Typically we want our designs to be effective, aesthetically pleasing, and useful. Sometimes we want them to be compelling and innovative as well. Our main areas of expertise are design, marketing, engineering, and content creation. We use a multidisciplinary approach for our work; we believe that by facing the design process from different perspectives we achieve a richer solution. At SQR no one owns the design process.
We use the term design to refer to interface and interaction design. SQR has two different kinds of designers: interaction designers and graphic designers. Simply put, interaction designers take care of how the interface works and graphic designers define how the interface looks. Both kinds of designers work closely together because form follows function follows form...
Some of us see computers as media; others regard computers as tools. Tools are there to be used, to control, to manipulate things. Media are meant to express, to engage.
Design has to happen first. By design we don't mean adding nice colors or cool effects but finding solutions. The problem definition is always two-sided: the problem as seen by the user on the one hand and the problem as understood by our clients on the other. Starting with the users' goals and continuing with our client's business goals we arrive at design solutions that work for both users and clients.
Our design process consists of four phases: discovery, concept, design, and implementation. We try to stick to this approach, but we adapt it to suit the client's needs. We first decide what to design and then we iteratively move forward toward how to shape and build it.
In the discovery phase the client and we try to get to know each other. We hold one or more workshops in which we discuss the design brief and learn about the client's goals and the site's mission. The result is a vision statement for a product or service.
In the concept phase, we conceive ways of interaction and define the product's visual identity and usability requirements. Usually the line of approach for this phase is a combination of user-centered design (UCD) and marketing approaches. The chosen approach depends on the nature of the project.
In a UCD-driven project we start by interviewing users and, if possible, doing contextual inquiry. We create several personas and scenarios that give us detailed understanding of the key goals different users want to accomplish as well as their skills, attitudes, and context of use. Using task analysis we produce a provisional functional specification.
The concept phase in a marketing-driven project has many similarities to creating advertisements. An art director and a design team create a concept based on perceived needs, branding strategies, and trends in fashion. Target groups are explicitly defined, albeit there is no direct contact with users.
During the design phase we prototype the ideas that are generated during the concept phase and do usability tests and card sorting with users. We use various prototypes to explore, test, and demonstrate ideas: storyboards, screen mock-ups, wire frames. Deliverables for this phase are high-resolution screen prototypes, a site map, and a detailed functional specification.
In the implementation phase we build the system. Building often also means having to iterate the designs. We don't usually do formal usability tests during this phase. We try to allocate all resources for user studies in the early stages of design. We do usability tests with working systems when we reassess them (i.e., before redesigns).
The design process is constantly under revision. Looking back we see that an enormous change has taken place; a couple of years ago we used to focus on technology and aesthetics whereas nowadays we focus on the user.
SQR designers achieve job satisfaction in different ways: seeing the product being built, gaining client approval, receiving positive feedback from users, and of course, self-reward. We are passionate about what we do and we really have fun doing it. That's very satisfying.
New designers are usually well trained in their own disciplines, but they are insufficiently prepared for a product-driven industry. In general new designers seek perfection above all things. They are proficient in analysis but lack practical skills that are necessary in an industrial context. New designers need to have a greater understanding of technology, marketing, business, and sales. They need to know how to apply their knowledge within the boundaries of time, manageable costs, and organizational politics.
We love technology, but we want to make it invisible. We want our field to achieve what book publishers accomplished long ago: people reading books instead of users using technology. We want to design for people, not for users. We want to deliver value, not technology. Getting closer to that is our design challenge.
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam hired us to design its online shop and a Web site for the ongoing Van Gogh and Gauguin exposition. I'll illustrate the shop project.
During our initial research we discovered that buying products at the museum shop was a substantial part of the whole experience of going to the museum. Buying a product from the museum shop is a part of a bigger picture and not a goal in itself.
We discovered that a traditional online shop with lists of categorized items didn't fit user expectations. Users don't go to the shop only for the products. We've developed online shops in the past, but this shop was unique because selling products is as important as how they are presented. We addressed this problem by combining photographs and line art. We also wanted to give the illusion of 3-D without making the page too heavy for download. We produced very many different look-and-feel sketches. Besides showing what kind of products are for sale we wanted to convey emotion as well.
The interaction design was fairly well documented; we worked with storyboards and annotated flowcharts. Designing the presentation layer demanded lots of iterations and revision.
We spent two days doing contextual inquiry and talking to customers as they shopped. We also observed them using the computer terminals in the museum, and we interviewed them formally. We tested screen widgets and different prototypes. As I write this we are running a pilot with the first live version of the shop. We will test the shop with real users before moving forward to the next step, which is making the whole shop's inventory available online.
SQR, The Netherlands
Phone: +31 (20) 6202160
Ariel Guersenzvaig has a background in sociology and information management. He has experience in developing Web-based banking applications, intranets, and online shops. Ariel is also a teacher at the Amsterdam University of Professional Education.
Figure 1. We combined photos with line art to add an
extra iconic dimension.
Figure 2. We don't tell the user there are two kinds of
mouse padswe show it.
Figure 3. An example of one of the flowcharts we worked
Graphic designer, interaction designer
Degree in arts, psychology, information science, ergonomics, industrial design, or related field. SQR designers have at least two years of experience in human interface design.
The average team consists of a project manager, one or two interaction designers, one or two graphic designers, and one or two programmers. Ten designers work at SQR.
Sidebar: Practitioner's Workbench
- Hackos, J. et al. User and Task Analysis for Interface Design. John Wiley and Sons, 1998.
- Norman, D. The Design of Everyday Things. MIT Press, 1998.
- Cooper, A. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. SAMS, 1999.
I.D., Communication Arts, How, interactions, Communications of the ACM, Mute, Wired
- Usableweb: www.usableweb.com
- CIO Magazine: www.cio.com
Post-it® notes, paper and pencil, Microsoft Word®, Microsoft PowerPoint®, Adobe Photoshop®, Inspiration®, HomeSite®
"Every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem. We want to put the context and the form into effortless contact or frictionless coexistence, i.e., we want to find a good fit." (Christopher Alexander)
Sources of inspiration
Jorge Luis Borges, Buckminster Fuller, Jared Spool on stage, Brenda Laurel, Edward Tufte, Howard Bloom, Felix the Cat, Vennevar Bush, Paul Auster, Elvis Costello, Bill Verplanck
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