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Please make me think! Are high-tech usability priorities backwards? Ornament Oct 10th, 2004

[Note: This is an updated and edited version of the original article that appeared on Design by Fire. This version was edited by Linda Jorgensen of The Editorial Eye and appears in the April 2006 issue.]

A few simple questions: Should designers be bound by some ethical mantra to make their work deeper, more thoughtful, and more complex rather than to aim for the lowest common denominator of a user base?

Should designers require users to think instead of allowing them to glide thoughtlessly through Web sites, software, or other electronic products ?

Should every control and widget be labeled explicitly?

Should every set of instructions be aimed at the most inexperienced user?

Should everything be so damned obvious all of the time?

To be even blunter: Is the push of professionals in the design and usability fields to make everything more obvious counterproductive to the world at large?

Before we explore that question, let’s take a step back and look at a larger issue that provides some context for this line of questioning.

A culture of quick ‘n’ easy

Many of us in the design field go out of our way to give people what they want, and what most people want from design these days is what they want from all the other things they consume: speed and convenience.

Consider grocery stores. Advancements in mass production and distribution of food have been so successful that most people have no idea what it means to slaughter their own animals or grow their own vegetables to eat. We dine blissfully unaware of the conditions surrounding our own means for survival, inherently trusting the beef we eat comes from cattle that were raised well.

Consider the automobile industry. Driving a car is even easier given how well crafted vehicles have become. Further, it’s a snap to pull into a gas station and simply fill up the tank, with nary a thought about the damage you are causing the planet and future generations of humans.

Consider our culture. Journalism? Movies? Books? They pander to our worst instincts. Television and print news sources favor sound bites over substance and critical analysis. Simplistic character arcs and blockbuster-formula plots favor exploitative sex and violence. One doubts the lasting value of media contributions in the past century.

We make things easy to use, do, digest and process, getting what we want regardless of the cost to ourselves or the planet. The question is when will it all come home to roost?

I am guilty of all I’m questioning; I fight being overweight but exercise rarely. I love to shop at the grocery store for meat, poultry, wine, veggies and snacks like everyone else. I think nothing of driving my car and consuming obscene amounts of gasoline every year. I love crappy reality television shows and read mindless fiction. I’m about as lazy as it gets in certain aspects of my life.

But should it be so easy to be lazy and pleased?

Wouldn’t we be better off if we had to work harder to get a steak? Or buy gasoline? Or to communicate important messages? To really be brutal about this little thought experiment, wouldn’t the gene pool be advanced if only those who think survived and those who fail to think fell behind?

Setting user priorities

Some of you may catch the pun in this article’s title, but I don’t want it to be misinterpreted. I’m not criticizing or attacking Steve Krug. I have a lot of respect for his contribution to the design and usability world. However, the title of his book, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, suggests a major goal of usability that might be a dangerous approach to design in practice. Oversimplification might be diminishing users’ capabilities in attempting to make everything so obvious.

A more accurate portrayal of Krug’s thesis is also less glib: Designers need to use common sense. They need to resist a fascination with the arcane intricacies of their own work—intricacies that will foist unnecessary burdens on the people who will use a product Instead, such things as user interfaces and tools should offer straightforward utility.

However, the title of Krug’s book doesn’t say “use common sense and help users.” It explicitly says the goal of design is “don’t make users think”— an imperative that has been dispersed throughout the design and usability community at large.

When designing interfaces, my goals are to make a product work as efficiently as possible first for the repeat, more experienced user; then for the novice; and finally for inexperienced or infrequent users. That’s the order that makes the most sense when designing products that will pass the test of time.

Many times, though, I’m asked to reverse my approach – to make everything more obvious so inexperienced users are appeased first. I often find myself giving in to that request, even though I think it is the incorrect approach to designing sustainable products. Conducting my own informal inquiries in the design community yields that this now seems to be the common trend. If unchallenged, this trend in high-tech design could become be the equivalent of all the other spoils of modern advancements that, in many ways, largely hurt people over the long term.

How so? What if one equated the current trends in the usability field to the fast-food and junk-food industries which, in satiating people’s desire to eat large amounts of processed, cheap food made in minutes instead of sitting down to the dinner table to eat well-prepared meals slowly and with less stress, have contributed to the obesity crisis. In the case of software and the web, the goal of making everything so obvious and easy is contributing to their general lack of understanding of technology itself, which surfaces as a lack for how to use computers responsibly in everyday work.

How many times have entire companies been brought to a grinding halt because users don’t realize that clicking on applications inside email exposes them to harmful viruses? How many times have you seen someone click a link inside a fraudulent email aimed at getting users to enter sensitive personal information?

