Designing for Function

We took a fleeting survey of Designing for Content in Part 2 and now we go on to look at how functionality might affect how one might design a website

Firstly there are some important Considerations:

Get to the Root of the Purpose of each Function to be Designed for (i.e. what does it do?)

Many websites, whether commercially driven by sales as well as those that are not intended for profit-making, will want to classify their items of data. Take a typical physical local general store at the corner of the street: it has perhaps ten thousand product types in stock – from garden hoes to boxes of matches, handkerchiefs to penetrating oil.  Easy even for an old timer sales assistant to lose his way around, when the item he wants has been misplaced and is not in its proper place. When you have a map for finding the needle in the haystack, when the map is accurate: no problem; when it is even just a few centimeters out: big problem.

So classification; i.e. a stock map or a data map – for doing online organisation is usually an essential. And there are millions of permutations of cataloguing which might make up viable classification systems; and this is the nub.

Designing for your classification pages is a vital part of making your chosen mode of cataloguing data easy to use for clients and site visitors. Design can make all the difference between a good experience and a nightmare. But the capabilities of a good design are not a universal panacea for taking the pains out of searching and finding. You must choose a cataloguing system that is fit for the purposes you require of it; and it should be one also that is amenable to good design work being possible to be applied to it.

(There will be articles on Classification per se coming in this series the future)

Here are some tips:

  • Build a storefront that carries some ‘in-your-face’ product/data ‘specials’ advertised as it were at the front door where the punters enter and browse with an eye to assessing who you are and what you are like.
  • Like in the general store, have your products/data organized on ‘shelves’, that is, make groupings your items of product or data into appropriate classes, sub-sections etc
  • A general store will  have salespeople situated at strategic points; and so you might have signposts carrying relevant information posted neatly without diverting browsers too far from the main matter on the page,
  • And of course a checkout counter where items can be paid for; or else a holding page wherein a client saves the data he wants and marshals it.

The aim is to hit that delicate balance of convenience and comprehensiveness without making it feel like coercion and cajoling. Leading people by the hand rather than forcing them heavily through to the checkout

Beneficent Mission Creep

  • Design can have unintended consequences, some of which will be beneficent and some might be adverse, and these arise generally as a result of a website’s client-base ‘hijacking’ and extending the functionality planned for in the initial build.
  • Unintended uses that are created by a user base, depending on the nature, are often taken advantage of by site admins as ‘windfalls’ which can be developed and made into discrete features and sometimes novel attractions.
  • One has seen historically that popular social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) have continuously, quickly, latched onto and developed such ‘discovered’ features especially those elected for use by, say, businesses (like sponsored posts, payment channels, etc.)
  • Businesses in particular, because of their increasing use of the web to trade in, and so because of their increasing dependency on creating a big, well-esteemed online presence, so as to succeed and grow; have moved-in on a host of extraneous web entities, enabling them to reach out to larger and/or more focussed audiences/potential customers/clients.

The website User base (who are the people going to use it?)

  • Classification of goods/data is paramount here.  Your clientele will want their data/goods arranged on display and for use in ways suited to their best convenience, and not to your own. In this respect: The customer is always right. So it’s worth consulting your client base and finding out how they like things being done, even when what they tell you  seems counter-intuitive or counter-productive.  Keep them sweet.
  • You will benefit from market research so as to find who are your target markets, and you can build into your design the knowledge you acquire in this way.  If you have an overarching concept which dominates your website it is important you make it as appealing as it can be to your known target audience.
  • Important gauges of target audiences include: age, gender, social strata, levels of specialised knowledge expected, spending power/disposable incomes, ethnic and cultural expressions, predilections, hobbies, interests, occupations and so on.
  • Knowing about all these descriptors of your typical client enables you to pitch your store or database services at that optimum level where Mr and Mrs Average are comfortable and at home. Your knowledge about them will serve you to be tailored to their cloth
  • Tech-savvy audiences/clients can handle features or interfaces which are more advanced and sophisticated than average. Technologically-challenged users will conversely need more hand-holding by way of use of easy wizards and step-by-step procedures. Your expository texts likewise will need to sit well within the range of audience/client skill and awareness

Getting the User-interaction bits right (How do your users use the site?)

  • All in all a good website will feel intuitive and natural to its users.
  • As technology progresses it appears that user interface trends are beginning to converge, coming  from different virtual spaces (e.g. mobiles, desktops, web, etc.). You could do worse than merely to take your cue as to what are the newest up and coming trends, from the popular commercial operating systems, and from the flourishing, fashionable websites. Use what they can show and tell you for your own inspirations.
  • “Intuitive” can be a difficult word. It means different things to different user bases. For example, the majority of your users are, say, Apple Mac fans, so you’ll want to look into and research Human Interface Guidelines for OS X and/or Mac. Such research will pay off with help and recommendations for your interface patterns, such as button placement, standard glyphs and symbols, and so on.  At least some of these items are going to be variant from those found on Windows or Android.
  • Finally, you don’t have to slavishly follow fashion and the popular vote –  there is always room for new opportunities; in a rapidly-evolving arena like the Internet there is always going to be space for new guys like you to create new trends and employ new user interfaces, design techniques, and goals.

