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Comment on "My Data Says You Like Beautiful Things"
by Jacob Rus — Oct 18
I took a user interface design course at college a couple of years ago, and all the way through I felt vaguely uneasy about its approach, but I think this post (and the Tufte quote from Alan) really nails it. Our assignments glorified process for the sake of process, and formality for the sake of formality. On the surface, this seems like it would be “better” preparation for the “real world” in which people do formal usability studies and carefully test tiny bits of options in a rigorous way, but the focus was in my opinion exactly backward.

Usability studies, informal or formal, are about gathering data and questioning our intuitions and assumptions, but they are helpful tools to be used, rather than ends in themselves. The real goal is understanding – understanding the problem domain, understanding the users’ goals and mental models, understanding the capabilities and constraints of the input devices and processing power, etc. – followed by communication. And so far, we haven’t invented the machine that can synthesize and analyze these data in any way comparable to the sensitive human observer/designer.

I’m somewhat reminded of Abelson and Sussman’s oft-quoted aphorism, “programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.” Some generalization of this applies to science, art, design, etc. Whenever we privilege process and systematization, we run the risk of forgetting that communication of hard-won insight is the ultimate goal.

... sorry if the above is incoherent. I’ll think about this some more when I’ve had enough sleep. :-)
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