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Strategic insights
Stop making it look like a System

Written by on May 6, 2007

One of the worst things you can do is to not design for real people and real content. It is obvious in the same way that you will freeze if you sit in a freezer. That, however, doesn't seem to stop people from making a mess of everything.

What does a system look like?

The "system look" is pretty simple to spot. It is where:

  • The content doesn't really fit
  • It looks like a table from a database
  • It exposes your internal system structure
  • The data has not been transformed into usable language
  • The layout has no life (it is stuck in a rigid environment)

Note: If even one of these exists, then it looks like a system...

Below is an example of a system look from Cisco. It looks awful and it is not even remotely usable. Notice that the version number and the dates are all the same. Not to mention that they were too lazy to convert the file sizes into MB - what a waste of screen space.

A simple solution would be to simply rearrange the content (see below). Not only is it now much easier to read, the content has gotten space to breathe. The overall size more than 50% smaller (and there are plenty of room for more languages if needed).

Since all the files are almost the same size, there really isn't much point writing out all of them. Displaying the average size of 1.2 MB is much more usable.

So why do people make it look like systems? Well...

Developers are lazy

I know this, I am too. But there is a difference between being lazy but ingenious and lazy because you cannot be bothered.

The lazy-ingenious developers are the ones who see a problem and thinks "that looks like too much work" or "that takes too much effort" - end then develop a way to do the same in a much simpler way.

This is the kind of developer you want to be. Laziness is strength. It can motivate you to make great products. Some of the best inventors of all times were lazy and now we got cars, robotic vacuum cleaners, coffee makers, dishwashers, remote controls, iron free shirts, the internet, and much more.

But, the other kinds - the ones who are lazy because they cannot be bothered - are just being stupid. The Cisco download box above was done by lazy and stupid people. They focused on the wrong kind of laziness. They focused on short term results (which always means more work in the long run), and wasted not only their own time, but everyone's time.

We do not work with real data

Another problem is not having real data when making concepts and prototypes. Developers, AI professionals and designers create these fantastic systems, based on test scenarios - and it never works that way.

One example is Yahoo Music. They got a very good looking music player. It has a nice design and several nice technical features. It is a good product... But, they didn't design it with real data, and as a result the content doesn't fit.

In Yahoo's case this is particularly stupid because there is a lot of extra space available. They could have made the text wider, and there is even space enough to wrap it over two lines if necessary.

But, it is not just Yahoo Music that makes this mistake. Most gets into trouble when real data is added. This is because:

  • Real text never looks right
  • Real headlines never have the right length
  • Numbers are always off
  • Bulleted lists are always too long
  • Columns never align consistently
  • Images never have the rights size or proportions.

Not to mention that the amount test data is often very limited. It is never a problem when you have 10 categories to worry about in your design. But, once your system is introduce into the real world - and you got 1.000 categories - then it suddenly doesn't look or work the same any more.

We are blinded by our own brain

Yet another problem is that we are blinded by our own environment and our brain. A file called "C760-in.r-MLS.44-7.bin" probably makes perfect sense to the people at Cisco.

And, it is not only developers that speak gibberish. Every profession has its own language, and in each case it is simpler for them to say things their way. Like when Dr. Susan Calvin was asked about her profession in the movie I-Robot.

She answers: "My general fields are advanced robotics and psychiatry, although I specialize in hardware-to-wetware interfaces in an effort to advance USR's robotic anthropomorphization program".

It makes perfect sense to her, but not to anyone else.

Remember the key to good language is not necessarily to write in simple terms - it largely depends on your target audience. E.g. if you make a system for doctors you need to speak their language (which seems to be half-Latin).

But, the language you need to use is in most cases not one you are comfortable with. If you cannot speak the language of your target audience, use simple words.

A system is usable when real people and real data work together effectively

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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