Ed Tech UI Guy

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Standards vs. creativity

A colleague sent me a link to The End of Usability Culture, an inflammatory article about how usability experts have become more powerful than designers and now all sites look the same, so it's time to for sites to be more creative. It's an old theme, but I've been thinking about the broader issue of standards vs. creativity.

Someone recently asked me how I could know enough from the Gradebook's requirements gathering to leap forward to the wireframes. The best I could do is say "Well, I'm a designer, I have to be creative. And then we do a review and try again until we're fairly happy." The idea has been planted for some people that we can get every thing we need to build a website from usability studies, and then just put the pieces together, almost without a designer getting involved.

Similarly, there has been a bit of turmoil around the Sakai style guide, and how much control it asserts. Does the style guide dictate a design for all future Sakai tools? From my point of view it doesn't assert much control. It should support consistency, without limiting creativity.

The style guide's goal is to support consistency. For example, clicking on a table header should has the same result from one page to the next within a website. Someone trying to teach a class doesn't know they are using the MIT/Berkeley gradebook, the Stanford quiz builder, and the Michigan announcement tool, the Cambridge discussion tool, etc. They are using one website, so there ought to be some consistency.

(The style guide has an additional goal of encouraging best practices in HTML markup and accessibility, but that's not my point right now).

But the style guide needs to be easy on designers- it's not going to cover every possible interface. If I'm solving a problem I need to do it in the most elegant way I can, without the style guide getting in my way. The style guide covers some common elements like forms, data tables and wizards. The style guide is not saying you can ONLY use forms, data tables and wizards. You can innovate and create new things. But if you are going to use a form please highlight the submit button, and include a cancel button.