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Designing the Obvious, Part 1: The Key to Great Web and Software Design

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Unless you have endless free time to waste, at some point you'll get fed up with a site or application that seems intent on frustrating the user. Robert Hoekman, Jr. posits that it's not the designer's intention to aggravate your life; it's just a failure to define and then design "the obvious": what the user will need, presented in the way the user will need it. In this series, he explains how to design sites and software that work well for the user precisely because they're designed to be obvious.

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By Robert Hoekman, Jr.

For more information on Web design, visit our Web Design Reference Guide or sign up for our Web Design Newsletter.

Recently, while I was explaining the goal of every design project I take on, the group of people around me began relating many horror stories about Web sites and software, complaining about the difficulty of most of the experiences they have every single day with so-called "productivity tools" and Web-based interactions and sites. With each complaint, the voices grew louder. They began speaking over each other, cutting each other off at every opportunity with a new anecdote about how it takes seventeen clicks to get to the report they print on a daily basis, how the process starts over anytime a mistake is made, and how vital information is so hidden that they waste valuable time hunting-and-pecking for it every day.

Conversation turned into frustration. Friendly words turned into spiteful messages of overwhelming disdain. Feathers were ruffled.

I nodded my head and smiled at the recounting of each of these awful experiences. I understand their frustration; I’ve seen it myself. I hear the grumbling that results from constant exposure to such Web and software experiences. In dealing with computers as part of your job, what starts as a simple annoyance quickly turns into genuine anxiety. What begins as a quiet, under-the-breath insult aimed at your screen often turns into shouting matches with the inanimate object we know as the personal computer. Oh yes, the personal computer makes things very personal. It offends, insults, and demeans you—usually without provocation—with cryptic error messages, intrusive dialog boxes, and an overall lack of guidance, and inevitably makes you aware that it has, despite your best efforts, won yet another argument. And you justify these encounters by keeping in mind how much it helps you. It drives you crazy, but you need it. You’re willing to accept the pitfalls of modern computing because you understand that the PC helps you get things done.

In thanks for your repeated forgiveness, the "personal" computer rarely remembers anything about you. It doesn’t remember where you like to save files, adapt to your common work practices, or encourage and work with you in any way. And this is why it keeps winning the arguments. It doesn’t care about you at all. The only one who cares is you. You lose because you can’t argue effectively with a soulless monster and expect to get anywhere.

When the conversation calmed a bit, I tried to describe the typical design and development process, where it fails, what should be done to improve it, and how to design things that "just work." I explained that good Web and software design is about understanding your audience, designing for specific target users, and creating Web and software designs that make sense to the people using them, in the context in which those designs are used. Eventually, I stumbled across a magical little phrase that seemed to incite a moment of enlightenment on the faces of those listening.

"It’s about designing the obvious," I said.

What you’re now reading is the first of seven articles designed to equip you with the tools you need to accomplish this very goal. First, though, let’s narrow our mission by defining "the obvious."

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