This past weekend, I was exploring some of the also-rans of the recent Cooper-Hewitt People's Design Award when I stumbled across a curious nominee with some interesting implications beyond its specific function. The product, Excel Everest, is a fully interactive MS Excel tutorial used for in-the-product training.
I know mentioning the dreaded word "Excel" here to an audience of designers might seem off topic but the concepts of an interactive, self-grading, "in-product" tutorial complete with embedded videos and a scoreboard is very compelling. The product itself isn't a visual designer's idea of beautiful (it is still an Excel tutorial living inside of an MS Office product after all) but it solves the challenge of teaching a complicated software in a novel, simple way.
Today, learning new software programs either falls in the "learn by doing" or the instructor/classroom based model. The latter often causes painful workarounds and the former is often time/cost prohibitive. While companies like Google and Apple strive to provide simple to use, intuitive systems; as designers we all know that not all software systems are best boiled down to one button and two clicks. Some programs, like Excel or the Adobe Creative Suite, are complicated for a reason and in all circumstance will formidably challenge even the most simplicity-focused designer.
More recently, Apple has struggled with this paradox-- how to introduce new features while keeping things "simple." Take, for example, their introduction of multi-tasking to iOS. Users need to double click the home button to access the applications they have running, but if they hold the home button, voice control activates. And of course, clicking the home button just once brings users back to the home screen. But if they are already on the home screen and click, they'll find themselves in search. By limiting themselves to one button, Apple simplifies the industrial design but multiplies the complication of user interaction.
I instead would hope that user interfaces should primarily strive for simplicity but also embrace the reality that complexity is often a cost of functionality. Instead of trying to force complicated tools into the realm of simplicity (thus simplifying the user's inputs and intentions), what we need are interactive and embedded educational tools to help us learn complicated software-- we need more tools like Excel Everest.
Willem Van Lancker is a product designer (UX) at Google with a passion for ethnography, maps, data visualization, and producing delightful user experiences.
Willem came to Google from IDEO where he worked as a communication designer focusing on understanding business systems and organizations through visual communication. Previous to IDEO, Willem worked for Apple, where he designed user interfaces for products including iPhone and iPad, and adidas, where he created new brand identities for various major league sports teams respectively.
Willem is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with a degree in Graphic Design. While at RISD, Willem teamed with a small group of Brown and RISD students to create A Better World by Design, a now-annual three-day conference encouraging social and environmental impact within educational policy. He also served as a researcher and core member for RISDâ€™s Strategic Plan, charting a new course for RISDâ€™s academic programs and student life initiatives focused on how students of different disciplines can innovate through collaboration.
When he is not working on new innovations for Google, Willem can be found writing, sailing, playing squash (both the sport and the gourd), following English (and American) football, and occasionally regretting the decision to eat that bacon-wrapped hotdog from a food-cart in the Mission District.