Testing the Materials

Jared Spool

July 14th, 2005

A friend who is an excellent artist invited me into her studio a little while ago to see some of the work she’s done. She showed me some amazing stuff, but the work that really caught my attention was a still life that she had repeatedly drawn 34 separate times.

She had traditionally used oils and acrylics in her work, but was now experimenting with pastels and charcoal. To really understand how these new tools work, she embarked on an ambitious project to see what was easy and what was hard. She chose a vase of flowers and proceeded to draw them over and over again, each time varying little things, like how she held the charcoal or how much pressure she applied when drawing.

It was this act of “testing the materials” that made her comfortable to take on more adventurous stuff. Without this period of experimentation, she could not have produced work she would be happy with, just because she didn’t have the experience of using the new materials.

As user interface designers, we do exactly the same thing when we’re faced with a new technology. The first thing we need to do is test the boundaries of our abilities and see what the tools can do. However, we have to make sure that, through all this testing, we’re still giving our users interfaces that meet their needs and minimize frustration.

For example, when the Flash development environment became available, designers needed to experiment and really understand what could be done. They produced all sorts of interfaces, some good and some bad. As time went on, we began to understand what made a good one work well and what made the bad ones work poorly. (For those of you who are interested in this, Christine Perfetti and Matthew Klee wrote a report on just this topic back in 2001.) Today’s Flash interfaces are typically far more usable than the early ones, when we were still testing the materials.

The same is happening now with new technologies, such as Ajax and Eclipse. We need to experiment with these technologies to see what works and what doesn’t. A lot of what we learned with Flash still seems to be true, but these new technologies bring new challenges, so we still have a lot to learn.

Ajax is the topic of this week’s UIEtips featured article. Joshua Porter has steadily been watching the evolving world of Ajax development and paying attention to how designers are testing the materials. As we learn more about what people are doing with this evolving technology, we’ll be talking about what designers need to know to ensure they produce a quality interface for their users without wasting time or frustrating their customers.

Are you experimenting with Ajax and other new technologies? What are your experiences? Good? Bad? What lessons have you learned? We’d love to hear what you’re discovering.

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