So follow your instinct, and if you believe you can cut the mustard; then go for it.

Project Takeover Blues 5: Conflicts of Interests, Pressures, Priorities

The absurdist drama of the later 20th century, plays like Samuel Beckett’s famous ‘Waiting for Godot’ and Harold Pinter’s ‘The Caretaker’ usually carry rambling storylines which by design largely go nowhere.  At least when judged by the sequential and structured trajectories of traditional European storytelling.

For these absurdist dramatists it is not so much the destination, but rather what happens along the way in their plots that makes them interesting and successful. I was going to add ‘innovative’ also, but it struck me that the Jewish tradition of storytelling, stretching back some 3,000 years and more, has aspects in common with this absurdist drama.

For a basic understanding of what a Jew would want to obtain from her reading of a traditional Hebrew story you only need to go to The Bible, The Old Testament, with its fabulary stories like the events in the Garden with Adam and the Serpent, or else to the magic realism of The Book of Jonah.

Like an audience needs to do when it is watching a drama of Beckett’s or Pinter’s, Jews find in their stories not a naturalistic narrative with close verisimilitude to actual life and events,  but instead a figurative approach to learning about their religion and life in general. They ask themselves: ‘What is this story trying to convey to me; what is it offering; what is it aiming to teach me?’

Beckett and Pinter and their school above all share with the Biblical story makers an ability for deep close insight into human’s psychological states and the human condition in general.  It is this insight which allows their works to retain their value and to add value to the lives of those who experience them.

A foundational strand of human psychology which is developed in many of these stories might be loosely termed as the portrayal of ‘human characters talking across one another’, and ‘talking at crossed purposes’. The two facets of human interaction are rather different but are quite nearly related to one another.

‘Talking across one another’ entails an amount of self-absorption or even self-obsession, in two or more persons who appear prima facie to be in conversation; but who are in fact missing what the other is saying, and hearing only their own voice.

Usually this means that several different topics are being talked about at the same time; one by each person involved.  Their individual self –absorption often denies them the power to observe this is happening; or that no-one else is listening to them.  These abortive conversations are capable of going on for quite some time and their participants are able to come away from them being even yet oblivious of the absurd situation they have just played out.

In the drama of course this oddity is often built-up into a comic feature and at the same time carries a considerable amount of pathos leading to audiences sensing the tragedy inherent in such situations. The human existential aloneness of each of us; the impossibility of full human connectedness with one another

‘Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.’

The paradox in all this is the realisation of a liberation of the spirit which one is able to receive by way of one’s working to nurture and grow a self-awareness of one’s inevitable existential aloneness.  Such liberation is incomplete always, since one can never wholly know oneself or come to terms totally with whom one might be.  But the very fact of acknowledging one’s utter aloneness in the final instance, oddly enough begins to free oneself up from the oppressive spiritual weight of the loneliness of it all.

One result of obtaining some such self-awareness is that one is enabled to observe rather more clearly cases when conversations in fact become only occurrences of ‘ships passing in the night’, instances of ‘wholly missing one another’s point’.

However, how might any of this rarefied meditation apply to project takeovers?

Simply said: Many of the communications between developers and their clients fall into this category of being ‘talking at crossed purposes’

Trying to be a good communicator, like humility, is endless. The philosopher Karl Popper once said: ‘There is nothing I can say that cannot be misunderstood.’  But first and foremost a person must listen, and be listening, in order to have the slightest chance of understanding at least in part another person’s communication. One cannot listen whilst one is self-absorbed. An when one has one’s own agendas uppermost in one’s mind all the time one is conversing one becomes hamstrung for listening.

The diverse agendas of developers as set against their clients’ agendas are usually radically, perhaps irreconcilably, different.  The client is focused on delivery dates, on meeting deadlines and hitting milestones, so as to furnish monetisation and sales and marketing of his awaited products.  His money he has invested in his developer to make his project he considers to be dead money until the products are built tested signed off launched and making income for him.  Time then is of utmost importance. Speed even. He will be fussy so as to chivvy along as much as he can as much as possible. He may even out of anxiety be going over his developmental plans and refining them as he goes, thus doing what his developer will call ‘tinkering’ with the original specification and so on. Money and time being absolute priorities to the client he will be most reluctant to accept a later delivery date or to pay more so as to cover any such refinements he adds.

The developer is focussed on getting the project right. He will have a head full of code and future planning. He will be pressed for time; developers are always pressed for time. He will be managing any crew he has and catering to their needs so as to keep them sweet. He will want invoices paid promptly, in the form of the client’s understood to be dead money. The developer is also probably involved in researching and sourcing of raw material for use in building custom apps and themes; not just looking for customisable pre-built open source apps, but usually also for know-how and clear and useful tutorials to help him and his team do clean jobs. The role of developer is naturally expansive and amorphous being an unknown quantity in respect of how much time and work will actually be required on a project on any given day. He has to juggle time, and roles, and sequences, and configurations; he is not easily pinned down and cannot easily say definitely when, or sometimes what or how, right up front.

