First of all, credit where credit is due. I was re-reading Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things last week – which by the way, if you haven’t read yet, stop, start Googling, call people and find a way to get yourself the book. That should be the precursor to the two things you need to learn to become a better designer.
One of the things that stood out to me in the book was the idea that great product experiences are a combination of good engineering with an understanding of people.
The (near) impossible remote
My mother bought a new TV last year. Bigger, clearer, brighter and certainly better looking than the old squircle of a box she had for a television. Now, if you know remotes from twenty years ago and remotes now, you’ll know how remotes have gone on button-diet – going from a slab of plastic or metal dotted with these round shaped rubber nubbins to these “ergonomically shaped” sculptures with literally nothing that resembles the remotes of old. Mother and I spent a good part of fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to adjust the TV’s volume. There were, after all, printed icons on the remote with a “+” and a “-“. Clearly, the remote could be used to adjust the volume. It got to a point where we considered just using the voice command to change the volume for the foreseeable future. Very chic, isn’t it? Talking to a remote mid-movie only for your TV to tell you it “didn’t get that” and repeating it in a slower, more robotic tone. Oh, the marvels of the world we live in. I know I’m making my mother sound like an old grandmother here but really, she’s not. In fact, she’s much more comfortable with technology in some cases than I am. The problem? A very Nepali habit. Mom covered the remote in plastic. (Before you start judging, Kathmandu very dusty.) And in doing so, made it impossible to push and pull the button that changed the volume. Yes. I said push and pull – not press. For some reason, people at Samsung decided to reinvent the button. Instead of doing the usual press-to-use buttons, they thought rocking a switch up and down to adjust the volume made more sense.
What went wrong?
Okay, let’s take a moment to get very academic with that example. Why did the combination of people and tool not work? The engineers clearly spent a lot of time designing this tool to work the way it did – How will this input device work? What shape should this thing be so that it is easy for a user to rock it back and forth? How do we design it so that it lasts the duration of a TV’s life? There is though, one question they forgot to ask – how will our users use it? The fact of the matter is, every house I’ve been to has their TV remote covered in plastic. It is just the thing to do. People want to keep their devices safe right after they’ve spent and entire month’s salary purchasing them. Here, the focus went too far in making a great piece of engineering. The way we were supposed to interact with the remote was a great piece of innovation. But it didn’t work because it didn’t consider the psychology that goes into the user’s use of the product.
If you’ve at this point, gone through a few chapters of Norman’s book, this is one of the points he keeps circling around – engineers make great tools but they fail to consider the user’s dispositions, their psyche, their irrationality, their… (you get the point).
The other problem
But I argue things can easily go the other way. If you’re a business school undergrad or post-grad student (or have been in the past few years), many “design thinking” workshops or bootcamps have you come across? Design thinking workshops seem to have become the unsaid minimum requirement for business schools these days. I’m a culprit as well here. I’ve personally spent three years designing and facilitating human centered design workshops. In fact, going through our participant database is what led me to writing this lengthy post in the first place. In over a hundred participants over three years, how many ideas that came out of these workshops do you think actually turned into real products? 1/3 of them? 10? 5? Here’s the answer – grab a chair if you are planning to facilitate your own workshops – none. Not a single one. Why? The participants and teams that attended these workshops never had the skills to actually deliver on these ideas. “We have designed this amazing new sprinkler system that activates automatically based on the moisture in the soil” – great idea but the team lacked the engineering know-how. What happened next? They did their presentations and their cardboard/drinking straw prototype has been gathering dust in the corner of a store room since. Oh, and the prototype did nothing to demonstrate how the product would work. Just a box on top of which a couple of pieces of straw, paper labels and other bits were glued.
What I’m trying to say is that designers – just like they can sometimes focus too much on creating a great tool at the expense of users – can also focus too much on the user and forget about the actual technology that goes behind making it work. Again, three years and not one idea brought to life.
Here’s the thing. A piece of design is not a good piece of design if it does not work – and there’s two reasons a piece of design won’t work – bad engineering and bad user experience. Now, I’m definitely not asking you – the reader – to go ahead and spend 4-5 years getting an engineering degree. I’m not suggesting you do so studying psychology either. What I’m saying is, if you’re designing something, it is important that you educate yourself on the basics of how your product works. You don’t need to be an electrical engineer to know how flicking a switch turns on a light. It is also important that you understand how people think and work. If you’re reinventing the way a user interacts with a product, it is necessary that you first get to grips about how people assume they should use it, how they might perceive it should be used. You won’t always need to have a detailed understanding of things either. Get some basic knowledge down. You can always recruit someone that’s more familiar to handle the details.