Adobe Tools Are Not UX Designer Tools

If you’re looking to hire a competent UX professional, do not ask for “Experience with Adobe Tools” in your job description. Especially don’t ask for PhotoShop. Even visual designers are waking up to the fact that PhotoShop is not a good software UI design tool.

UX design is a distinct skill set from visual/graphic design. They are complementary, and some UX designers are competent visual designers while some visual designers are competent UX designers, but they are still distinct skills, much like development is distinct from design.

A UX designer should basically never use Photoshop. Illustrator is a decent hackable tool, but if you’re going to go that route, you might as well just use OmniGraffle. Still, all of these are basically just for static wireframing/UI comps, with varying levels of hackability to communicate interaction design intent. Adobe had an interesting UX design tool for a while–called “Flash Catalyst,” but they killed it, because they killed Flash (I deduce).

If you’re going to pick a software tool for interaction design, it should be one that is suited to exploring interactions, which implies interactivity, i.e., as a designer, I can say, “when a user does <insert name of user action here>, the app should do this…” At a super bare minimum, clicking should be supported, but seriously, what viable apps these days only support static, full-page/screen refresh navigation?? So then you get into needing to explore and express transitions and animations. I’m not talking about fancy dingbat silly animations. No, I’m talking about animations that help users understand and interact effectively with a given UI design.

At this point, the software tools that your average competent UX designer can grapple with get reduced. You can of course code prototypes, but that’s generally not the best idea. So you want a tool that allows a UX designer to explore and express user interactions and app responses to those interactions but doesn’t get them bogged down in code.

Now I am biased having worked extensively on it, but the only tool that really qualifies there is Indigo Studio. Sure, Axure is another alternative, but it is significantly more complex to use and tied to the details of the Web platform.

So if you’re going to ask for a software tool competency for a UX designer, pick one of these. But really, as long as a UX designer can effectively explore and communicate design ideas, it doesn’t matter what tool they use. If you are constraining them to specific tools, something is wrong with your process. What you need to look for is evidence of good designs–both designs and implementations, as well as evidence of design research and evidence of design evaluation. Ask about their process and techniques they use to discover the best designs. Just don’t ask for Adobe tool competency.

Installing Nest in a 100-Year-Old House with Radiator Heating: A Guide/Review

Nest Learning Thermostat on Amazon.com
Just thought I’d share my experience with a great product–the Nest Learning Thermostat. Given that I own an over 100-year-old house with radiator heating (and no central air), I was dubious about this working for me. After doing a fair amount of research, it came down to this one or the ecobee. The ecobee (main model) was more expensive and, frankly, just doesn’t look as good. Let’s face it; the Nest has been designed, by real designers, and it is obvious. Other thermostats on the market are clunky gear head boxes.

I have noticed that things that appear to be well designed often are. Not only that, if people go through the trouble to do great industrial design, they usually at least try to do great software design, and maybe even full on service design, and in this, the Nest does not disappoint. Everything from learning about the Nest ahead of time on their Web site to the out-of-the-box experience to the install to the setup to the ongoing usage (with apps for devices and a matching Web control site) has been designed, and designed well (and kudos to Amazon for 1-Click Prime ordering and one-day delivery–a day ahead of time).This is just one of those products where they have really pulled it off. And who’d have thunk it–for something as “simple” as a thermostat.

I used their online compatibility checker to verify that it’d work with my system. I have one of those old-fashioned Honeywell round thermostats.

Honeywell CT87K Front

But it turned out that after popping off the front, it was a relatively new model, the Honeywell CT87K, made for heat only systems.

Honeywell CT87K Inside

See the old wires?? Wrapped in like cloth or something. I told you it was an old house. 🙂  Anyways, zooming in I was able to see the R and W letters by the wires, so I could plug that into the compatibility checker, and voila, they said it was good, and they even give you a wiring diagram up front to show how you’ll hook it up. Pretty snazzy!

I thought I’d give it a whirl, and so I clicked the little 1-Click button, and a day later (two days, ahead of time, thanks to Thanksgiving), it shows up. (Even the box is kinda cute.)

Nest Box

You take off the plastic wrap, slit the tape holding it shut, slide off the cover, and open up.

