(Over)simple Answers for Simple Minds

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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. 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.

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…”


  1. George,

    I just read your article article -(Over) simple answers for simple minds- and I personally find it to be very true.

    There is never only one right way to do things- and we only undermine our role as IAs by not being open to other business and programming needs.

  2. George, this is totally right on. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and usually that line is in the delivery, but it is also in the reception as well.

    One of the things that I feel has hurt many UX people is that we are the border between the technical and the aesthetic and b/c of that we are often linked to the technical or scientific. Science means truth, or proof of truth. Design though doesn’t have truths, it has trends, fashion, & results. It can be argued that the results “prove” the design, but I would say that in our field results are fashionable as well. What works today, works b/c it is an improvement on the past, but it is never a final solution. Not b/c it was a bad solution but because, so much of what we work in innovates at a rate of gestation that is so fast with such huge deltas that the next solution has to be that much more different to accommodate it.

    So yes, we have great guidelines … the problem is our bosses and clients want rules for us to follow. How stagnant is that?

    — dave

  3. Speaking of science, the irony is that the hardest of the “hard” sciences — quantum mechanics — teaches that systems are governed by probabilities, not rules. And I’d like to think humans are more complex multi-varient systems than cosmic matter.

  4. Amen brother! Excellent points all. I’ve found (as an internal consultant) that you have to gauge the situation and determine when to ‘be decisive’ and when to answer ‘it depends.’ Here are some related thoughts:

    Sometimes clients want a quick answer to their specific problem – like what an error message should read. As a consultant you can either:

    a) offer a recommendation for an error message
    b) suggest they prototype an error message and usability test it
    c) tell them ‘it depends’ and offer alternative solutions and analysis of pros/cons as to how each alternative serves different audience groups

    Which option is right may depend on the context: time/urgency, client understanding of UCD, client relationship, budget, risk associated with poor design, etc. If a client doesn’t know much about usability testing, option B allows you the opportunity to educate. Option C allows you to demonstrate some of your expertise and to illustrate that different audience needs have to be considered. Option A might set you up as the ‘instant answer guy’ in the future.

    In the end I think you have to recommend an approach (if not an exact solution). Sometimes teaching people how to solve design issues is the right way to go — unless of course YOUR job is to be the designer. In the end, how ‘decisive’ you should be depends heavily on the role of the consultant.

    Sometimes clients are looking for “rules” — and they may not exist. My inclination is to educate people beyond their current issue whenever possible, but to always help them solve their basic problem. It’s dangerous to try to be “THE expert” — a few bad calls and you become “the guy who thinks he’s an expert.”

    I think it’s listening skills that are the most valuable for a consultant — understanding your clients’ real needs first before answering questions is important. E.g. When they ask for an estimate, are they looking for a ballpark figure for budgeting or for an exact fixed-bid price?

    Another key point is to make sure that you clarify when you are offering OPINIONS versus relaying hard facts based on lots of research or whatever.

    Consulting also often involves helping people understand when they are facing a “Big Gnarly Problem” rather than a simple issue. We have to justify all those hours and billing rates somehow…


  5. Hi, I’m on Nielsen’s side.

    The article says: “We work in a user centered way, but our advise depends on the circumstances in the company.” I call this is a contradiction, for users have nothing to do with the company.

    We make things better for users. The reason we are hired by companies should be that these users can be consumers, customers or employees. And they can bring in income, productivity, cost reductions etc.

    And whatever technological wonders, design freaks, marketing wizzards and management gurus are working for these companies, we only have to focus on the people that want to use their sites. And give feedback based on what they experience.


  6. As the immortal Frank Herbert said in one of his books, “Knowledge without action is empty”. I agree making a decision based on incomplete data is what our job is all about. At least we are aware of what data is missing, what data is an assumption, and what data we think is solid.

    Experience and sharing stories can help us build our intuition.

  7. I’ve often felt that the desire and positive response that these simplistic declarations receive is a side effect of a desire to eliminate complexity from our lives. Answers like “It Depends” doesn’t eliminate complexity. “Never do That” does.

    It isn’t restricted to web design. It happens everywhere. “Men are from Mars!” Well, that explains it. No wonder he’s a jerk.

    Have a pain in your arm? Well, take an aspirin. Wait! Aspirin eats your stomach wall. Take acetominaphen. Hold on, if it is more of a muscle soreness, ibuprophen might be better. Unless you need a longer relief, then naproxen sodium is a better idea. Pain killers are so complicated — I just want my pain to go away!

    As a scientific researcher, I work very hard to find out THE truth, only to find out that it’s couched in such a complicated set of context and conditions that it’s virtually impossible to get one’s head around it. Even with extensive training in the field.

    Which is why I think that the simplistic answer will always sell more books and get more press coverage than the complex one.

    You’ll never see a headline in the NY Times that says “Researchers have discovered that users prefer Search when searching for books and cds, but prefer Links when searching for apparel and office supplies and the researchers don’t know whether bicycle parts are more like books or office supplies.”

    Now, where did I put down my clipboard…. Back to the research.

  8. Actually, no, I would have no hesitation to trust a doctor who answered a question with “It depends.” Sometimes it does depend; that is the correct answer. Jumping to a conclusion could constitute malpractice.

    This entire posting seems to boil down to “Unless we give definitive answers to all questions, we end up sounding wishy-washy.” This, in turn, suggests that what we have just read is another instance of projected inferiority complex: “Usability is too a profession!” But then the doubts come to mind (if it’s really a profession, why are so many answers contingent instead of clear-cut?), and an article like this one, which essentially denies that there are contingent answers in usability and blames usabilitistas for not drawing a line in the sand and forming definitive opinions, is the result.

