Brain Fart #3: Great design is screwed-up

So, here I am, reading through a rather long email – and a rather long email chain for that matter – between Craig (Visiting Professor of Philosophy at King’s) and me. We’re thinking (and overthinking) design – specifically, human centered design.
Here I am – drawing focus towards designing for “natural” behaviors (as I called them). That was what human centered design was to me – designing to best suit people’s natural behaviors. Want to design a new light switch? Study how people use light switches, make your design blend into the behaviors that already exist – after all, that’s what human centered design is after all isn’t it? Being human centered in my design approach meant setting sights on what people do “naturally” – things that people do without having to make the effort to think about what they are doing. “Intuitive” – there’s a word.
A couple of emails later, I realize I’ve been missing out on something. And it made me feel stupid for a fleeting moment. How could I have missed something so obvious – something that’s in plane sight? I felt a sense of my inners self betray me – something I “knew” for sure was incomplete to say the least. What I realized was that design that is extremely natural and intuitive – by virtue also becomes very boring. Take the light switch for example, a single tool to turn a light bulb on and off. We’ve used them all our lives – pressing or flicking an electrical switch comes naturally to us. The best light switch – if the “best” was complying to natural behaviors – would demand very little cognitive space. It would simply disappear. Nothing new here – nothing to make it interesting – therefore uninteresting, boring.
Hold on though, isn’t it natural for us human beings to constantly seek something interesting? We’re curious, easily bored, over-reaching creatures after all. Look at the world around you. Just how much of this world have you seen change over the years? If you’re my age, you saw the world go from tiny 14 inch TVs to binge watching entire shows on Netflix. Waiting a week for the next episode of your favorite show was too boring.
So what does this mean for human centered design? Well, I’ll just copy from my email chain here:
As curious, overachieving beings, I think even a very unnatural design would work as long as someone takes it as a challenge and not an annoyance. I remember learning to drive – my knee hurt at the end of the day because this old car I was learning on had such a worn out clutch. And the number of very precise movements I needed to make with my limbs felt (at the time) super human. Yet, I enjoyed it – even if it scared me and made me want to kill myself – imagine learning to drive in Kathmandu. In a perfect world, with tech that has absolutely no errors, cars would drive themselves. Yet that world would suck. I can’t imagine giving up control – not because I don’t trust technology (though that’s a consideration), but more because I enjoy driving – regardless of how much it makes me want to run over that one idiot that clearly “doesn’t know how to ride a bike”. It is in my nature to want a bit of a challenge, a bit of “not completely perfect”.
A light switch that disappears into your everyday life becomes boring. A car that is too easy to drive in a city that is too easy to get around in gets boring. What we seek in our experiences is to feel special – a sense of occasion – the opposite of boring. Great design therefore, would not appear to be completely natural. As Craig put it, good design would take into account our screwed-up elements. I’d go as far as saying great design needs to be a little screwed-up itself.


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