What Web App Design Can Learn From the Harpsichord

Web Applications
Location: Meeting Room B1/B4
Average rating: ****.
(4.00, 8 ratings)

Baroque harpsichordists excelled at taking simple melodies and creating
elaborate, beautiful pieces of music. But in their desire to push the
boundaries of experimentation, these keyboard virtuosi eventually
ornamented the music beyond the limits of good taste, making the
composer’s original melody unrecognizable. Listen to enough Baroque
music, and you’ll ultimately decide, “This is ridiculous. I never want
to hear another harpsichord!”

Something similar happens in web design. With new technology comes a
natural desire to experiment, challenging fundamental design rules to
push the limits of web applications. As designers explore just how far
they can go, there inevitably comes a breaking point where you think,
“This is ridiculous. I never want to see another rounded corner!”

In both cases, the lesson learned is that just because you can, doesn’t
mean you should.

Web application interaction design brings a wealth of creative freedom
and makes it increasingly important to identify the functional rationale
for UI choices rather than gut “this is the way users are accustomed to
it” or “this just looks better” reactions.

Today’s talk will walk through recent web application design
developments (links functioning as buttons, form labels inside input
areas) and analyze the functionality of these elements in hopes of
building a common design language and allowing web application design to
further evolve.

Elaine Wherry


Elaine Wherry is co-founder and VP of product at Meebo. She majored in Symbolic Systems at Stanford and then joined Synaptics and led their Usability team for several years. In 2005, she started Meebo with two friends from Stanford, Seth Sternberg and Sandy Jen. Elaine plays the violin and migrated west to California after growing up on a goat farm.

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Picture of Dana Moser
Dana Moser
07/28/2009 12:42pm PDT

Excellent presentation!

Jason Buberel
07/23/2009 4:28pm PDT

Elaine should be given the award for “Best Rickroll” of the conference – by harpsichord! The ‘big picture’ concept was very insightful and though provoking: Describing the history of web design in the vernacular of classical music periods. Elaine is a smarty, no doubt.

That being said, for the limited time given, too much time was spent on the history of music and classical composition. Fascinating? Yes, if there were two hours available.

The final segment – “Given that we are in the Baroque period of web design, what should we be doing?” – was given short shrift. I would have like to have heard Elaine spend more time on Big General Principles of Good Design that are Now Emerging from The World of Professional Designers Who Know What They Are Doing (or GDTANEFTWOPDWKWTAD, for short).

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