Nest Unboxing 1

Lift out the Nest (has a little plastic circle on it), lift off the first layer, you see the booklet, lift that out, and you have the next layer of goodies.

Nest Unboxing 2

You see their chubby little screwdriver, the Nest back, and two mounting screws.  Slide out the booklets; there are three.

Nest Unboxing 3

You have the install guide, the setup guide, and a “concierge” card (if you need to bail on a self install, a nice security blanket). What you see above is the first page, that tells you high level steps for uninstalling your old thermostat. What’s cool about it is the built-in stickers to label your current wires as you take them out. Given the variety of systems out there, and no standardization on colors, this is the only way to do it. So be careful! For me, of course, it was simple–two wires. But I labeled them anyway!

BEFORE MOVING ON, CUT THE POWER TO YOUR THERMOSTAT. For me, the thermostat wires come from the boiler, so the circuit to break was the boiler’s circuit. I verified this using my handy dandy Greenlee GT-16 Adjustable Non-Contact Voltage Detector, which I bought some time ago for other amateur electrician work on this old house. I can detect voltage in the air on the max sensitivity, so what I usually do is check it before trying to disconnect. Dial it back until it detects only when you’re near the hot wire. BTW, don’t take my word for it–I am not an electrician; YMMV.

Nest Install Voltage Detector

Now that you’ve cut power, you can label the wires safely.

Nest Install Label Wires

Even though the old plugs only say R and W, Rh and W1 were the only/closest option, and it matched the wiring diagram from the compat checker.

Now, niftily enough, the screwdriver they include has a small enough head on it to reach in those holes on the right and unscrew (loosen) the wire clamps. Simply pull them out at that point. I cheated and used my drill to quickly remove the two screws holding it onto the wall. I carefully pulled it off the wall at that point, to avoid ripping any extra paint off (the painters got mighty close to it). It revealed the green wall beneath the new cream paint. Here’s the whole old thermostat.

Nest Install Remove Old Thermostat

It probably took you more time to read this than it did to get the old one off.  Now for the install. I walked the Nest’s back over and looked at where it would install. The hole is in the center on the Nest; on the old one you can see it was to the left. Bottom line, this meant I couldn’t cover up the old green with just the nest, and since I didn’t have any putty or paint handy, it was back to the Nest box for the decorative backing plate. Lift up the last layer in the box to reveal the backing choices; they have an option to mount on electrical boxes as well. I just needed the pretty plate to cover the ugly wall stuff.

Nest Install Backing Plate

Again, I cheated with my cordless drill (Makita 18V Lithium Ion, BTW, if you need a recommendation).  Would be more annoying (not impossible) to use their included screwdriver.

Nest Install Back

Now, I used my old, somewhat crappy level to install this. It didn’t quite come out straight, as you can see.  Then I noticed the built-in level, and also, the screw holes have a little play, so I loosened the bottom one and realigned using their level. Hey, look, it also aligned with the nearby wall edge at that point, too!

Nest Install Back Leveled

Oh yeah, I plugged in the two wires into the matching slots. One of the cooler but maybe non-obvious features of Nest is that it runs fine on your 24VAC line. Many new/digital thermostats require a “common” lead that provides dedicated power. Not so with Nest–no extra wiring needed. Even my ancient two-wire system works fine with it!  Just use their compat checker to verify yours.

My wires are tough (they were made back when men were men, wires were wires, and little furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were little furry creatures from Alpha Centauri); they are not huge but not thin either, so I used needle nose pliers to straighten them. A more obsessive person may have grabbed some electrical tape to cover up more of the exposed wire. Me? I don’t sweat the small stuff. It will soon be covered up.  We’re almost there! Next step, grab the pretty Nest and plug it on.

Nest Install Done

NOW, you can go flip the switch back on. My breaker box is in the basement, but no worries, when I came back up, it was waiting for me.  Time to setup. You say “Hi” to it, and confirm your language, then on to the coolest part of the gadget–it is Wifi connected. Seems to have a decent antenna, too.