Using a computer shouldn’t be as hard as piloting a 747 jumbo jet airliner. And yet, if a computer truly becomes a primary appliance in our lives like the automobile has, a product that is relied on by large segments of our population to store and process mission critical and sensitive data, why shouldn’t we require people to learn how to use the machine appropriately, even to buy something as simple as a book?

The standard escapes – does that matter?

If Darwin came back with a vengeance to show us all a thing or two about how evolution really does work, a lot of us would more than likely be on the firing line. I know I would be. And yet, as a designer, I find myself buying into the mandate to design everything so it’s obvious—so people aren’t asked to take the time to learn or think about what it is they are using.

At times when doing this, I feel I’m pandering to the worst traits in people, promoting the uglier side of mass consumerism. Yet I still do it. I still aim for that low target. I still drink the “don’t make me think” Kool-Aid. These days, I find myself wondering: Is it the right thing to do?

The easy answer is that there’s obviously a balance.

But here’s the important thing to remember: Imagine sitting in your car. Now imagine signs printed with explicit instructions that explain every single control in your car – a sign explaining to you how to use the steering wheel to turn left and right, a sign reminding you to look in your rearview mirror, instructions pointing to the sun visor to protect your eyes during sunset, a bright LED sign that fed you reminders of all the things you had to do – so many signs that the windshield becomes a tiny porthole you peer through at a fraction of the road ahead.

At some point, designers have to recognize that making things too obvious, too explicit, or explained to the point of excess will invariably block out what’s most important for users: recognizing where they are, seeing what’s ahead and maybe anticipating what may be gaining on them.



Standards rant

Repeat after me Separator Standards do not block, impede or otherwise hinder innovation. Businessmen, engineers or product managers who only care about how they want to implement technology or only care about their own bottom line are the ones doing the real damage in the larger economic picture.

Design by Fire strives to be as standards compliant as humanly possible in spite of the fact that those in charge of developing the technology, the browsers and the operating systems can't seem to to code to the W3C specification with 100% compliance.

However, even though I'm a firm believer in standards, I'm beyond sick and tired of trying to figure out what works and what does not work according to the W3C specification. So while I make every attempt to do the right thing, occasionally I'll just do what I have to get the thing working. In other words, if you run any Design by Fire URI through a code validator and find invalid markup or css, please don't bother sending me an email.

With that little rant out of the way, here are some good articles about the benefits of web standards.

And of course, there's Zeldman's Designing with Web Standards, which is easily one of the best reads from both a practical and technical point of view on the subject.

All of these sources discuss simplification of code, rapid development, smaller file sizes, faster download times, better accessibility for a larger set of users, easier code maintenance and platform scalability - all benefits of standards at a technological level. There's also some ROI discussion on using standards.

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Andrei Michael Herasimchuk

Updated 2010 Separator The quick and dirty summary is that I am largely considered one of the first official interface designers hired by Adobe Systems. That is, the first one hired to do nothing but interface design across the professional product line. I worked personally on the interfaces for Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe InDesign.


One of these days, I'll convince Adobe's legal eagles to let me write a book about all that I have been through while working on those products. I just doubt they'll agree to it in my lifetime. Until, then you'll have to be satisfied with the History of Photoshop, an article written by a long-time friend of mine, Jeff Schewe.


Director, Design Team bullet Twitter
March 2011 - Present

Sr. Director of Product Design
Applications bullet Yahoo!
September 2009 - March 2011

Chief Design Officer, Co-Founder bullet Involution Studios
July 2004 - September 2009

Project Lead, Adobe Lightroom bullet Adobe Systems
December 2002 - June 2004

Director, User Interface bullet ePeople
April 2001 - December 2002

Director, User Interface bullet Impresse
January 2000 - April 2001

Director, User Interface bullet Mambo.com
August 1999 - January 2000

Senior User Interface Designer bullet Adobe Systems
August 1995 - July 1999

Co-Founding Member, Director bullet Specular Int'l
June 1990 - August 1995


Having the opportunity to work on Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom has given me a chance to explore photography in way I would not have had access to otherwise. You can find samples of all my personal work on this web site, and unless otherwise noted, everything here is photographed by me.

For a short period of time, I was exploring a screenwriting career. I had a script optioned by Hyde Park Entertainment (a division of MGM), a studio that has since gone under. I even had an agent in Beverly Hills for a short period of time.

I enjoy playing poker on the side and find the game infinitely fascinating. I have made the final table in a few bigger tournaments. One at The Hall of Fame Poker Classic and the other at the Bay 101 Open, but no World Series of Poker bracelet for me yet. I have had the opportunity to play against some world-class poker professionals and have gotten crushed by them.

