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Web Design Annual 2001
Ishihara: Today, we would like to provide readers of "The Web Design Annual 2001" with some insights into areas that lie at the heart of Web design. To begin with, I would like to hear from both of you about the work that you are involved with.
Mok: The design work I am involved with has changed significantly over the last year. The shift is the results of the economy downturn created by the burst of the Internet bubble here in the United States. Projects and engagements that started out as Web initiatives have shifted into large information management endeavors dealing with B2B, CRM and ERP implementations. Clients are asking us to make what we've developed for them to work better. They are looking for ROI and tangible results. Consequently, it is no longer a matter of just looking at the graphical development aspect of Web design, designing websites requires a deep understanding of the technical architecture of various operating systems.
Designing for the Web must now take the functional requirements similar to that of software product design into consideration, so we spend a great deal of time understanding the feature sets and business rules required on each projects. We now have to think about the interdependencies of an information system. This new orientation makes designing a complicated endeavor.
Ikuta: I am running a company that does Web design. And I think the situation in Japan is the same as it is in the United States. Although Japan may be a little bit behind the times, I think business is finally coming around to realize that the Internet is an important part of doing business. The projects we work on are growing in size together with our staffing requirements. My own job involves managing the projects, and the database has become an extremely important factor in Japan as well.
Mok: Understanding databases have certainly become part of the design business, haven't they?
Ikuta: Yes, indeed. And for this reason, designers are experiencing a lot of confusion. Up until recently, the designer in Japan only had to concern himself with graphic design requirements. But there has been a sudden shift these days that requires more in the way of interface and creation of designs that incorporate highly technical elements.
Mok: The same kind of transition has been taking place in the United States. A couple years ago, it was the graphic designer who played the leading role in a project. They were the ones who decide how the Web site was to be created. The opposite is now happening; given the technical and economical constraints, technologists are now in the driver seats of Internet initiatives. The amount of graphic work is on the decline and there is a much greater need to design interactive functions. Increasingly, the role of the graphic designer has moved into the world of information design and is being referred to as an information architect. Graphic design is now considered as just one aspect of what goes into the actual design of a Web site, with the bulk of the work left in the hands of the information architect.
Ishihara: It seems to me that Japan is also moving in this direction. If possible, I would like to hear more detail on this subject because there are certainly some opportunities opening up with this kind of work. I would like to ask you what your initial impressions were when you first became aware of the Web.
Mok: I first got involved with the Internet in 1994. At that time, my company had just completed the user interface design work on the first release of the Microsoft Network. It was our first online project and it taught us how to work with tremendous technological constraints.
In the summer of 1994, we were asked to work a website for Rocket Science, an online game developer. In fact, we were one of the very few companies at the time that was doing this kind of work. Instead of working very hard to build relationships with well-known companies, all of a sudden large clients, began to approach us and offer us work and this happened very quickly. Within a short period of all inquiries were exclusively network-related. In 1993, half of our work consisted of print-based related — projects like corporate identity, book design, annual reports and such. Then in 1994 , digital projects such as CD-ROM and interactive television grew. In 1995 the ratio of digital work was 70%. By 1997, it reached approximately 80%, and in 1998 it was literally 100%.
When I talk about work related to the Internet, I don't mean just Web sites but also things such as the brands, trademarks and everything connected with business creation that appears on the Internet. It is amazing to reflect and see the change. It was not that long ago, the early 1990's, that one-third of the work we did was package design.
Ikuta: In Japan, your work at the time is also well known (laughs).
Mok: It's surprising to note that I am no longer doing package design work, which leaves me feeling nostalgic.
Ikuta: The same thing happened to us in Japan. Our first experience with the Internet occurred around 1994 but it did not seem like it would be something that business would make use of. What we were involved with was the production of CD-ROMs. But since we were busy creating interactive media, we had a great interest in the Internet. And even though there was not much happening in connection with business, we felt we wanted to get started with something in this area. When I got involved, I was expecting to be busy with setting up new media such as movies and still photos. But up until 1996, there was almost no work. We were just expressing what the Internet was. It wasn't until 1997 that there was enough of this kind of work available to make a living.
Mok: That was great, wasn't it?