Nest Setup SSID

I also thought the interface for entering the password is cool. The Nest slides so smoothly. Feels solid, and dialing it to enter the password was strangely reminiscent of using a rotary phone. (Yes, I remember using them, although they were definitely on their way out by that time.) Hello, nostalgia. And it wasn’t that hard either. They seem to have put thought into how fast you turn, inertia, and that sort of thing. Nice.

Nest Setup Wifi Password

After a short connecting message, it confirms, we have lift off!

Nest Setup Wifi Connected

Just a few more steps.

Nest Setup Steps

BTW, I glanced through the setup manual. It is super thin and easy to follow. You don’t really need it though at this point–just follow the prompts. After confirming I only have heating installed, it just needs to ask a few questions about it.

Nest Setup Heating Source

(For the record, I have oil. sigh. Maybe someday it’ll be different.)

Nest Setup Heating Type

Radiators, yup. That’s us. I had NEVER seen them in person before I moved up here to NJ. But I like them a lot better than forced air, I have to say. I like the feeling of the warm, radiant heat. When you keep the house cool-ish like we do, forced air sometimes feels more like air conditioning than heating–blowing around 66 degree air. Radiators always feel warm, reminding one of a fire. (And I love fires!)

A few more questions–zip code and number of thermostats. Now I get to my favorite question. When was this house built?

Nest Setup House Age

What? No 1910s?  Come on!

Next up, naming this Nest; wish I could do a custom name, but they just have some preset to pick from. Ah well. Can’t have everything!

Last, it asks a couple simple questions about temps and lets you know it’ll try to learn/calibrate for some time.  And.. we’re done!

Nest Setup Done

As before, it likely took you longer to read my account than it will to set your Nest up in real time. In fact, I bet Nest is annoyed with me because this may make it seem more complicated than it is. 🙂  Really, we’re talking <30 min end to end, and it felt great and easy!

At this point, I was pretty pumped, because I wanted to go control it from my phone.  But first, to the Web site.  I quickly signed up, and it detected the nest on the network. Too cool!  I walked over to it again, and it said this.

Nest Setup Added Account

Too cool!  In no time, I was managing my thermostat remotely.  THE POWER!!!

And the app is nifty. It seems to gradually reveal complexity (another great UX principle). Just tonight I discovered some new things that weren’t there before. Still, it is quite simple and pleasing. I like how it incorporates local conditions in the background.  For instance, now it’s like so.

Nest Control Home

I won’t bore you (more) with all the settings and stuff. The interface is quite nice and, in my estimation, easy to learn and use. And hey! Will you look at that!? I guess you can have everything–it let me rename my thermostat here.

Nest Thermostat Control

Note that when you hover over it, you can simply click the up arrow or down arrow to increase/decrease your thermostat setting.  You get the same basic interface on the phone and tablet (I use iPhone and iPad, FTR). There of course they smartly don’t rely on hover to see the up/down arrows. 😉

I am a little obsessive. Sometimes. About some things. I try to fight it, but it gets me sometimes.  I quickly set up a schedule (even though it wants to learn it by you turning it up and down). I mean, I don’t want to run downstairs in the morning to turn the heat up–I want it done for me! This is a minor criticism, but I guess it works for “most” people who wouldn’t otherwise set up the schedule.

In the Web interface, this is easy enough. Add a setting, then copy and paste it to the other days. OMG. Like, I programmed the three thermostats at my last place, and what a friggin pain!  No wonder they say 90% of people don’t do it.  I dreaded changing the temps, too, cuz it meant clicking and switching through about 100 fiddly switches.  This took me 30 sec.  Wow.

Nest Schedule

And yesterday, I discovered my new favorite feature–the energy records. I can see my obsession will not soon end.

Nest Energy

You can selectively drill into daily details to see just when Nest was powering on that monster of a furnace against your schedule for the day.  I think I’m in geek-homeowner love!

Now, time will tell if this does help me save money. I can’t see how it won’t. I mean, last winter (our first in this old house), I just left it on a constant 66-7ish setting on the dial, more or less. If nothing else, being able to have it turn down during the evenings should save a good chunk of change.  And considering how much this old house costs me per month to heat, trust me, in like two months it will probably pay for itself.

