Visual vs. Usable Seminar

Last night, GSI Commerce hosted a seminar for AIGA Philadelphia and Phi Chi (the Philadelphia branch of the ACM SigCHI) members, along with Avenue A/Razorfish. The topic was The Visual vs. The Usable, and we were presenting two cases of how we managed to mesh top-notch creative with functional, usable design. Avenue A/Razorfish did the same, talking about how the two groups – often at odds – collaborated on projects to create a better end result.

We started the presentation, after a short pregame, by presenting on Dick’s Sporting Goods and Toys “R” Us, and how we had managed to design and develop both sites in less than 100 days. Doing so required an unprecedented – at least for GSI – amount of collaboration and concurrent development.

I can’t say that we didn’t have our debates between design and creative, but I have to admit that they were all settled amiciably, if not necessarily with my/us being right all of the time. It did show me – a person used to either a) being overruled by people with no clue what they were doing or b) doing everything from soup-to-nuts – how the two could work together effectively. I got insight into how the designers were approaching this project – rich media, immersive graphics and lots of wow factor. For them, working with me to see how I saw the interface working – moving links and buttons to be more directed, simplifying some of the more flashy navigation – made them look at what they were creating graphically. The designs were undoubtedly killer – but I saw some places where the user experience needed to be tweaked.

For the Toys “R” Us team, it was more of a homogenized effort – a much smaller team which were working intensely to get a launch done. They had much more cross-pollination and had started with a lot more cross-training (the lead IA had design background, and the Art Director had also done site design), which helped them with a headstart on the process. Because of their cross-training, they were able to quickly and effectively come to decisions that met the deadline.

Avenue A/Razorfish spoke about their system and how they went about colloborating. On the surface, their methods weren’t dissimilar to ours; however, their methodology was unique – more of a deconstructive approach to the elements and then putting them back together. Whereas we used dual paths and cross and combined, they seemed to follow a more back-and-forth iterative stance.

As a whole, the attendance was spectacular. We were expecting decent attendance, but were astonished by the greater than standing-room-only attendance (the estimate was about 180 people). Some small technical snafus aside, the presentations – and the topic – were generally well-received and our speakers received some well-deserved kudos (I can’t really speak to how the others were received, as I wasn’t really around them at the end).

The topic seemed to be a hit – and maybe because it’s one of my mantras, fairly obvious to me. Hopefully it made some impact on those who attended (about 2/3 of which were graphic designers) about how the colloboration could be a positive experience for both sides and eventually for the client. Now, we just need to figure out how to get the creative and design teams to work effectively with the programmers in the same manner…

You can see pictures of the event, courtesy of Kyle Pero.


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