Post No.: 0807
Design and technology affects us individually and as a society – our lifestyles, jobs, potentials, pastimes, cultures, economics, environments, and thus politics.
Automation, usually via technology, can de-skill us, which is fine and efficient when a product works as intended – but not if it ever fails and a human needs to take control to recover a dangerous situation. Automation can also potentially reduce a worker’s job satisfaction, or do away with a human’s job altogether.
If an error can be made when using a product then assume it will be made. If you’ve ever made an error when using a product then assume many others will have too.
But is an error when using a product down to human user error or human designer error? The law tends to blame the former but I’d say it’s usually down to awful design; especially whenever one person and one action can accidentally cause a costly catastrophe.
Well grave calamities, like industrial disasters, are almost always the result of a connected string of small errors – each not that serious, and with each being noted but explained away by each person in the chain of events with usually logical and understandable explanations. To an outside observer though – who has the benefit of hindsight when assessing what went wrong – it’s too easy to blame ‘stupid staff’ for what they ‘should’ve known’ and to dismiss as ‘implausible’ the reasons they used to explain away the warning signs. Things can appear obvious after the fact but unpredictable beforehand. Social pressures to not admit to mistakes or problems sometimes play a role too – if you follow a precautionary procedure by switching off an industrial machine, it’ll cost the company money and you’ll risk getting fired if it was a false alarm.
Manufacturers want what’s economical to produce. Retailers want what’s visually attractive to customers. Customers want what’s good value. Consumers want what functions well, is easy to use, lasts well, carries prestige and more. Repairers want what’s easy to maintain. Everybody should want what’s considerate to the environment. And a furry designer should want to design what satisfies all of these stakeholders. Well most products are designed by a team – and product designers, engineers, programmers and other members involved all have different focuses; often to try to make their own lives as simple as possible rather than to give the consumer the best product experience possible! Engineers and programmers aren’t usually psychologists, or designers of products for ordinary people. Getting something to work isn’t the same as getting something to work well for humans.
A good designer will try to minimise the odds of errors, their severity, and make them easy to spot, and reversible if possible (this’ll increase the explore-ability of a product’s range of functions because doing so will be risk-free, which means the user will make the most of the product, too). Also consider how the product will be used during a state of panic and thus tunnel-vision.
A good product designer is a master psychologist who also conscientiously cares about people.
Something can be neat-looking but hell to use! A terrible designer goes for aesthetic beauty, neatness and elegance above function, understandability and usability – although the best designers will be able to incorporate it all. Good design is seamless and unobtrusive; invisible. All you’ll notice is the task you wish to do with the product, not the product itself.
A good product has clear visibility regarding form to function. Make obvious what needs to be done to operate it. Ensure the user can figure out what to do, and tell what’s going on. You want them to say at every step, “Of course” or, “Yes I see.” The designer won’t be there to explain how it works – it has to be self-explanatory. So make the relevant parts visible/audible in execution and in evaluation of action. Provide timely and accurate feedback.
Audible warning signals all going off simultaneously can make it hard to concentrate on actually fixing the problem being warned about though. Or if they go off from an intended behaviour, we can learn to dismiss them, even when it might be a real emergency. (And is it a faulty battery, or a faulty battery warning light?!)
Understand affordances, which signal ‘is for’ (e.g. a plate on a door is for pushing, a handle is for grabbing and pulling, a button is for pressing, a knob is for turning, glass is for transparency, a platform at knee height is for sitting on).
Good product design incorporates logical/non-arbitrary mappings of switches/controls to functions. A product that does without the need for an instruction manual is ideal. (Most users won’t read it anyway!) Minimise labels or stickers, instructions or training – not for the sake of a sleek look but because the product will be so well-designed that it’s perfectly usable for novices without them.
If this fails – standardise; at the brand, or preferably international industry, level. This means that users will need to learn a convention, but only need to learn it once (e.g. the order of traffic lights, red barrels explode in videogames). This is where competition (between different ways of doing things) should give way to usability. But standardise too soon and it could set a standard that’ll be quickly bettered by another devised method, perhaps due to later technologies. Yet attempt to standardise too late and many competing methods released on the market will somehow need to be unified (like imperial versus metric measuring systems).
Another solution, where practical, is customisability (e.g. re-mappable gamepad buttons).
Design systems that convey the natural conceptual or mental models of how users think the product works. Many people hold an erroneous mental model of how (at least most current) ovens or boilers work – thinking that putting the temperature control on its maximum setting will make them reach one’s desired temperature faster. (People who conceptualise the Earth as flat have a particular mental model of the Earth and how day turns into night and back.)
