Jan 4, 2009

Does Good Design lead to Good Decision-Making? An interview with Aaron Marcus

An interview with Aaron Marcus

How does significant information come to the surface of our attention, present itself in an orderly fashion, and enable us to make good decisions that affect our own lives and that may affect the lives of many others?

Effective personal, community, professional, national, and global decision-making is always there as a challenge.

Anyone’s current decision-challenge might concern whether I should reach for that next snack, in relation to my current cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and family medical history. Or, it might concern whether I should reach for that next email message among the 50 that have just arrived in the last half hour. It might concern which of 500 channels of media I should watch during the next 30 minutes of my life. It might concern whether I should deploy missiles targeted to certain positions where I have determined national threats to be located. Or, it might concern what strategic facts and personality traits of delegates around a conference table might enable me to make the right proposal to negotiate a peaceful resolution to a complex political conflict.

What the general public has little inkling of as yet is how much the glut will grow. Technology is developing the power and the bandwidth to enable all devices to communicate among themselves and with us in vast new networks, to enable each of us to become multimedia message senders to everyone else on the globe. Where does this lead? One direction is to an enormous growth of messages, to some of which we may need to respond. Imagine receiving news from your refrigerator about the fact that it ordered more of the milk you like from the local food delivery service, and that you need to have someone home to receive it tomorrow. This might be one among 100,000 messages that you might receive daily. This is not so unlikely a number. After all, Bill Gates told us two years ago that he was getting 4,000 messages per day. Fortunately, he has assistants to process the load. We need that kind of assistance, too.

What will help us to sift through this material? Smart filters, maybe. Smart aggregators of knowledge, maybe, to which we may be able to or are required to subscribe. But in the meantime, we are going to be burdened ‘more and more with much too much’, with too little time and attention to cope with all that technology enables.

Fortunately, a few professionals in the realm of knowledge visualization, knowledge management, and technology are thinking about how to improve things. One fundamental challenge that we have worked with is effective visualization of metadata, that is, data about data.

One way to ‘imaginate’ this challenge is to consider that in the very near future, it will be possible to review the details of about 100,000 pieces of music on your wrist-top device. Which one would you like to hear next? You may be asked to characterize your choices and to review a selection of potential winners … but there will still be 500 of them, all outstanding candidates, from which you may need/want to select the winner. And you have the patience or time for only a second or two to make a wise decision. You get the picture … or do we? Not yet. But we shall.

Of course, you can turn over decision making to someone or something else completely. However much we enjoy doing that some of the time, most of us don’t like doing that all of the time … especially designers.

What role will designers play in contributing to better decision-making?

Information designers can play a role in good decision-making if they are able to become involved with strategic decision-making. This ritual usually takes place among top management in an organization, even that of an entire country. For example, during the 1970s I was told that then Vice-President Rockefeller was dyslexic, and information had to be presented to him visually. His assistants involved graphic designers to prepare a special high-level visual summary of key indicators of the USA economy. This collection of information-visualization documents was considered so valuable to the general public, that someone had the bright idea to publish these documents, and a publication called StatUS appeared for several issues. Unfortunately, with the change of an administration, the publication ceased. At least for a short time, information designers and visualizers had an opportunity to affect some vital displays of important data.

Another example is the efforts of some information analysts and visualizers to improve the US tax forms (Siegel and Gale has had a major role in that effort), other government forms and decision-making graphics (David Sless, his group in Australia, and other information designers), and the attempts underway to improve the US voting forms as the technology changes. After the US election fiasco of November 2000, we, like other firms, redesigned the US ballot to improve its legibility and readability, and we even sent our designs to members of the Florida government. One might get discouraged from the lack of response, but I attribute that more from our own lack of time to do follow up and to push for attention among some appropriate government officials. Now seems an opportune time, with electronic voting machines coming into greater use, to push for information analysts and visualizers to have an impact on the user-interface design of such systems.

In another direction, there is some interest in the academic community of decision science to involve visual designers in the process. There are other signs that effective visualization of concepts is recognized as an important factor in bringing advanced technology to market. The fact that HP Laboratories’ Director for the Consumer Electronics, Mobile and Media Systems Lab hired us to help explain his advanced technology to key corporate stakeholders and third-party business-partner executives is an indication that some leaders recognize good information design. The proof is in the pudding: when HewlettPackard’s former CEO Carly Fiorina commented that she could finally understand what her team is proposing (because of effective communication of concepts, facts, user scenarios, and quick prototypes of user interfaces and documents), then we realized that we are witnessing a significant shift in the perceived value of information design and information ‘story¹selling’. The challenge for information designers is to get into the process at the right time and place.

What is User-Centered Design?

User-centered design means that designers need to understand users. Although we might consider ourselves smart, sophisticated, cultured, and experienced, sometimes we come up against situations in which we simply can’t guess what certain groups of people might do, want, or need. When we spent several years redesigning the Sabre travel booking system for travel agents, we invited two travel agents to live in our office half-time for a month so that we could understand their motivations and concerns better. We learned a lot about what made a significant difference to them. For example, we tried to show them what we thought were ‘cool’ information visualization techniques. They said they were nice, but not relevant to their key objective of booking flights as quickly as possible. This is not to say that we are slaves to users; rather, we try to listen to them, observe them, learn from them, and then apply best professional practices to meet their requirements as we’ve come to understand them from what they say as well as what they do.

