a great tool, if you like post-it notes and Comic Sans. Okay, it lets you build mockups of your websites that look like drawings. But let’s remember one thing: it doesn’t necessarily mean you know what you’re doing.
I understand what the tool is for, and @balsamiq verified this for me: creating 5-minute mock-ups that can be thrown away. But that’s ALL it’s for. It’s really, really not for full-scale wireframes. If you think about this, it’s obvious. You don’t get to re-use components, there’s no layout grid to speak of, and you can’t save files together in a folder-type-arrangement. The tool simply wasn’t designed to do these things, because it’s not meant to.
But the problem is, it’s available to the masses. And that means people are going to start using it. It gives people the illusion that they know what they’re doing. Being a child of the internets, I couldn’t resist but make a funny image of this, complete with Impact writing. Now, if I were really mean, I’d use it. But I won’t. Well, I’ll use it satirically and then apologize, because that seems to be the way of the bloggers these days:
Thankfully, you’re reading this ENTIRE article instead of just looking at the pretty pictures. Right? Good. You won’t be offended, then, because that image is just for satire purposes – a cheap laugh, and a cheap shot. I’m sorry! I should write for TechCrunch.
The problem is, as I was saying, that your clients are about to start doing usability. They’re going to start doing your job. I’m not concerned about the money involved here: FrontPage, Dreamweaver and .NET have been around for years and I’m still making internets. I’m really more concerned about the quality of what you’ll end up producing, in the same way I love finding MM_* functions in websites that I pick apart. When you lower the barrier to entry, people start using simple products for complicated things – and then you end up with crap.
You can’t tell the client that, either, because they’re proud of what they’ve done. They hand you their stack of .bmml files with a big smile, like a 5 year old who’s finished a drawing. The only difference is that instead of just sticking the drawing to the fridge and giving them a chocolate bar from the Treat Drawer, you’re supposed to publish the drawing, put your name next to it, and then accept the criticism. You don’t want to tell them that what they’ve done won’t work, because you’ll break their hearts with the sad truth, and they’ll go off and find some other poor sap who’ll knuckle down and produce it.
If a client comes to you with a mock-up of their website, that’s fine – they’ve thought ahead and given it a shot. Now, when you apply yourself to it, you have something to work from – and even if you go the other way, you still know what you’re avoiding. But if a client comes to you with their own full set of wireframes, what on earth are you supposed to do?
@balsamiq is a very clever, and friendly chap, and his product is cool. I like where he’s going with it. What I’m trying to say is that the problem doesn’t lie with the tool – it lies with the way it’s used. The bottom line is: be careful. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you can do it right.
In fact, there’s a whole talk I’ve got planned based on that very concept – and I’m trying hard to get to speak at a Future of Web Apps event. Shameless plug? Me? Never. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because you’ll have stopped reading at the last image and proceeded straight to the comment form to rant at me for being nasty. That’s the beauty of the web – everyone can have their say.