How to

May 26, 2000

What. Many websites are visually stunning, but are total disasters in terms of user-friendliness and accessibility. Why. Web design is being led by 'creatives' who lack a grounding in usability, argues Christian Martyn Jones

How. Surfing at the front of the dot-com wave are the "new-media" types. These self-assured multimedia experts caught the wave and pipelined out of graphic design, advertising and television, smoothly landing on the sands of e-commerce success. The pony-tails once synonymous with PR and marketing have been replaced by bleached-blond crops and Oakleys, but it seems that they are still risk-takers along for the ride until the swell drops.

With the next generation marvelling at their creativity and showmanship, we - the interface life-savers - scan the horizon, waiting for the creatives to get into trouble, to drag them out and tell them they got in too deep. Though we may never be able to pull off the same tricks, we know that without us they may never have been able to do them in the first place.

Commercial organisations, however, are falling over themselves to snap up creative art graduates over the more traditional user-centred design experts. Not long ago, the corporate excuse for employing creatives was that it was better to have them yourself than let them work for rivals. Now it is not sufficient just to have a dynamic, idea-generating research and development team, so employers make these creatives directly responsible for their image, marketing, product design and web presence.

The positive impact in attracting end-users with stunning opening audio and visual sequences is not in doubt, but higher quality user studies and human-computer interaction are essential if users are to keep coming back.

Many creatives are fast-tracking out of art college into multimedia design teams, whereas computer science graduates with a good appreciation of human computer interaction are considered to lack the visual flair.

Neither group represents true, rounded multimedia designers. But while we wait for industry to realise the benefits of user-centred design in unlocking e-commerce, lecturers can mould the next generation of designers and equip them with an arsenal of visual assault toolkits, legal and tactical manoeuvres, humanitarian assistance, teamwork and effective communication protocols.

At Heriot-Watt University, we have created a multimedia course for MSc students that covers traditional multimedia theory and practical experience in human-computer interaction and design through hands-on design and seminar-style instruction.

Students come from backgrounds as diverse as heavy engineering, sciences, management, the media, languages, history, teaching and sociology. Some see themselves as artistic and creative, others see engineering and computer science as a vocation. Are these students seeking the same thing from multimedia design? Art-track graduates are asking us computer scientists to teach them how to use hardware capture devices, drawing, scripting, animation and presentation software. Computer science and engineering graduates are trying to gain insight into graphic communication and wish for some imaginary tick-list for producing creative media. Does either group believe that usability has any part to play in multimedia development?

Students with a computer-science background have a good appreciation of user-centred design issues. For these, we are extending their knowledge to consider real-world problems and procedures. For the others, we found that three-quarters had never heard of human-computer interaction. Half had been involved in interface design and web development either at a personal or professional level.

This is worrying because not only is the value of much web content dubious, but so is its presentation. By the end, all students agreed that it was important to cover such material, and we hope that when these students find jobs in multimedia design groups they will be able to educate those around them in the wider issues of good design and communication.

So how do we become more than a manual to the artistic students and an Ikea brochure to computer scientists? Who is going to be plucked from obscurity and ripened at Sony? Will art students ever be able to grasp hardware configurations, software plug-ins, and 3D modelling? Will computer-science students ever be able to compete with the halo effect of stunning visual and auditory opening sequences?

Whether arts students can be taught computer-based presentation is mostly up to the quality and delivery of our course. What is of added value is instilling an idea of creativity into those more used to creating instances of Java classes. Arts students are adept at looking at everyday life for ideas, whereas scientists tend to look through textbooks for worked solutions. As part of the design course, we suggest sources and encourage students to look elsewhere to promote their own creativity. We consider film direction and how effects can be used to promote emotion, in addition to ideas in performance art, dance and theatre stage design. We feel that by the act of immersing students into media that they would not normally see and providing some psychological cues behind the designs, we can begin to nurture the creative process.

We have also found that having such diverse talents working in groups provides a framework for cross-cultural diffusion of ideas, while allowing formal guidance in user-centred design.

Are we the right people to be teaching multimedia? Growing up with the home computer market and intimately familiar with Lara Croft; reading Bizarre and FHM as well as New Scientist; and holidaying in Ibiza and teleconferencing with the United States: we should be the new young, dynamic and creative computer-science lecturers "licensed to teach multimedia". We can edit digital images, script and video, animate and enrich our interactions with cute cultural reference. The goal is to keep up with not only the pace of technology but also creativity.

But it is also noticeable that the students have benefited from the same "generation media overload" as "us", the new-media lecturers. They are more accommodating of new ideas and have a greater facility to be creative. However, they were not born with an appreciation of user interaction and initially get it wrong before seeing the light.

Each of our design project groups has significant creative input and sufficient software and coding capabilities to produce a good multimedia application, if initially little grasp of principles of human-computer interaction in order to make it effective and successful.

After addressing a user study, storyboarding the prototypes and discussing interaction, we notice a pilot-light of appreciation for user-centred design being lit. They are no longer creatives or programmers, but instead rounded multimedia developers, specialised in having more general skills.

Invariably some students think they know better. We, as instructors, must sit back and let them them realise what is hot and what is not. But it is better that they get flamed within the safety of academia and thus appreciate the importance of user-based interactive media, than continuing to let them perpetuate poor design in the real world of corporate multimedia software design and e-commerce.

Christian Jones is a lecturer with the department of computing and electrical engineering at Heriot-Watt University, researching and teaching in human-computer interaction, multimedia design, speech analysis and communication within virtual environments.

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