So that brings us to the final consideration. Is the Nest worth $250? Well, from the research I did, learning thermostats can save 10-15% on average. You can do the math based on your usage. But that’s just part of the story. This is one grand toy, after all, no? 🙂  So a great toy that can save you money?  Is it worth it?  I think so.

If you’re on the fence, I strongly suggest going for it. It’s awesome. Go order the thing, yo! (Don’t forget to check your compatibility first.)

P.S. Nest didn’t pay me for this review. I’m just totally psyched about it. It took probably 6x the time to put together than installing it took. (Don’t worry–I was watching Burn Notice in the background with the wifey for most of it.) But if you use my links to buy, I might get some small Amazon affiliate commission.  So that’d be a nice thing if you found this helpful.

Authentic Auschmentic

As the digital world goes more and more Swiss in style, I am beginning to have sympathy for the brief rant on the future of interaction design (although I previously disagreed with it). But my sympathy is not specifically about using all my digits and arms as much as it is a sense of malaise with the overwhelming sameness that is behind the Swiss style.

The problem? Well, the claim is that we want to be “authentically digital” and eschew “false reproductions of physical analogs”  (a.k.a., “skeuomorphism”). But if we’re true to our media, then everything is/will be plain old pictures under glass.  And not only that, it will be an über minimalist style that supposedly “emphasizes content” at the cost of “unnecessary design elements” such as “chrome.”  In short, it is squares, images, and text, and that’s it.

Image

At least this one has some suggestion of “button-ness” on the “more” links, but not much.

Before long, this is all you see, no matter where you go. A suffocating sameness. Squares. Images. Text.  Squares. Images. Text.  Oh look! Squares. Images. Text.  So deliciously digitally authentic, though, right?

Now, on the other hand, take a tour of your neighborhood houses.  Go inside and see the décor. Assuming your neighbors can afford some level of choice, do you see functional minimalism?  Unless your neighbor is a metrosexual designer, probably not.  Probably what you’ll find are lots of “unnecessary” decorations. In fact, I’d bet on it.

It’s popular right now in the digital design community to rail against skeuomorphism, partially because you sound all hoity-toity just using the term.  “Did you see that skeuomorphic design?” asks one designer.  Other designer, laughing nervously because he can’t quite recall what the word means, “ehehe.. yeah, it was ridonkulous!”  (Mutual knowing chuckling ensues..)

iCal is even the example on the Wikipedia article on skeuomorphism.Designers love to pull up the iPad’s calendar as the supreme offender in this category. (Any chance we can show we’re not total Apple fanbois while still seeming designerly we’ll take.)  “Uh.. I mean.. just look at the torn paper edges!”

Or pull up the guitar or piano app on iPad.  How about iBooks, where you can literally drag and see the page turn.  “How unnecessary and unauthentic!”  Don’t look at me like you’ve never heard a designer say something like these examples.

The funny thing is, though, if you show these same things to your mother-in-law, she’ll exclaim about how nice it is.  Your father-in-law will just shake his head quietly in amazement.  The riff raff seem to really like this unauthentic design.  And frankly, so do I.

Does that mean I always want to have to drag the page to turn it?  Of course not, but it is nice all the same.  Do I care at all that there are torn paper edges on the calendar?  No. In fact, I like it. It adds “realism” and depth.  It makes this slab of metal and glass just a tad less metally and a skosh less glassy.  When I go from app to app, I can tell I’m going from app to app and not experiencing one continuous, monotonous sameness, especially with the apps where the designers go out of their way to add un-digitally-authentic flair.  Yes, I will strum those strings, thank you!

I had enough “digitally authentic” design back in the bad old days, when there were 80 characters across the screen and just text.  Talk about focusing on the content!  Yeah!  And then the bricky windows of the early GUIs.  The minimal chrome that was very functional.  Nice rectangular buttons with no decoration; just the authentic word or two. Back when all the apps were the innocuous, comforting gray or white and predictable bars with telling titles nestling atop.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for a return to Flash Web site intros, or their ilk in HTML5. But this latest bender on Swiss/Metro/minimalist/”authentic” digital design is a bit much and needs to be tempered with other aesthetic and, dare I say, populist considerations.  We need to remember that most users aren’t so “refined” as we are in our tastes.  Sure, there are those who will follow the fads of fashion wherever it forays, but most of us seem to like our curvy and knobbly, comfy and cozy inauthentic extravagances.  We need to find a happy medium between the two extremes.