These two guys then, the developer and the client, coming together to speak and communicate with one another: is it any wonder that so many times they miss one another’s drift, their points, and points of view?

‘The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune   

Of a broken violin on an August afternoon:         

“I am always sure that you understand               

My feelings, always sure that you feel,               

Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand.’

The Project Takeover Blues 4 – Concatenations

When there’s train crash, at speed the railcars which follow the engine bogey crash and crush up into one another as like a concertina.  Sometimes, especially when one has been in one of these accidents, time seems to slow down to a crawl for you; and this is a subjective state which however seems for all the world to be very real when it is taking place. And so you get the impression that you are watching a movie in slowmo, that somehow you are outside of yourself like a person watching in a cinema, and things are crystal clear and going on somewhat surreally all around you.

So the railcars crash and crush up into one another as it were very clearly and slowly, and the sound might not be even noted by you, even though the noise is going to be terrific.

The crashing and crushing up into one another of the railcars is a concatenation; a series of interconnected events, a sequence which, once set in motion, is more or less thereafter inevitable in its continuance and in the case of a train crash, linear in its consequences.

Now imagine a more complex situation; an exponential concatenation; and add several concurrent strands to it, say fifteen or twenty; and further let each strand be capable of interacting and interfering with the outcomes of the other sequences of concatenation, so that the overall consequence of the event is as near as one can imagine envisaging what an atomic fission chain reaction might be like to experience when occurring at a level of magnitude fitted to daily human life.

What needs to be done now is to psychologise this imagined physical event. Because such events do occur like this between humans in relationships; they are of the kind whereby say a couple fall in love and wed, and yet five years down the line they are fighting tooth and nail in public, in an acrimonious courtroom war of attrition with an aim to do as much hurt to the other as either can dream up.

The wedding day is the rail network running fine and everything is on time. Five years later the divorce is the catastrophe that happens when all the signalmen on the network have oddly gone loco (!) and switched points and lights so that our chain reaction of series of concatenations becomes a terrible bizarre reality.

Of course trains can’t all pile up in this way in fact; it’s just not in the nature of track layouts, so you have to excuse the illustration as being unfitted in this respect. Nonetheless relationships do deteriorate and once they reach a momentum to break free of convention and restraint, and these fissile explosions boil up and over, they behave as if they could be governed by the laws of physics

You might be able now to get a bead on what we mean when we say that some Project Takeovers are dangerous because analogous to you being handed a ticking bomb to fix back into being a fluffy toy.  The chances of you being able to do this are really not good.  Because when gaps open between developers and their clients which allow tensions to brew and fester, and respect to wither and fail; and expectation to switch to a negative value; and communications to begin to hide from parties as much as they reveal to them; when this and other strands of dysfunction kick in and begin messing with a developer/client relationship, then the Project is on course to be a train wreck.

One cannot hear a symphony during an earthquake. One cannot grow crops during an eruption. In the same way one cannot  complete a Project well when relations between you and your client are seriously falling apart. Inevitably the friction, frustrations and simmering resentments will poison not just the well from which you and he drink in common, but will mar the understanding of what technically is required  in the project and how by design this requirement might be implemented.  You may have heard the joke that a rhinoceros (sometimes it is a giraffe) is an animal designed by a committee; well take this joke a step further and one might say that nothing of any pleasing or functional shape and purpose was successfully made by mutual enemies.

The story is well picked out by William Blake:

I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

Some things cannot be said between business associates. They are likely to be discussed by the several friends of each of the parties about the other party, and there is no satisfaction in that to either party.  Thus wrath grows insidiously.  It is these situations which lead, in a good many cases to, so as to become parcelled up as, explosive charges, resulting in Projects that are to be handed over to subsequent developers as Project Takeovers.

Now certain heavy elements are by the course of their nature highly unstable at NTP.  In the natural  order they will deplete into stable but more or less inert substances.  And on the way to stability they emit, sometimes for aeons and aeons, emmanences fatal to life of nearly every known kind.  In the same way there are persons who like these heavy elements are volatile and unreliable, dangerous; and, unfortunately too often, they also destroy themselves because of their adverse natures. They too often also end up ostracised from normal and amiable society, living lives on the streets or in closed wards.  Whether or not they might be held responsible for any consequences of their nature is not in question here.  The observation to be made from this figure is that many, maybe most of these unfortunates are so fragmented as personalities because they are so deeply and intractably conflicted within themselves.

‘If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand’

This then is another figure for that relationship which ought to be one of communing and mutually assisting parties with prima facie goodwill and generous good faith; but which in the course of events over time deteriorates so that neither party knows where they are and trust has utterly failed.

With Project Takeovers very often this is the damage that has been done already – to the client and to his Project – to his former developer and to this developer’s own trust and good faith – and one is taking it on, if one decides to take it on, as a balled tangle of threads constituted of knots of thwarted emotions and frustrated wills, which, as you being the new developer, very likely will be yours to try to unravel in addition to having to complete the Project. This is often the case even concerning the actual development work previously done by any former developer; one too often will have to reverse engineer and re-engineer virtually from scratch any development work already accomplished.

‘He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths.’

[This article was originally published at “The Project Takeover Blues 4 – Concatenations“]