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Usability Experts Are from Mars, Graphic Designers Are from Venus

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Usability mavens such as Jakob Nielsen think that the Web is an ill-used database. Graphic designers such as Kioken think that it is a fledgling multimedia platform. Could both groups be right? Curt Cloninger looks at both sides of this issue.
This article first was published at the Web site A List Apart (
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An unarticulated war currently is raging among those who make Web sites. Like the war between dark-skinned blacks and light-skinned blacks in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, this war is one that only its participants recognize. The war is not between commercial sites and experimental sites. It's not between "Bloggers" and "Flashers." This war is between usability experts and graphic designers.

In the usability corner, wearing the blue and purple–underlined trunks, weighing in at just under 20K per gig...J-a-a-a-a-a-cob Ne-e-e-e-e-ilsen, usability guru extraordinaire, with over 16 usability patents and several "lists of 10" do's, don'ts, thou shalt's, and thou shalt not's.

And in the graphic design corner, wearing the grayscale trunks, weighing in at 500K per site (that's dollars, not bytes)...Kioken(oken-oken-oken), firing clients left and right, and wielding Flash as if the plug-in itself were built into Joe Newbie's genetic makeup.

Neilsen thinks today's Web is an advanced but ill-used database. Kioken thinks today's Web is a fledgling but ill-used multimedia platform. And each side knows that its view of the Web will prevail. Observe the (over)confidence:

Neilsen: " has closed. Good riddance. Boo was one of the very few high-profile sites to launch in recent months that dared violate my design principles and aim for glitz rather than usability.... It proves that overly fancy design doesn't work." (from

Gene Na (co-founder of Kioken): "We had to fire Sony the other week. They weren't listening to us, so we let them go. We actually had to get rid of Bad Boy [Entertainment] in the beginning, but they straightened up and came back. So did Sony. What the client sometimes doesn't understand is, the less they talk to us, the better it is. We know what's best." (from

Let the celebrity death match begin. Gentlemen, I expect a good, clean fight. Come out with your hands up, and may the best Web paradigm win.

What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?

I wager that, after 15 rounds, after broadband, after standards compliance, after the increasingly mythical release of Netscape 6, both the usability experts and the graphic designers will still be standing. The Web is just too big for one paradigm to prevail. Some sites will need intensive whiz-bang branding that Neilsen's "principles" won't allow. Other sites will need moronically basic navigation and speedy download times that Kioken doesn't care to provide. Most sites will need some combination thereof. So why the war? Why can't the usability experts and the graphic designers just love each other?

For better or worse, the divide between these two camps existed long before "new media" and will continue to exist long after the Web has become as commonplace as indoor plumbing. "New media" merely brings this dichotomy into renewed focus because, well, it's new. We're still developing the Web's vocabulary. Consequently, we're still trying to get a handle on this "usability/design" conundrum, largely unaware of its primordial origins. With that in mind, allow me to glibly and oversimplistically delineate the situation:

Usability/information architecture == the masculine == the left side of the brain == doing == math/science == the rational == logical action == the articulatable == Mars

Graphic design == the feminine == the right side of the brain == being == art == the emotional == intuitive action == the inarticulatable == Venus

It's no surprise, then, that Master Neilsen makes most of his dough writing and talking (the articulatable), whereas Kioken makes most of its dough designing (the inarticulatable). Indeed, to requote Na, "the less the client talks to us, the better it is."

You can see why each group would quickly get on the other's nerves. The usability experts find the graphic designers too touchy-feely. "What do they mean they need to mess around with the look and feel to see what develops? Why can't they just give me a wireframe now?" The graphic designers find the usability experts too blunt and by-the-book. "What do they mean graphics are just the icing on the cake? Without graphic design, all you've got is a plan!"

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