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Part I: Foundations > Deconstructing the Problem: Prioritizing and Categorizing...

Chapter 3. Deconstructing the Problem: Prioritizing and Categorizing Different Aspects of an Interface

“Model (n): a simplified version of something complex used, for example, to analyze and solve problems or make predictions.”

The Microsoft Word Dictionary

Interface design is difficult. Inventing, describing, and constructing an interactive experience that reflects one’s core design values, harmonizes with users’ needs and abilities, and is practical to implement is one of the most challenging, complex problems in any field of design. A skilled interface designer brings together a print designer’s knowledge of visual communication, a movie director’s grasp of plot, an architect’s imagination for space, an anthropologist’s insight into human behavior, and a software engineer’s understanding of the technology.

Unfortunately, because the medium of interactive design is still in its infancy, particularly as it concerns the design of Web applications, the field lacks the structured academic training or proven methodologies associated with many other forms of design.

As a result of its youth, the field of interactive design has also become infused with a philosophy of trial and error: experimenting with different designs and observing users to see what did and didn’t work. Unfortunately, although direct observation of users is a vital part of the design process, its utility is primarily as a validation tool, not as a substitute for a skilled designer’s creative abilities and vision. In practice, substituting research and observation for creativity and vision is not only inefficient in terms of time and effort, it also virtually guarantees mediocrity.

Adding to the piecemeal understanding that research and direct observation provide, the field of interactive design has also been influenced by a steady stream of feedback from industry critics, pundits, and gurus. Unfortunately, such criticism is of limited use to the designer facing a difficult or unknown design problem. It would be as though a film student had only a movie critic as his instructor.

Regardless of the insight or accuracy of a critic’s commentary, a collection of observations, anecdotes, and interpretations of existing designs does little to aid a designer’s understanding of how the thousands of small choices work together to create a coherent whole. As a result, designers are left searching for quick fixes that will satisfy the critics or the latest user feedback without a true understanding of the medium’s mechanics or how to consciously control and manipulate it.

Because interface design is a complex, multi-dimensional problem, it requires a method for deconstructing the problem so that it can be solved in a conscious, consistent, and repeatable manner. By deconstructing the overall experience into a series of smaller, interrelated problems, it is possible to design with an understanding of each discrete element of the interface as well as its influence on the whole. An intelligent deconstruction of the problem also offers a consistent basis for prioritizing problems by placing them on the continuum of foundational to supporting.

In the fields of science, various types of models are typically constructed to understand and predict the workings of complex systems. These models serve as tools for analysis by representing complex phenomena in a simplified manner. This facilitates the understanding individual components and how those components affect and are affected by the whole. Even though science is largely based on trial and error, without these models, it is often impossible to isolate the effects of individual phenomena and thus impossible to predict large-scale trends or events.

Similarly, just as modeling complex systems has obvious benefits to scientists, models can also be useful to the creators of sophisticated forms of communication, such as cinema or interactive media.

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