Design to Usability: Haven’t we crossed this bridge before?

by May 21, 2004

A recent wave of new “design vs. usability” articles has got me thinking: why are we arguing about this again? In 2000, Curt Cloninger wrote that Usability experts are from Mars and graphic designers are from Venus and Sarah Horton countered that Beauty is Only Screen Deep. Now we have the same arguments popping up in mailing lists and Web zines. I thought we were all getting along! What happened?

Like all good researchers, we need to move up a level in order to understand what’s responsible. In this case, let’s move up from the execution of products (where design and usability intersect) and think about the business models that support those products. If we think in terms of Donald Norman’s product development diagram (and I often do), products rest on a business case which guides their development. During the dot-com boom unique business models reigned supreme: cross-disciplinary teams huddled together and put aside their differences for the greater glory of the product. Engineers and designers sat together and corporate structures were frequently slashed and burned. We all know what happened next. As the market tanked, traditional business models and corporate structures quickly took over and engineers and designers were put back into their boxes.

Now it seems the market is swinging again, the dot-com age’s prophecies are slowly coming true, and we are beginning to see businesses take steps toward integration: bridging marketing, engineering, and user experience. The unfortunate truth is we threw out more than the dirty bath water after the boom. Corporate structures can breed innovation and guess what -usability & design, and art & engineering… they make great products.