Don't Fear the Interface

Web designers are wielding the coolest new tools for the greater good

By Kate X Messer, Fri., March 3, 2006

Kelsey Ruger
Kelsey Ruger

Every day, for my job, I log onto a tool I must use to complete my day's tasks. Let's, for the sake of discretion, call this tool SapDitch; it is the bane of my existence. How much do I detest SapDitch? It's right up there with ragweed, clove oil, and festering wounds. While this Web-based database wrangles all the bits and pieces that make up our newspaper's guides, calendar listings, and special issues, I find it – despite years of use and in-house tweaking – unwieldy, unnecessarily oblique, and drowning in intuition-free environments that all look alike.

"Behind the scenes," however, it performs brilliantly; once I hit "export," what it accomplishes for our production and Web departments is akin to Christ raising the dead, from what I hear. But then, I'm in editorial, so what do I know? For code shortcuts and production tasks, SapDitch may be brilliant. So what? Frank Zappa is brilliant – that doesn't mean that I want to waste my time listening to him, especially when I could listen to someone I "get," like Captain Beefheart ...

Or Filemaker Pro.

So, why do I despise SapDitch so? Because unlike databases I "get," SapDitch does not perform the way I expect it to.

Whose fault is that? Surely, as a user, I contribute to this attitude problem. But I have spent years trying to better my relationship with it; I still don't get it.

NYC software designer and author Joel Spolsky seems to understand my suffering. Back in 2001, in his blog, Joel on Software, he offered an entry titled "User Interface Design for Programmers" (www.joelonsoftware.com/uibook/fog0000000249.html):

"UI is important because it affects the feelings, the emotions, and the mood of your users," Spolsky wrote. "If the UI is wrong and the user feels like they can't control your software, they literally won't be happy and they'll blame it on your software. ...

"To make people happy, you have to let them feel like they are in control of their environment. To do this, you need to correctly interpret their actions. The interface needs to behave in the way they are expecting it to behave.

"Thus, the cardinal axiom of all user interface design: 'A user interface is well-designed when the program behaves exactly how the user thought it would.'"

SXSW's "Design and Social Responsibility" panel might offer some hope to frustrated tech lightweights like me, as well. They will be discussing the ramifications of good information design and ways to level the playing field for all users, most specifically, special-needs users.

There's a lot of talk about the so-called "Web 2.0," "Ajax-based applications" (like Google Maps), etc. The panel will no doubt tackle the roles of the Web's newest technologies. Here, things like RSS and CSS will boil down to KISS ("Keep It Simple, Smarty" – these webvangelists would never call their users "stupid").

Among the panelists is WebXites' Kelsey Ruger. His blog, www.themoleskin.com, is a primer for anyone wishing to better acquaint themselves with the issues swirling around design and accessibility. Ruger spoke to us by phone, from his Houston homebase.

Austin Chronicle: At first glance, this panel seems to be about public service, NGOs, and a focus on making the Web more accessible for the disabled. How do design and social responsibility intersect?

Kelsey Ruger: It's all about making technology work for people – in the broad sense. Typically, when we talk about useability and accessibility, it's designed to target people with disabilities. From my perspective, it's simply about making computers, Web sites, and applications easier to use. Technology was always meant to be a utility to help our lives be simpler. When you look at accessibility and useability, it's for everyone. It just so happens that when we do things that are targeted toward people with disabilities, everyone benefits from those things.

AC: Specifically, how is that accomplished?

KR: Sharron Rush [of Austin's Knowbility] came up with what is now a well-known analogy. Think about curb cuts. Curb cuts were originally intended to allow people with wheelchairs to be able to get up onto a sidewalk. People with bikes, people with strollers ... if you're hauling a suitcase in the airport, those curb cuts help everyone. That's a real world example. A digital example would be "semantics," using the HTML tags the way they are supposed to be used. If you are a company looking to optimize your site for search engines, for example, the way search engines index your page is a lot like what a screen reader would do: It looks for tags that mean something. So, if you see a header, the header tells the search engine something the same way it tells a screen reader something. Or another example might be, if you make your text easier and clearer for someone with a cognitive disorder, it not only makes it easier for them, it makes it easier for everyone to read.