(And yes, I know this is ironic given my current blog theme. I’m just trying to fit in. 😉 )

What’s Up with UX Design Patterns?

Over there on on the User Experience group on LinkedIn, there is a loong thread cataloguing existing UX/UI design pattern repositories.  Recently, a few folks have been asking, “so what’s up with these UX design patterns, anyways?”

Given that I’ve had a lot of experience with design patterns, both in software architecture and, more extensively, with UX/UI design patterns in my work on Infragistics’ free UX/UI design pattern explorer and design tool, Quince, I thought I’d offer some food for thought.  I put most of the following as a comment there, but I figured making it more top-level in this post would help.  Hope it helps you out. Feel free to ask questions/comment if you want! 🙂

Design Patterns have a very well-defined, long-lived meaning. As Steven H (another commenter) noted, we inherited the formal denotation first from physical-world architecture via Christopher Alexander and, indirectly, through software architecture. They are not just a new word for an old thing…

Using a pattern does not mean you are copying someone’s work. Design patterns are not algorithms, templates, or rote repeatable solutions. Design patterns rely on context heavily, both to validate that they are applicable and to inform the concrete design. That’s why it’s important to understand not just the problem that they solve and not just the solution (and certainly not to simply copy examples of it), but also the context and rationale behind them.

Like many things, design patterns are a tool, and they are not always applicable or even helpful. To effectively leverage them, you first need to understand what they are and when they are applicable.

In the end, design patterns are there, and you use them whether or not you acknowledge them formally. Every time you use a textbox in a UI, you’re using a pattern. Every time you use a drop down, you’re using a pattern. When you put a search box in the top right area of your app, you’re using a pattern. The list goes on and on and on (check out Quince for more examples, or any of the other design pattern repositories).

Where it can help to formally recognize them is to make you a more informed and cognizant designer, so you can better choose when to leverage which patterns. They can also help to form a common vocabulary to enhance team communication, and they can be building blocks for any particular design language. Personally, I think they are indispensable in a designers’ toolkit. At the very least, they make you more aware of and able to articulate the rationale behind your designs, which is crucial in arriving at the best possible design.

Interaction Design Is Creative and Synthetic

The UX Honeycomb

A while back, I was reading this post over at Optimal Usability about the gaps between interaction designers (IxDs) and visual designers (VDs). I am director of Design at Infragistics, which in practice means that both visual design and interaction design report to me (along with something we call “developer interaction design”).  Our core business for about 20 some odd years has been making reusable UI components and tools for developers. A few years ago, we started to diversify with designer tools, such as Quince and Quince Pro, and we are working on some other nifty stuff focused on helping designers, so we tend to think about them a lot, in addition to our own practice internally.

A lot of what Adeline says rings true for me as well–there is definitely a distinction in perspective and modes of thinking between IxDs and VDs. And in terms of not totally compartmentalizing design disciplines, of course, that makes sense.  Cooper advocated something similar back in 2008 and has been on the road with that “unified design” concept for some time.

But I have noticed what seems to me to be something of an unfortunate trend, and that is the tendency to characterize interaction design as an analytical and systematic discipline focused solely on optimizing for the user (basic usability and task completion concerns) while tossing, it seems, all aesthetic, business, and other considerations into the domain of other folks. The solution advocated, then, becomes something to the tune of “let’s involve everybody throughout the design process to ensure all of these concerns are represented.”

Involve Everybody!
In the article on Cooper referenced above, the proposition for this is in part based on a concern about apparent power struggles over the design itself.  Exemplifying a possible dispute about information density in which the IxD cites research, they say, “If the visual designer has no direct experience with that research, where does the conversation go from here?”

Again, the proposed solution is that all of the design disciplines should be involved in research so they all, in theory, can use “research” to beat each other over the head with when disagreements arise.  One key problem with this, though, is that more often than not, you’re dealing with interpretations of research.  So even if both parties are involved, they will still argue based on their interpretations and prejudices (in the absence of ever elusive definitive data to resolve things).