We do the same with other key stakeholders in the product/service development process. Fortunately, in many cases, we don’t need to interview/observe thousands of people. Five to seven will do very nicely in many situations to obtain 80% of the important input.

Is the term User-Interface Design relevant?

Some people feel user-interface design connotes cosmetic or surface characteristics rather than the deeper issues. This is not true in terms of our approach the profession needs to focus on the business community. I am not certain how business people best will understand, or value, our expertise and experience. Perhaps the best thing we could do is to practice what we preach and do some kind of study to see how the business community views our collective practices and terms, then design some kind of approach (terminology, case studies, outreach) that best meets our needs to explain and convince them of our value. We might end up using some kind of terminology that we don’t even consider right now.

We tell applicants to our firm that they should be able to read, write, draw, think, speak, and play well. Usually, it takes a special kind of cross-disciplinary interest, skill, and experience to lead people to our kind of work and our firm. My own background in physics, philosophy, and graphic design are indicative of that blend of inquiry, playful conceptualizing, and disciplined practice.

The role of Cultural Differences

I believe that it is important to study different cultural attitudes regarding communication and use of tools for work and play. I’ve emphasized this theme since 1993. Recently, we’ve done studies to show how corporate Website standards are influenced by different cultural attitudes. For example, a collectivist country/culture will tend to show groups of people, while an individualist one will emphasize a single person. I think we’ll see differences in what’s popular and what remains popular based on some of these differences. Resources of information are available, including some of the white papers on our website.

Think upon this

One of the most challenging projects I’ve had was to explain in a ‘corporate storytelling presentation’ all of the major R+D projects of a major corporation’s research group (HP’s Laboratory for Mobile and Multimedia R+D) for consumer electronics, mobile, and media products/services. This project stimulated and demanded action from every neuron in our brains, just to understand all the technology, concepts, and implications, then to convey a coherent story, invent some use scenarios of the future, and design quickly some likely user interfaces for products and services about 5-10 years out. This was very exciting, challenging and stimulating.

Not everyone is interested in the fundamental challenges of information research, design, analysis, visualization, evaluation, documentation. We recognize that there are many other directions for talented individuals. However, we are convinced that the discipline of information design/visualization is fundamental to good education, to good business, to a good home life, to a good personal life, to a well-run democracy, to good government, to informing a public about its responsibilities and rights, to develop communities of interest that can take action to live better individually and collectively. The threads of information design/visualization run deeply and broadly through our sustainable ecology of media and ecosystems of civilization.

By the way, information is just one of the steps that begins with data. We define information as significant collections of data, knowledge as significant collections of information plus action plans that lead to effective decision-making, and wisdom as significant collections of knowledge plus experience in the real world.

Our objective is, in a sense, to improve globally our collective wisdom visualization (and sonification, and tactilization, of course) about our Earth, ourselves, and others, so that we can appreciate as well as we can the incredibly intricate and sustainable world we live in and ensure, through good thoughts, words, and deeds, that it prospers for as many of us as possible, for as long as possible.

To conclude, I would encourage young designers to become involved not only in worshipping at the altar of beautiful form, but also the altar of beautiful ideas. It requires that you hold membership in at least two synagogues, mosques, temples, or churches of thought and practice. This sometimes requires deft dancing between and among different professional cliques.

One More Thought

Young students are very worried, sometimes, whether they are making the Right Decision. At that stage of life, it is more about commitment, hard work, hard study, and openness to critiquing the results of one’s current experiments in ‘better living’. Life holds many unexpected changes, and one is usually not really locking into place anything fixed at that point. Life provides many surprises.

Once I thought I was going to be a physicist in a research lab at IBM. Then I worried that I might starve as a pauper in New York’s Bowery trying to be a painter. Then I discovered graphic design, and that I had been unconsciously preparing for this professional practice all of my earlier life through my interests and activities in publishing, journalism, cartooning, calligraphy and photography. I just had not known what to call it, or that there was a professional practice in which I could devote all of my emotional and cognitive energy. Later I stumbled into being a university professor and computer graphics researcher. Then I stumbled into becoming the head of a world-class design/analysis firm. Little of this was foreseen or planned. Fortunately, I could stumble, recover, start crawling, then walking, running, then flying, until the next phase starts things all over again.

In a world of global communication, instant contact with others of different cultures and circumstances, it is important to have some awareness of different protocols, semiotics, and attitudes toward information. When we are challenged to design the user interfaces and, in particular, knowledge visualization for the next generation of home media systems, personal medical information systems, vehicle displays, or corporate financial management systems, we want to be prepared as best we can.

For this reason, we’ve developed a library of documents from my past 40 years of professional practice and add to this in a number of key categories, like diagramming, culture, mobile systems, vehicle systems, etc. This library serves us in our work now and will help in our future projects.

2007 AIGA XCD Fellow Aaron Marcus is a visionary thinker, designer, and writer, well-respected in international professional communities associated with Web, user interface, human factors, and graphic design. The above was an edited version of an interview conducted by by Dirk Knemeyer in 2004.
Dirk Knemeyer is the CEO of Involution Studios, a software design company with clients including Apple, Microsoft and McAfee. He has written over 100 articles, given more than 50 speeches and presentations around the world, and participated on the Board of 10 corporations and not-for-profit organizations.

1 Comment

  • Thanks for the intresting post.

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