Simple and Usable: An interview with Giles Colborne

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  • An edited version of this interview appears in Chapter 3 of A Web for Everyone.

    Photo of GilesGiles Colborne is co-founder of cxpartners, a design consultancy specializing in strategy- and research-driven approaches for designing websites and web applications. With a rigorous practice of user research and usability testing, cxpartners creates simple, easy-to-use designs, paying particular attention to global accessibility.

    In his book Simple and Usable: Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design, Giles teaches the art and science of achieving simplicity in interface design. We wanted to learn from Giles how accessibility can impact a simple, purposeful design approach, and vice versa.

    Simplicity is good science, and good interface design

    Giles comes to interface design from a background in science. As a physics student, simplicity was impressed on him as the mark of good science. “The whole purpose of the scientific endeavor is to pack reality back down into a handful of equations.” He credits his background for his enthusiasm for approaching a seemingly complex interface challenge and seeking the path to the simplest solution. “It doesn’t strike me as paradoxical, it strikes me as rather beautiful that you can do that.”

    In practice, most interfaces we encounter don’t reflect Giles’ enthusiasm for simplicity. “People make software very difficult to use by loading on features.” The result is software that requires its users to practice and reuse the tool before they are able to become proficient.

    Giles uses kitchen gadgets to illustrate the simple and usable spectrum:

    On the one end you have a kitchen you need to wade through because you have a specialist tool for every task. On the other, you have a powerful, flexible, general-purpose tool, but you have to put in thought and time to become proficient with it. When people design software they tend create specialist tools or general-purpose tools. What we need are tools that fall into the happy medium.

    Simple designs put complexity in its place

    In one project, Giles worked on improving the interface for a travel planner. The software tapped into a vast store of data, of places to see and things to do. Each item had layers of related and potentially pertinent information, such as location, time to get there, time needed to visit, hours of operation, and more. The wealth of data powering the travel planner would allow for incredible accuracy, allowing users to plan their travel down to the minute. “When we put the interface together, it totally bombed. The app was constantly saying, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you haven’t done enough of this.’ It was so hard to use, and so unforgiving.”

    Giles went back to the drawing board and reworked the fundamental approach. Rather than have the software identify possible options, he had users create lists of locations and places that were of interest to them. The computer didn’t try to work out whether or not the itinerary was practical—though it did give people enough data to figure that out for themselves, if they wanted to. “People are good at imagining the future. Computers are good at remembering stuff. By handing off the task of imagining to the user and the task of remembering to the computer, it all worked out.”

    The initial software approach was feature rich, and resulted in what Giles calls “a magnificent soufflé” of an interface, in keeping with his kitchen metaphor. In seeking the happy medium of simple and usable, he needed to adjust the overall approach to better fit the nature of the task. “The process taught me a powerful lesson about where complexity belongs, who should own it.”

    Observe real people to learn what’s needed

    Giles’ practice is informed by user research. From his perspective, it’s not possible to create effective designs without learning from people. “You can’t make safe predictions about how things are going to work until you engage with the audience.” And engaging with real people, not through imagined personas or user stories.

    People fall in love with pen portraits of their users. Not their real users—the users they’d like to have: young, attractive, happy, active, outdoorsy, not distracted, completely able-bodied. When you bring real users to the testing and design process, the reality is that there’s much more variability.

    Giles finds that some of the greatest insights come from studying how people work in extreme circumstances. For one project, Giles investigated how people with ADHD manage their condition as a way of understanding more broadly how to design for distracted users. “Everyone operates under some kind of duress that degrades their performance, and yet we design stuff in nice quiet offices and reflect on the design and interface and take a long time discussing something that a user needs to do in a fraction of a second.” By asking therapists how people with attention issues manage to keep focus, Giles generalized simple and usable designs that would work for anyone who was distracted when using the software.

    Giles also does a great deal of testing with users across the globe. “We haven’t tested in Antarctica yet, but we’ve tested pretty much everywhere else.” Testing with global users yields insights that also resonate with accessibility. For example, creating a design that can adapt when changing the language from English to Chinese. The design must be flexible enough to enlarge the Chinese characters about 20 percent, so the many small details in the characters are legible. “That sense of flexibility in presentation is at the core of what you’re thinking about when you’re thinking about designing for accessibility.”

    Designing for multiple devices supports accessibility

    Given all he has learned from observing global users with a wide range of abilities, Giles does not believe it’s possible to create a single design that works for everyone. “Everyone who has a disability comes up with their own method for accessing technology. You can’t say, ‘Disabled people do this’, or, ‘This is what’s happening.’ In the end, we need to fall back on generalities, and design solutions that work for the maximum number of people.” However, new design approaches might change his thinking.

    In the past years Giles has seen significant change in how design is done, in large part due to the diversity of devices and platforms. In the past he would have done detailed wireframes and mockups before handing the design over to be coded. Now, to accommodate the full range of devices, design involves creating information hierarchies rather than layout of pages. Instead of Photoshop mockups, prototypes are done in code, with designs and layouts that respond to different viewports. He believes this change in practice may move us closer to designs that are simple and usable, for everyone.

    As soon as you start to think about how navigation appears on a small screen, you start to focus on information hierarchies that also work well for accessibility. On a small screen you don’t want navigation, and then you scroll down and there’s content. You want content and then scroll down and there’s navigation. And of course that’s what you want for a screen reader as well.  This discipline of designing for multiple platforms and environments makes you start to think in useful ways about accessibility.