Hell hath no fury as those who’ve been attacking Jakob Nielsen on various user experience-related mailing lists in recent weeks over his decision to work with Macromedia on Flash-related usability issues after nearly two years of declaring “Flash 99 percent bad.” He’s being called a sell out, a hypocrite. The list goes on.
Part of me feels for Nielsen. After all, the pressures and temptations to provide simple answers to complex issues is one we all face in our professional practices.
Let’s face it, if Nielsen had said “Flash is 50 percent bad” he wouldn’t be getting beaten up as much as he is—but no one would’ve paid as much attention to his original article either. I’ve spoken at a number of conferences and the more provocative you are the more audiences tend to listen. Plus being a pundit can cause a subtle feedback-loop that causes you to think your way is the best way for everyone—being known for a particular approach attracts clients with agree with your view and drives away others whose problems don’t fit your approach.
But even if you’re not a high-profile guru, you’re probably facing the similar pressures to come up with quick and easy answers to Big Gnarly Problems.TM
If you’re a consultant, you have to position yourself as “the one with the answers” if you want to be successful. After all, clients are coming to you because they’ve got a problem that can’t solve themselves and they want someone who can. From a client’s point of view, as a wise old consultant once pointed out, from the client’s point of view, they’re generally not paying you by the solution, they’re paying you by the hour. Somebody who says, “it depends,” is liable to eat up the budget without providing answers—at least that’s the fear.
If you’re an in-house professional, there’s a different but similar dynamic. To get that bonus, you want to show that you are knowledgeable, that you can get things done, that you’re the expert. This is often reinforced by management culture that places a premium on decisive (if not always thoughtful) action. Compounding this issue is that many of our positions are often relatively new at companies, so there’s a need to prove ourselves—or at least that’s our perception.
Another factor is the relative inexperience of many practitioners. Back in January 2001, a survey by the Argus Center for Information Architecture found that two-thirds of respondents had less than two years experience. (Unfortunately, the survey didn’t ask about prior experience in other fields.) More than a year later, the majority of these people are still apprentices—at best journeymen—since it often takes a decade to truly master a field.
Even if you’ve got a background in another field, you still may be trying to master new areas. While the roots of the issues we deal with are familiar to various fields, the web is different. It mixes content, behavior and presentation in new and deeper ways. Library scientists never worried much about the branding of things they organized. Software and usability engineers rarely dealt with figuring out how to navigate large amounts of content. Graphic design traditionally offered little guidance for moving beyond communication to dealing with functionality aspects of interaction.
Consequently, even if you are experienced, this convergence often poses new types of problems, leaving you swimming in uncharted waters where it’s comforting to grab tightly to the lifebuoy of an expert’s pronouncements. They’ve done the thinking for you, all you need to do is repeat it. Unfortunately, even if the expert’s thinking does deal with complex issues in a sophisticated way, the disciples rarely match the nuances of the master. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that too many gurus today are promoting oversimplified ideas to begin with.
Another problem is that simple-minded answers are often popular with clients and bosses looking for easy solutions. Witness the cycle of business fads among managers and management consultants. As you move up the corporate ladder, attention spans do seem to get shorter and shorter, forcing you to talk about complex and difficult issues in bullet-points.
All of these conspire to lure us into making simple-minded and absolutist pronouncements of The Right Way To Do Things. Particularly since our role in an organization is often new—either being brought into a company to consult, or holding a relatively new title—we often need to make ourselves heard. Consequently, much like pundits at conferences, we resort to provocative oversimplifications to grab people’s attention.
While that may be effective in the short-term, it’s self-destructive in the long-term, both for individuals and our professions as a whole. Witness the widespread cynicism toward management consultants because of each new One True Way tosses aside the last One True Way. Do we really want to end up in a similar position?
Statements like the web will reach 90 percent compliance with a particular set of usability guidelines by 2017 are so ill-conceived that they’re bound to blow up in our faces when clients and colleagues take a closer look. Absolutist statements that the web is—and damn-well should be—“just a library” or “just an application” or “just cool design” reveal a narrow-mindedness that entirely misses the multi-dimensional nature of the convergent field we’re working in. Again, when those we deal with realize this, who’s going to look like the expert?
So what is the alternative? For a while it was fashionable to declare “it depends.” And yes it does. But there are a couple problems with using this as a universal answer.
We’re hired—by clients or by bosses—to solve problems. That means we should be able to come up with solutions or at least recommendations. How would you feel if whenever you asked your doctor about your health, your doctor replied, “it depends”? Would you start questioning your doctor’s competency? I thought so.
It’s reflective of a fear of design and a fear of taking responsibility. It also reflects a lack of knowledge of the guiding principles from various fields that can be used in dealing with our Big Gnarly Problems.TM These aren’t “rules,” but rather “rules of thumb.” They don’t provide simple answers and often involve subtle interrelationships among the different principles at work. Sometimes they can be contradictory—just as Newtonian and Einsteinian physics contradict each other. That’s because, much like physics, different rules of thumb are best applied in particular situations.
A big part of being the expert means applying your best judgment to complex and uncertain problems even in the face of incomplete information. It’s hard, but that’s what we get paid for. If creating good user experiences was easy, everyone would be doing it already.
There are no easy answers. But to violate everything I’ve just said, let me suggest there’s at least one easy step: start by saying, “It can depend, but, in this context, here’s what I recommend…”