Ikuta: Now we can make a living by devoting ourselves 100% to Internet-related work. And as mentioned earlier, in Japan it is possible to work together with big companies. Offers now come in from big companies. It used to be the case that the big companies did not come to us directly without going through agencies. But direct approaches, which were something we could not imagine in earlier times, is now happening with the business we get on the Internet.
Mok: This must have been a great shift for Japanese designers ... the Internet must have opened up plenty of new opportunities. The same type of change happened here in the United States. The rate of change has really speeded up lately to the point where there is not enough time to keep up with training and knowledge acquisition. So whenever we bring in a new designer, there is a need to give them training. There is no shorthand method for learning design. It is something that only comes about by practice. So right now, I think the best thing to do in order to maintain professional standards is to spend more time giving explanations and assistance to students who are studying design.
Today's students are learning about the technical aspects about design. Things are moving so fast, students are not getting enough practical design experience. In order to move forward we have to do more in the way of providing assistance to the schools and other places where new skills are taught to foster designers in this field. The schools are way behind in understanding what is going on in this new area, and I suppose the situation is the same in Japan, isn't it?
Ikuta: That's right. The situation is the same where I work. Design is the most difficult thing to teach. It's hard to tell people what this is about because they are generally lacking sufficient maturity in the field. And the other part, which is the business side, is more than just the Internet. So while there is some maturity here, there are also many aspects of design that are completely new. Things are moving so fast that we don't have enough time for study and being able to teach what we know to others.
Mok: This is a chronic problem in the States. There was this insatiable need for designers to work on web projects. Companies hired designers indiscriminately — people with or without training. Anyone who knows their way around HTLM codes and Photoshop can be a designer. The Internet and designing for the web has made design visible and important to business. But this indiscriminate use of design will be the biggest source of our problems when it comes to credibility for the profession over the long term.
Ishihara: These days, is there anything that is attracting special attention? I mean, what is the trend these days?
Mok: One of the areas that is popular in Japan is linking cellular phones to the Internet. Accessing the Internet from a cellular phone is something we don't see in the United States. Japan seems to be leading the way in design for interfacing the cellular phone with the Internet.
Ikuta: I don't think this is so much a design problem but has more to do with the national character of the country. It just doesn't seem to be catching on in the States whereas it is very popular here in Japan. I get lots of email sent from cellular phones. In fact, about 10% of these messages are coming from cellular phones, which involves inputting the text using the 10 keys on the phone unit. PC use in Japan is not as widespread as it is in the United States, and there are still a lot of people who are first-time PC users. The number of people without PCs is also much higher. So the situation in Japan is completely different from what it is in the USA. A great number of people in Japan own cellular phones and have gotten started with email use through this medium. For people in their 20's, more than half are using email in this way, and the figure for high school students is very close to 100%.
Mok: 100% you say? In the USA, what you will find instead is the pager, or "pocket beeper" as some call it. Pager only allows messages to be sent and received, so it is not quite the same thing. So more than likely, I can see how it hasn't caught on in Japan to the same degree.
Ikuta: As I mentioned, I think it is a matter of cultural difference. I don't think you would find much use for these things here in Japan.
Ikuta: It seems there is no problem with things being bigger. I'm watching the PDA area with interest with things like the Palm. I am interested in how this area will develop.
Mok: During the last 2 or 3 years or so, the Palm Operating System and Palm Pilot adoption have quickly grown in popularity. These days, however, it has been quiet and steady. The reason for this is the succession of new products such as Visor and Windows CE . There is now a broader array of products to choose from. So although the rate of growth in popularity has not been as great as it used to be, it is still continued growth nonetheless. The explanation for this is simple. Carrying around a PDA has become something of a social phenomenon, slowly but surely. I, myself, would like to be able to lug around a laptop computer but have ended up carrying a PDA and cellular phone instead. I am still deciding how I like this (holding the cell phone). I think it depends on the particular area. People on the West Coast are carrying PDA's while in other areas the laptop still seems to be the item of choice.
This is something that I am interested in, but in Japan, when it comes to making use of interactive information technology, is it a matter of using a single device or using multiple devices?
Ikuta: In Japan, the most common situation is using a single notebook type for both company and private purposes. But still in companies, there are few that are set up with a system that allocates each person his or her own work unit. Due to the limited amount of table space, the notebook types have become much more common as a result.
Mok: It looks like you will have to buy Apple's new PowerBook (laughs).