The direction to turn a knob should map sensibly with the direction of the thing being moved (e.g. a tuner needle). There’s a cultural convention though regarding ‘clockwise to turn right and anti-clockwise to turn left’ when it comes to knobs, whereas there isn’t quite a universal convention regarding ‘pull back or push forwards for up or down’ when it comes to analogue sticks on games controllers (the y-axis) – for some use the mental model of flight controls while others don’t.
Use constraints to prevent unintentional errors or intentional misuse. These can be physical, semantic, logical or cultural/customary (e.g. the physical shape of a plug forces you to only be able to insert it into the correct socket in the correct orientation). Legal disclaimers of ‘it’s your fault if you don’t follow the instructions’ indicate bad design where there are better design solutions!
Don’t just trust your intuitions – test your prototypes on real-world users. This is because you’ll understand how to operate your own design thus it’ll seem intuitive to you – since you designed it – but others might not.
Simple-looking isn’t necessarily simple-to-use (e.g. two buttons to control a hundred different functions!) Yet there’s a trade-off – too many switches and it’ll be hard to find the switch that one wants at the right time. One control per function enhances usability, but too many makes a product appear complex to use. So it’s about presenting the relevant options, and only these options, at the relevant times. Hide what isn’t necessary until it is necessary.
Understand the limitations of humans, like their working memory capacity and inability to truly multitask. So instead of expecting users to mentally hold several items of information simultaneously, make this information visually explicit on the product or in the world when needed. Include reminders – in a similar way to how we keep notes around the place like on the front door, where we’ll always look before heading out.
People can do multiple things at once only if all but one of the actions are done automatically, subconsciously. Their conscious attention can only concentrate on one activity at a time. That’s how a skilled pianist can move his/her fingers across the keys properly, manipulate the pedals, listen to the resultant sounds and feel the style desired, all while consciously concentrating on the sheet music.
Allow a decent tolerance, where users don’t need to execute something absolutely precisely for it to work.
Make your product flexible and adjustable enough to ergonomically fit as many people in your target market as possible.
Consider how usable the product is alongside its complimentary products if they’re one part of a bigger system.
Some products ought to be cryptic to operate though, like for the purposes of privacy, security, safety or fun (like puzzle games); without however creating needless problems (e.g. a fire extinguisher that’s difficult to accidentally discharge yet simple to discharge when in an emergency and panic state).
‘Feature creep’ typically results from listening to the voices of every consumer demanding something for their own wants or needs. It’s not that everyone wants everything, or even any single person wants everything – but when one product attempts to satisfy the demands of too many people, it can end up creating a cluttered product for everyone! Some consumers demand more features simply because they want to show off to those who have similar products but that have fewer features – not that those with ‘all the gear, no idea’ will typically use half those features or even know how to use them(!)
We constantly desire innovation and better products. There are some barriers though. People, and cultures, can be stuck in their ways and expectations (e.g. expecting light switches to be vertically placed on walls instead of more horizontal to more naturally map to the horizontal placements of the actual lights in a large hall).
Some things that were designed with legacy considerations, like the QWERTY keyboard layout – which no longer needs to be sympathetic to the mechanisms of an old typewriter – could be better redesigned nowadays (perhaps the Dvorak layout?) We could blame slow typists – but we could blame sub-optimal design. Yet because it has become standardised (with some slight variations available), it’s now difficult to mobilise a mass change. Popular products evolve to be good enough – not always to be the best they could possibly be. Another example could be the seconds, minutes and hours of days regarding clocks – it’s arbitrary, yet has become standardised and thus will take an extraordinary reason to change.
Product evolution isn’t quite like natural evolution due, ironically, to competitive forces. The next models are sometimes already being developed before the last one has been released to obtain the market feedback from that model. And different companies/brands or individual designers all want their designs to be radical, to stand apart, as opposed to incrementally evolving and refining each other’s designs. Well if a brand attempts to build upon a competitor’s class-leading product, to further enhance its strengths and smooth its flaws – it’ll be accused of copying! Instead of retaining or building upon what worked well in a previous model, they’re often completely overhauled just because of the market’s desire for ‘something different’. The market demands constantly new rather than what’s perfect and then kept forever. Competition and doing things one’s own way are thus mixed blessings.
A product’s buyers aren’t always the product’s end users, and so products are often designed and manufactured to a cost and timescale rather than to be good too. Please the clients rather than the end users because they ultimately pay the money, and it’s about the money!
Design awards are also often given to what aesthetically looks good rather than what works well. Design is thus another area in life where the eyes can be fooled, and they frequently are. Yet – in certain product categories anyway – many consumers accept the pain. They’d rather suffer for the fashion!