Last week I was overjoyed at the arrival of my third child, Franklin. Anyone who has experiene of attending a birth in hospital will know that, despite the obvious excitement of the occasion, there are also significant periods of waiting and monitoring. Given the previous history of my wife's childbirth the hospital staff were monitoring her and the baby closely, with some time spent connected to an electronic fetal monitoring system (EFM).
It was during one of the quieter of these periods of monitoring that I found my attention wandering to the straps that were holding the detectors in place on my wife's body. There were two straps, both with a simple printed design with the name of the manufacturer and a simple logo.
Despite my desperate attempts to disable my testing radar to concentrate on more important issues, namely the health of my wife and safe arrival of my child, at the back of my mind a small tester conscience was desperately trying to get my attention every time I looked at one of these straps. Initially I ignored it, on the basis that I had far more important things to think about than matters of quality, however after nagging me persistently for a while I finally allowed myself to listen. And here is what it said:-
"Why is there a picture of a disappointed sheep on that strap?"
Sure enough, the logo on the strap was, when viewed from the appropriate angle, a picture of a smiling baby, however the straps did not have a "right way up" and in our case the midwife had used them so that the logo was inverted from my perspective, presenting me with this rather sad sheep.
Does your implementation context demand the attention you give to presentation?
This rather trivial and humorous example belies a key principle in all product design, software included. Understand when appearance of your product is and is not important to your customers given the context in which they will be using it. An NHS midwife has absolutely no interest in the aesthetic presentation of the equipment that she uses, therefore including design which relies on the correct orientation of a monitor strap to present your logo is a flawed tactic.
A few years ago I was involved in a project to produce a marketing analysis system upgrade. At the time that I was brought into the project a significant amount of time had been devoted to ensuring a seamless graphical framework and icon sets for the product, without actually having delivered any core functionality. Like the midwife in our above example, I would not expect that alpha-blended graphics in the UI to be of any significance to the marketer trying to put together a campaign model. Concentrating development effort on this was therefore simply wasting money.
It is my belief that most long term users of a functional product are only interested in the presentation of that product to the extent that it does not negatively impact the ability of that product to perform the required function. Making a product that helps the user to achieve their goal should be paramount. Unless the context demands it, making it look nice is a far lesser concern. Worse still, relying on a user who has no interest in presenting it well to do exactly that and you run a significant risk of ending up with a disappointed sheep.
Copyright (c) Adam Knight 2011 a-sisyphean-task.blogspot.com Twitter: adampknight