Object-focused vs Task-focused Design

Object-focused vs Task-focused Design

An illustration of a UX designer exploring with a magnifying glass
Is your approach to creating navigation menus object- or task-focussed?

Everyl Yankee talks about ‘task’ oriented UX design techniques, and how we must then take the step up to ‘object’ oriented user interfaces and navigation systems to keep user interaction as simple and straightforward as possible.

A lively discussion happens whenever UX folk gather to discuss how a UI has been organized. We all have our opinions, but our reasons are often unclear.

Many of us start an analysis by pinpointing personas (roles) and then figuring out the tasks our target users want to complete in order to meet their goals. We spend a lot of time focusing on the tasks and writing them up in various ways, using use cases, stories for agile or storyboards. These stories help us keep the requirements in line, and are guidelines to test against during development.

But is this task-focused design approach the best way to help our users meet their goals?

There’s an alternative that can use our task-driven personas to provide a simpler navigation structure for users. Instead of tasks, it’s focused on objects (think nouns).

Object-focused design is an approach used by software development, and has a long and distinguished history. This basic and elegant UI design approach doesn’t seem to get the press that it deserves, so we’re presenting it again.

Tasks are Secondary

The original “object-oriented” methodology has been around since the 1950s, so it’s not a new concept. We’re very happy that Tom Dayton has brought this topic back to the forefront in an article entitled Object-Oriented GUIs are the Future.

Although the term “object-oriented” is primarily associated with software programming, Dayton’s definition reminds us of how it can be applied to a broader context:

“‘Object oriented’ in this sense has nothing to do with whether object-oriented programming is used. Instead, it means that the user interface as perceived by the user is oriented to the users’ domain objects rather than to the computer software applications.”

Pioneers in GUI design in the 1980s (I’ve listed some related reading at the end of this post) built upon research about the most intuitive paradigm—and hence, interaction—for users, which is noun-verb, not verb-noun (see Why Verbs are Hard to Learn [PDF] by Dedre Gentner).

In fact, several early operating systems were designed from this concept and have evolved the thinking into some of the more intuitive GUIs in use today:

Early objects interface: IBM’s 0S/2
Early objects interface: IBM’s 0S/2 circa 1994
Current: iPad Mini 2012
Current: iPad Mini 2012

Dave Collins’s classic book, Designing Object Oriented Interfaces defines the following characteristics of object-oriented user interface design:

  1. Users perceive and act on objects
  2. Users can classify objects based on how they behave
  3. In the context of what users are trying to do, all the user interface objects fit together into a coherent overall representation
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Let’s look more closely. As users, it’s likely that we are first inclined to think about the object first, and secondarily – what we do with it. This is a major distinction.

Here’s an illustration of the difference. When a user wakes up in the morning and starts to organize the day, which mental model is more likely?

Task-focussed navigation
Task-focussed navigation
Object-focused navigation

Although in this case the verb connected with all nouns is “wash,” we’d venture that users are thinking noun-verb, not verb-noun.

For a quick real-world example, look at some travel sites. We looked at the classics: Orbitz, Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline—every one of these sites includes the objects flights, car/rail, hotels and deals.

Design with Objects

What does this mean for us as UX designers? Well, for more intuitive designs, try keeping these rules in mind:

  1. Navigation is centered around objects—nouns, not verbs
  2. Objects are always the primary representations in the UI
  3. Actions (verbs) performed on the objects comprise the tasks
  4. Tasks are secondarily represented by actions on objects

In summary, using tasks as a basis for interface design adds another layer for users to work through. So keep it simple, and use an object-focused UI instead.

What do you think? Do the most usable sites use an object-oriented approach? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Related resources:

Everyl Yankee
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Everyl Yankee
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  • I agree, but many task based designs are actually subsets of topic based designs; if you can pull a design together based on objects, the site will be more flexible as user requirements may shift.

  • Thanks! Someone recently asked me if these object-based rules apply for responsive design – even more so, with so little space on those screens.

    BTW I’m working on something about how task-based works with this methodology and hope to post in about a month.

  • I think OOD of GUIs dates back to IBM Research presented at the ’97 SIGCHI conference, “OVID: object view and interaction design” (Richard Berry, IBM Corporation, Austin TX, Scott Isensee, IBM Corporation, Austin TX, Dave Roberts IBM United Kingdom Limited, Warwick, England–· “Proceeding
    CHI EA ’97 CHI ’97 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems”)

    The concept was to create a library of functional objects that are dynamically and contextually aggregated into views rather than static, predefined pages. Object-oriented GUI design is if anything more relevant today because of use of interaction libraries, dynamic HTM, responsive design and importantly use with CQRS systems using Event Sourcing. Utilizing re-usable GUI objects increases development speed, simplifies UI design and lowers the Users learning curve. OO GUI Design is awfully good with Agile because you need only to build once and then invoke the object whenever you need it, Another plus for Agile is if downstream you discover a change is needed in a behavior, updating the behavior of the object distributes the change throughout the application. In 2000 I was lead IA (UX) on a proof of concept project for IBM that developed an OOD web application with a Websphere backend We created pages that were dynamic views of content and function objects the appearance and behavior of which were driven by User role, industry segment, view type, log-in status, company, company size and location. The ease of refactoring an interaction pattern was key to the iterative project model.
    Getting back to CQRS the aggregation of views translates well to data projectors. The bottom line is that object-oriented GUI design is becoming more relevant to day than ever.

  • Nice article. I am pursuing a course on OOUX by Sophia V. Prater. This article reinforces my belief in the concept. However following images are not displayed in the article.

    1.Early objects interface: IBM’s 0S/2
    2.Task-focussed navigation
    3.Object-focused navigation

    Please fix the broken links to the imgaes.