Ikuta: You're right about that! (laughs) Although there is that kind of business base, in Japan, a certain group of users have a lot of PC systems. Ordinary people who like the PC or those who spend a lot of time on the Internet tend to buy a lot of equipment and like to have new things such as the Palm or WindowsCE. Because they seem to love these things, they seem to have a lot of them. And when it comes to liking expensive things, Japan has something of a mania in this regard. In the United States, on the other hand, the same kind of mania might manifest itself in the form of inexpensive, do-it-yourself things. The Japanese tendency is to lean to the high end of the market, preferring to buy things that are expensive and new. This is why low-end models such as Dell and Gateway have had little success penetrating the Japanese marketplace.
Mok: But aren't companies like Sony and others are selling cheap laptops in Japan?
Ikuta: Of course. There are a number of minor companies that have come out with inexpensive laptop computers. This should come as no surprise because the number of people in Japan buying PCs is on the increase these days. While the numbers are certainly on the rise in Tokyo and Osaka, still, the numbers are not really that great. There are outlets in Akihabara that are specialized in this area but they represent only a small fraction of the total.
Mok: There is certainly a big difference in the way we look at the tools we use, isn't there?
Ikuta: We are hearing a lot of talk about connecting to the Internet in ways that do not involve the PC. While this can be very convenient, the designers are saying that doing the design work for this sector is proving to be difficult. I think we are coming into a very difficult time when it comes to making a decision about what represents the best approach to design.
Ishihara: The conversation seems to have turned to design, so I would like to ask you both something about this topic. Mr. Mok, we can talk about either you or the company designers. When you design, what do you think is the most important consideration now?
Mok: Technology continues to change, and we are applying new skills, processes, techniques and methodologies. But what forms the single basis of our design philosophy is being focused on the user. This means concentrating on what is both useful and user friendly at the individual level whether it is a Web site, CD-ROM or a package. Being centered on the user means creating the criteria that determines how a design should express and manifest itself. To use an example, if we are talking about something like a paperclip, we want it to be both useful and something that can be used. This kind of thinking is what was underpinning the design work I was doing in my former business. And I still live by this basic rule in the design training work I do now. So I continue to move forward.
Then there is the need for something to be attractive. This means being able to satisfy an emotional component and compel. And this is something that can't be measured very effectively. But this is also an essential component because whether something is fun and exciting determines whether the experience is one that is emotionally compelling. When you talk about interactivity, if something lacks the quality of being attractive, a person will not go back and access the experience for a second time. I believe that, in truth, design can bring a lot in this regard.
So this is what forms the basis of my design philosophy — making something that is useful, making something that can be used and making something that is attractive. At the individual level, I, myself, maintain this basic philosophy in the forefront of my mind when designing. What is important is developing an understanding of how to connect with people and how we are related to them. This is my personal philosophy of design.
As to the question whether design must be changed, I'd have to say "Yes" based on what we are talking about. A good example is one of our projects involving the Web site for United Airlines. Here, United Airlines don't want to make changes all the time because what is important for determining the attractiveness of this Web site is whether it is consistent and effective. But at the same time, this is something that must be looked at when handling design that is supposed to be user-centered. While something might certainly be interesting, this by itself may not be enough. Other considerations are the context, text and type of attractive quality. And, of course, there is the actual writing as well.
There is something that can be referred to as the "taxonomy" of attractiveness. It is a series of words used to express how we interpret a theme that is given by a classification. But this is something that designers themselves are not able to define with any precision and, consequently, cannot explain to the client. Nevertheless, we designers have to do what we can to persuade the client. The word "taxonomy" is not about taxes. It refers to classifications in biology. Here it is used to refer to classifications of attractiveness, and right now, it is something that does not exist. There is a risk in trying to create a science from art, so we have to make sure that when we design it is for communication purposes. We don't want to redo this in such a way that results in the destruction of the art.
Ikuta: This is an area where I have a little trouble when giving instructions. We can easily use the different types of switches and buttons on video players, radios and TVs without having to read an operation manual because it is easy to understand. And there is a clear need for a TV while Web sites are not necessarily essential things. So in order to motivate the user to access a Web site, there has to be something attractive about it in the first place. But how much is enough? Spending too much energy on how to gain entry will result in losing the ease of use. In other words, there seems to be some contradictory factors at work here. What do you think about this?