At Infragistics, we hear the same concerns, coming not just from visual designers but also from developers/engineers. The problem I see is that research, in these discussions, tends to be seen more as a tool to used in disagreements over designs to support “my” opinion on the right design direction. People at this point tend to look at it through the eye of proving their point rather than considering it all holistically as input. Exploratory research, on its own, can rarely be used to support this or that particular design choice, so it’s usually an exercise in futility anyways. If you want that sort of information, you typically need to do focused A/B testing, and be very careful about how you frame the tests.

More to the point, interaction designers are trained and practiced in looking at research holistically, and letting the data speak for itself. It takes practice to separate yourself and your opinions from the data, and often those not practiced in this are only too quick to latch onto the data that seems to support their preconceived notions and to minimize or ignore what doesn’t. I’m not saying IxDs are never biased, but the point is that this is part of the IxD discipline, and it takes practice and conscious effort–things that other disciplines either aren’t interested in investing in or can’t due to other demands on their time.

And that brings me to the broader concern about involving everybody in research–except on small, startup-sized teams, it seems to me to be impractical and, in the business owner’s eyes, expensive. Especially so if your teams are geographically distributed. Not only that, as your teams grow, involving them all can seriously intimidate the research subjects, which screws up the data.

One suggestion to deal with this is to have the other team members only go to this or that research session. But that seems potentially worse because those team members will come away with skewed ideas, basing their notions on isolated bits of the research instead of the research holistically. And if they’re not trained and practiced in research (as most other team members are not), it’s all too easy for them to build up such skewed notions, and later to use them as weapons in design discussions–they know enough to be dangerous but not enough to be effective in terms of informing design directions.

On the other hand, I heartily agree that interaction designers should be involved in research as much as possible; ideally I’d even say they are the primary participant, with the design researchers (if such a specialty exists for a team) facilitating and executing research sessions and compiling the research for later reference. The IxD, in orgs without dedicated research teams, should be the folks who take over the researcher’s tasks. Of course, they won’t be able to do it as thoroughly as dedicated researchers, but they are the natural fit due to training and what is required of them to fill that gap as best they can.

It is the IxD’s job to take this research, to understand it, and most importantly to synthesize it into a holistic, coherent interaction design. That, I repeat, is the primary activity for IxD, and as such, the designs they produce should normally sufficiently embody and reflect the research so that it is not necessary for everyone to be involved in the research. The interaction design itself should speak for the research.

The other product disciplines need to trust that the IxD is doing her job. That doesn’t by any stretch mean that designs should never be questioned–quite the contrary, the more a design is put under fire, the stronger it should become. But if the IxD listens to the concerns and suggestions, can explain the rationale, and ultimately says, citing research if applicable, that this is the right design direction, then that decision should be respected as part and parcel of the IxD’s role and responsibility on the product team. It’s quite possible they could change the design in response to their peers’ criticism–I hope they would if the suggestion makes the design better. But this idea of getting everyone involved in the research so that everyone can leverage their interpretations of it to push the design in the direction they prefer is just unhealthy and can quite simply stall out forward momentum on the product. Design by committee is a sure recipe for disaster.

We’re Both Designers
The article on Optimal seems to imply that in order to get “lateral thinking” and thinking outside the box (“challenging conventions”), you really need to engage the VD. They also identify that the VD “has absolutely no input or access to the project until the wireframes are handed over” as a problem.  They say that IxDs are “great at models that work well for users” and testing them.  In the end, they, too, advocate plugging in folks throughout the process.

Now, first let me say that I 100% agree that collaboration and good communication between the various product disciplines is essential to great products. It seems almost axiomatic. And I might even be inclined to agree that good VDs tend to be more aesthetically oriented and good IxDs tend to be more analytically capable. I’d go further in agreeing that simply handing off annotated wireframes to a VD and washing your hands of it is a Bad Idea. But I don’t agree that the reason to involve VDs in the IxD process is that they are more creative/lateral thinkers.