In my off time I play bass guitar and far too many video games.

Publications and Awards

Industry Awards bullet 1995-2000
Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign have won far too many awards than is possible to list here.

The History of Photoshop bullet February 2000
An article written by Jeff Schewe for Photo Electronic Imaging Magazine. This covers the history and development of Photoshop. A copy of this article can be found here in PDF format. You can also find another copy on Jeff's web site, Schewe Photography.

Design Graphics, Cover Story bullet June 1999, Issue 46
This article covered the work I did on the redesign of the professional product line while at Adobe.

Collage with Photoshop bullet 1994
This book features 14 digital artists using Photoshop and Specular Collage. I'm only mentioned in the prologue, but the book was created to promote Collage and what digital artists were doing with it at the time. I'm still fairly proud about the book and the work produced inside of it.


Amherst College bullet 1989 to 1990
Left Amherst College to start Specular Int'l

The Hill School bullet 1984 to 1988
College preperatory school.


andrei@designbyfire.com bullet To avoid getting tagged by my spam filter, be sure to create a meaningful subject line.

Colophon and other details

Design by Fire v4.0 Separator A quick overview of the design and implementation of DxF for those who care about such details.

Browser Support

If you are viewing Design by Fire in either Firefox or Safari, congratulations! You are experiencing Design by Fire in the manner it was intended. If you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 or less, you have my sympathies as you are getting a version slightly less dynamic. The reason for that is due to Microsoft's lack of support for the CSS property "position: fixed;" plus a few other things.

Get Firefox

Bottom line, Internet Explorer promises to fix these things in version 7, so in the meantime you can either download the beta for IE7 or switch to Firefox.


If you have purchased the Adobe Creative Suite, you should have Helvetica Neue installed in your font library. If so, then you are reading Design by Fire as it was intended to be read. For everyone else, you are either seeing Lucida Grande or Arial.


Clearly, Helvetica Neue is far superior.

As for the logotype of Design by Fire, it's set using the classic Bodoni typeface, complete with ligature for that extra flourish.

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Copyright Information

Design by Fire is ©copyright by Andrei Michael Herasimchuk. All rights reserved.

You may not use any material, articles, logos, essays, technical illustrations, photos or any content from this site without expressed written permission.

Design articles

This page intentionally left blank Bullet Oct 31st, 2008

Keeping up with the Joneses Bullet Aug 16th, 2007

Introducing Spivot Bullet Mar 5th, 2007

The unfortunate death of Helvetica Bullet Oct 23rd, 2006

An Open letter to John Warnock Bullet Aug 28th, 2006

Convenient Lessons from An Inconvenient Truth Bullet Aug 2nd, 2006

The kids aren’t alright Bullet Jul 17th, 2006

The Culture of Fugly Bullet Jun 25th, 2006

Please make me think! Are high-tech usability priorities backwards? Bullet Oct 10th, 2004

Rebranding the World Wide Web Consortium Bullet Sep 30th, 2004

You say toe – may – toe, I say [expletive] that Bullet Aug 17th, 2004

Gurus v. Bloggers, Round 2 Bullet Jun 20th, 2004

Design Eye for the Usability Guy Bullet May 18th, 2004

Et tu, Brute? Bullet May 6th, 2004

I would RTFM if there was an FM to FR Bullet Apr 30th, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part III Bullet Apr 27th, 2004

Gurus v. Bloggers, Round 1 Bullet Apr 9th, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part II Bullet Mar 31st, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part I Bullet Mar 29th, 2004

Redesigning Google’s search results page Bullet Jan 25th, 2004

Lifestyle articles

Welcome to the new school, same as the old school. Bullet Jun 19th, 2006

Bubble Boy at the Bay 101 Shooting Star Bullet Mar 1st, 2004

Beginner’s Tips for Poker Bullet Jan 31st, 2004

Crucial mistakes against Scotty Nguyen Bullet Dec 10th, 2003

Photography articles

Santorini in black and white Bullet Jun 17th, 2004

Santorini in red Bullet Jun 9th, 2004

Santorini in blue Bullet Jun 8th, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part III Bullet Apr 27th, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part II Bullet Mar 31st, 2004

The Art Center Design Conference, Part I Bullet Mar 29th, 2004

Party like it’s 1999 Bullet Jan 10th, 2004

An Oakland Rave Bullet Jan 10th, 2004

Random favorites from the shoebox Bullet Jan 10th, 2004

Portraits of Donna and Alexa Bullet Jan 10th, 2004

Politics archive

How terrorism works Bullet Sep 10th, 2004