AC: More user-friendly?

KR: People have used the term "user-friendly" for a long time, and it means something different to everyone. If you take someone like me, who is highly technical, someone who has done a lot of design and development work, I'm more willing to dig in if something goes wrong and figure it out. The average person isn't going to do that. They are going to say, "This doesn't work," and throw it away.

AC: I'm a confused lay person. How is what you said different from "user-friendly?"

KR: Instead of "user-friendly," the focus should be: Try to keep the language simple, try to keep the interface simple. When I say "simple," I mean don't put in a lot of stuff that doesn't mean anything to the user, so that people can figure it out, and if possible, break that up in chunks, so that there's not as much to consume at one point.

AC: So, the panel will focus more on these overarching standards and keeping things simple?

KR: I'd like the panel to peel back all this stuff that's going on with Web 2.0 and Ajax and Web standards and show that it's all about making our lives better. It isn't about putting more technology out there, making people use more technology. It's about making that technology a utility so that we can solve problems with it.

AC: Can you talk about some specific technologies or utilities that, in your estimation, accomplish this?

KR: There's a company in a little studio in Chicago, 37signals. Almost all their software is really basic [i.e., Basecamp, a project management tool and Backpack, a task list], but people love it because it does exactly what it's supposed to do. It doesn't have a lot of extra unnecessary features that bloat the software. 37signals' technology is built on Ruby on Rails, another example. Ruby on Rails is an open-source Web framework for creating databases. There's not a lot of "plumbing" involved, a lot of it happens behind the scenes, so you can focus on buliding an app that's right for your user base.

AC: You've initiated a little get-together on the side for South by Southwest Refresh @ SXSW [Monday, March 13, 6pm, Union Underground, Texas Union, UT Campus]. Could you talk about Refreshing Cities?

KR: Refreshing Cities began in Dallas late last year. It's about taking this movement we see with the standards and Web 2.0, and getting people together who have similar ideas about what the Web is. We talk about standards; we talk about useability; we talk about accessibility. But we also focus on these new technologies: What's the standard way to do this, and how do you keep the user at the forefront of what you are doing?

AC: Who is participating?

KR: Fifteen cities officially have some type of group. It's not really structured. It's more like what you see with instant-messaging and blogs, something informal: People can communicate with each other and share their ideas. There are a lot of people in here who are very active in the Web community, who are heavily involved in the standards or the Web 2.0 community.

AC: But is it exclusive to Web-savvy players, or is it more inclusive?

KR: If you're into information architecture, useability, accessibility; if you build Web software of any kind. If you are a designer or production artist. Anybody that thinks the Web's cool; anybody that has their own blog: They would be interested in the types of things that we're talking about. It's really not geared toward just tech people. It's "Here's what neat about the Web; here's what's neat about what I'm doing; I'd like to share this with you." end story

Design and Social Responsibility

Sunday, March 12, 10am, Ballroom E

Whitney Quesenbery

Kelsey Ruger

Gordon Montgomery

Sharron Rush

Thea Eaton

Sink or Swim: The Five Most Important Startup Decisions

Sunday, March 12, 10am, Room 17AB

Evan Williams

Joshua Schachter

Joel Spolsky

Michael Lopp

Cabel Sasser

Web 2.1: Making Web 2.0 Accessible

Sunday, March 12, 3:30pm, Room 17AB

Faruk Ates

Derek Featherstone

Shawn Henry

James Craig

Wild Web Wrestling: Standardzilla vs Tabelella

Sunday, March 12, 5pm, Room 17AB

Giorgio Brajnik

Liz Danzico

Steve Guengerich

Bob Regan

Glenda Sims

Traditional Design and New Technology

Saturday, March 11, 10am, Room 17AB

Jason Santa Maria

Toni Greaves

Mark Boulton

Khoi Vinh

How to Be A Web Design Superhero

Saturday, March 11, 11:30am, Room 18ABC

Andy Budd

Andy Clarke

Ajax: What Do I Need to Know?

Saturday, March 11, 11:30am, Ballroom E

Dylan Schiemann

Dori Smith

David Humphreys

Jesse James Garrett

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