Mok: The elements of usefulness and usability are a single set. And then there is the element of attractiveness. The challenge we face in the design profession is to find an appropriate blend of these two basic factors. It's a matter of trying to find something that transcends attractiveness, and in order to bridge the gap between these two factors to find a point of balance means to see what is appropriate from the standpoint of the user. This represents the limit on what it is possible to bear, but there are those times when what we are asked to do is too much. So we have to constantly watch for the point where the burden exceeds the limit.
We try to find a method that fuses these two components. This is a requirement for design and serves as a model for understanding the user. We have to understand the user and see things the way the user does, understanding how people think from an ordinary perspective to create a model providing for user experience. It is great to understand that people have this way of thinking and what things are. This is definitely the best situation. Questions such as who the user is, what they expect, what they think of this topic — in other words, making a model of experience — is research that is helpful.
Ikuta: Many designers with ability, especially those who are very talented artistically, cannot put themselves in the shoes of the user. When I look at you, Mr. Mok you seem to have found the fine balance between the designer side and the user side. How have you been able to do this?
Mok: I haven't. I think I only really learned after failing on a number of occasions. Before, I had a lot of confidence but that wasn't entirely correct. And I have had humiliating failures in the past. But after experiencing failure, I learned I have to see things through the eyes of the user. This is all the result of having failed. I think the most important thing for a person to do is to admit when they have made a mistake.
Ikuta: When it comes to the Internet, it is really easy to see the difference between success and failure because the results come quickly. But I feel that there aren't many people who can readily accept this fact when it happens.
Mok: After a number of failures, I think a person becomes able to develop a formula for the user, the customer and the designer. I learned a lot of these lessons from working with interactive television. I still make mistakes, but when it comes to Internet projects, at least the number of mistakes I make now is not so great. I made a lot of mistakes in working with interactive television and in the initial stages of online projects, but I was also able to learn a lot from these failures.
Ishihara: When there is a failure, it is necessary for designers working on the Internet and the Web to accept this fact.
Mok: Everybody has experienced failure at one time or another (laughs).
Ishihara: So it is your opinion that failure is the road that leads to success. This is an encouraging comment. I think a lot of our readers are either just about to get started or have already gotten started. Please tell these newcomers to the design profession where you think they should concentrate their studies.
Mok: In short, a person has to study in order to become a designer. The ability to understand and visualize is important if one hopes to become a talented designer. As a designer, a person has to polish the basics of design. To do this, one has to know more than just about a Web site. It involves learning various other things such as business, art, photos and the facilitation of a conversation, to name a few. These are important for accumulating knowledge and valuable experience. The Web and the Internet are temporary in nature. Nothing is really ever finished and things are always changing. So one has to wonder what will eventually become of the people who have entered into the world of the Internet doing Web site production and design when a Web site ceases to exist.
I think most designers lack flexibility. They tend to think that once something is finished, it is time to move on to the next project. But there is one important thing to remember — nothing that anybody designs is permanent. In other words, it is like something that is organic in nature and constantly changing. Designing a garden has a lot of points in common with what a Web designer does when working on a biological or organic system because there are a lot of variables that must be taken into consideration. For example, designing a garden is the same as designing within an ecosystem. While this may be different from ordinary design work, please think of it as first involving the design of the scenery and then design of the graphics.
Ikuta: I think that the base for an ability to design is exceedingly important. Although technical aspects are changing, without a basic ability to design nothing will be possible. And when looking at pages where the amount of text is large, they are pages without photos or other visual graphics. This makes it very easy to understand what basic skill the person actually has. Designers who can make pages attractive only with typography have a lot of advantages.
Ishihara: Mr. Mok, as a concluding remark, would you please give a few parting words of advice to Web designers.
Mok: I would ask that they do good work. This is important for developing credibility for the profession. Right now, the Internet is in need of designers. Saying this again, the designer is in a position to understand the situation from the standpoint of the user. The design experience is not one of artistic expression, and a designer cannot gain credibility from artistic expression alone. So I think that doing good work and earning the respect of the user are truly important things. If designers can do this, the Internet will become a far more interesting place to be. For so many years now, I have seen design work done by engineers, and this is fine. I can't say that there is really anything wrong with this but if design skills can be joined together with superior engineering, some pretty amazing things will become possible.
Ishihara: Thank you both very much today.
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