    And people somehow take it seriously.

  9. It’s true we do represent users. But I’m a little baffled that professions that otherwise profess to be user-centered seem to overlook user-focused approaches when dealing with users of our services — clients and colleagues.

    That means meeting their needs. As Lyle points out, sometimes they need recommended solutions, sometimes they need suggestions to try out, sometimes they need options with an analysis of pros and cons.

    This is _not_ the same as saying we always need to give definitive answers. In fact many of our recommendations may be contingent on the context, as I’d said in my concluding paragraph.

    But too many people seem content to merely point out the issues and not move on to (contingent) recommendations/suggestions/options based on the best available information. If we’re not willing to do that, then no I don’t think we’re being professional. That’s true whether you’re a usabilitista, designer, programmer, doctor, lawyer, accountant, etc.

    It also means realizing that sometimes we have to balance user’s needs and desires against other factors. That’s why I’ve never liked “user-centered” and prefer “user-focused.” It’s a small but important shift in emphasis. By focusing on the user, we recognize that we’re taking away focus from other things.

    Sometimes — no I’d say oftentimes — those other factors can’t be ignored. I’d love for Porsche to sell me a Boxter at the price of a Yugo. That would do a wonderful job of satisfying my user needs and desires. It would also put Porsche out of business.

    Balancing different concerns is hard, but it’s one of the things that makes us professionals. The real difficulty comes not in balancing “right” and “wrong,” but balancing among competing “rights.”

  10. Ongoing relationships (business partnerships) often work better than deliverable-driven projects with fixed end-dates. Ongoing partnerships acknowledge that design and usability are iterative: they improve with revision.

    With an ongoing partnership, you can say, “This approach seems best. Let’s try it for 30 days, then reevaluate.” Nothing wishy-washy about that. Businesses are always testing results and adjusting goals and strategies.

    The trouble arises when you must deliver a project and walk away from it — a situation that encourages entrenchment on the consultant’s side and nervous second-guessing on the client’s.

    As to books, it has always disturbed me that black-and-white views outsell and out-persuade more thoughtful approaches. It bugs me even more that such books and their authors create the terms of professional discourse. What kind of dialog can you hope for when diametrically opposed, extreme viewpoints define the terms of discourse?

  11. Yes this strikes a very large (possibly minor and atonal but…) chord with me – the culture of the ‘Net Guru’ is best described in the book Net Slaves – it describes them as ‘priests and madmen’. (It also describes a very funny episode which is either loosely based on John Perry Barlow I think (or not so loosely?)

    It’s funny, but the grandiose and grand-standing pronouncements by people like Nielsen may feed their pay cheques but makes other’s people’s lives in the industry pretty much unbearable – especially designers and ‘information architects’ (ugh hate that term) because the management or client picks up Nielsen’s latest book and sees a set of easy-care ‘rules’ to apply with no thought. And insists that because they are an expert that they have to be strictly adhered to 100%(hey Nielsen did some good work on readability at Sun so he *must* be an instant IA/usability expert, yeah! just add water! :-P)

    I call this ‘cookie-cutterism’ – just ‘dragging and dropping’ the solution from the apparent ‘expert’ to the project without actually questioning whether it’s true or looking into it.

    And it is killing creativity on the web, frankly.

    It’s made it into a profession where I frankly don’t want to be, the fun that made me join this industry in 1996 has gone out of it. Where’s the ‘fun’ in Nielsen’s pronouncements or useit.com? – it’s like being nagged by your mother! They see design and creativity and bending or breaking the rules as something to be stomped on – ‘it’s not information it’s noise!’ – without embracing that sometimes that is appropriate and part of the reason the person is at the site in the first place. But that is intangible and not easily measurable like function or usablity is (did someone shout pseudoscience? snigger…:-P)

    Don’ t get me wrong, I have 100% respect for Nielen’s business partner – Don Norman, who walks the talk and has done so since the 70’s I think, and knows what he’s tlaking about and doing (and more importantly knows what he DOESN’T know)

    He doesn’t seem to do the big pronouncements and grandstanding – and like all designers (in the proper wider sense) wants to make it work better – be it the web, his phone, his car or whatever – but seems to understand the future is not absolutist or definite, it’s in flux but to strive to make things better is the place to be – but I get the impression like me he believes better as in fun or creative or original is important as well.

  12. You don’t have to be a Postmodern French thinker to accept that fact that there just simply is no truth in the world, especially in the tech industry. The proverbial skinning of the cat for any one problem/solution is infinite.

    I see these overgeneralizations really being aimed at the culture of our corporate dysfunction, or “lack of vision” that’s ever-present in the industry. Really, it’s a way for the simplest of minds (ie middle management) to justify their decision-making.

    But it’s just rhetoric and discourse. The people with real vision can pick it apart and perhaps more importantly (as the author suggests) most of the nonsense will merely be disproved over time.

  13. So true. It seems that more and more there is no right answer. I work in an organization where I have to wear many hats and often feel like I’m expected to be an expert at everything “web” while at the same time having to educate the organization about things I’ve not fully mastered myself. While I truly want the people I work with to understand what we do, and how it can help the organization – sometimes it seems that knowledge transfer can backfire.

    Hand someone in marketing “Don’t make me think” and there is a good chance you’ll have to follow it word for word. That’s not a knock, it’s a great book, but it doesn’t have ALL the answers. Would that it did, it would make my life much easier.

    (heaven forbid disagree with the Producer who gets Alertbox in his Inbox – he or she may not get design – but who needs it right?)

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