While it may be true that the focus of interaction design is optimizing designs for human interaction and that visual design is focused on, particularly, visual aesthetics and the related communication (and even rhetoric), the people serving in either of these capacities are still (normally) designers. That is, they share a common way of thinking about problems–from the human perspective–and they both need to be thinking creatively about the design.

It is possible to dissect and consider the human perspective as its elements, but as we all know, people experience them together.  (And that is largely the reason these design disciplines have to coordinate.)  And while it is possible to dissect experience for the purpose of reasoning about it and engaging specialized skills and talents, that doesn’t mean that people who focus on this or that element are incapable of considering the other elements.  Nor does it mean they are incapable of considering other non-human-focused constraints.

If that were true, why would we specialize?  We do so because there are special skills and effort that go along with the various discipilnes.  Many people buy into the “T-shaped” skill set idea as valuable, in fact. Be competent across a variety of skills but really good/deep in one.

[rant]I am going on this point because it is tiresome to hear the phrase “creatives” and have it apply to one particular specialty, as if the other disciplines are not creative. Having been a software developer, I can tell you there is a lot of creativity in that discipline as well. So implying that only some (e.g., visual) designers are the “creative” ones, the ones who can think “laterally” and “challenge conventions” and so on is just hogwash. I would even go as far as to say they are not (as a group) any better or worse at this.  I’ve reviewed many a portfolio and worked with many VDs, and they can follow the crowd just as well as the next guy.  (In fact, that’s what being “fashionable” is all about.)[/rant]

Just so, interaction designers are creative. To do good interaction design, they must think creatively, laterally, and yes, challenge conventional notions. This is especially true when “redesigning” an existing solution or when considering a design in light of existing competition.  They must consider aesthetic elements, including especially that of the aesthetics of interaction.  They must account for brand identity, the “personality” of the app, the content, and the business constraints in their design. It’s my opinion that they should be the role that owns unifying all of these elements, even if they do not personally execute on all of them.  To pretend that brand can be addressed through visual design alone is anything but unified design.

And while interaction design necessarily involves more analytical capability, the best interaction designers also have a talent for aesthetics and, most importantly, synthesis.  Interaction design is not the sum of its methodologies; you can give the same design challenge and tool set to two different IxDs, and they will produce distinctly different designs.  There is, what I like to call, a “Design spark” that you can see (and as a hiring manager, need to look for). IxDs need to be able to analyze and reason through all the various inputs into the design process (business/stakeholder considerations, user considerations, and medium/technology constraints and capabilities) and then synthesize those into design solutions.

And yet it remains that there is a distinct talent in visual design that is not necessary for good interaction design. Unlike some of my contemporaries, I do not denigrate this talent by implying that it’s “just styling” or “lipstick” or “dressing it up.”  In addition to simply being able to effectively manipulate visual design tools (which take time to become skillful with), there is a particular talent when paired with the craft’s skill that makes or breaks good visual design. It is not creativity. It is a sense of balance, harmony, appropriateness, and beauty, and being able to express and enhance this through visual artifacts. Some visual designers can also extend this sense–this talent–into other media and other elements of experience as well (such as motion design, which is integral with visual design).

Visual design is both highly skilled and talent driven, and high quality visual design can make a huge difference in any given unified design.  But even so, a visual design necessarily accounts for only part of the human experience.  And that is OK. It has sufficient value and requires sufficient skill and talent to stand on its own–everybody doesn’t need to be concerned with everything.

I am saying all this to shore up that visual design does indeed stand alone as a distinct and valuable competency–without having to dilute it and stretch it into other areas of specialization or having to carve out their specialty as being “creative.” Both IxD and VD are design disciplines. At their best, both require lateral thinking and challenging conventions. That’s not the essential difference between them nor their distinctive values that they bring to a product.

Yes, they do absolutely need to integrate and communicate, and by and large, I agree with what the Optimal article proposes. When possible, looping in VDs during IxD conceptualization and later even during critique can help, and vice-versa–IxDs can and should participate in the VDs conceptualization and iteration. But this is because they are both designers, and having more trained and talented design brains contributing during ideation and critique tends to result in more alternative exploration and more critical input into the synthesis process. That can only be a good thing.