March 14, 2023
Katerina Kamprani's The Uncomfortable Watering Can
‘You had one job’ is one of my favourite memes. Often, they highlight designs, whether product or user interfaces that just don’t work and their failures are exploited for comedy effect.
It led me to think, how often do we get frustrated interacting with a product because it just doesn’t do the one thing that it is supposed to do well or behave how it should? Or how often do we become so complacent in that product’s flaws that we just don’t notice anymore?
There is a fascinating distinction between these two scenarios. What I consider ‘compromised design’ is usually the former, like having a tea pot that drips when you pour the tea. The very function of the product is compromised usually by style or lack of testing.
A product not behaving or doing as you expected is something deeper. It is in its very nature, neglecting the intuition and subconscious behaviours of the user.
It is a complex topic which has many layers of consideration. In some cases, it is the product at fault but it can also be the system which the product is integrating with that may not be intuitive.
Elevator controls are a classic example of the system neglecting the subconscious intuition of the user.
I find something deeply fascinating about both user centred design and subconscious behaviours. They are so intriguing to me as a designer and if you stop to think about it (as I do probably more than I should), there are still thousands of products being released each year where the designer has not truly considered the user element or has chosen to prioritise form over function.
We all understand the visual design of products, they have to look great and generate a visceral emotion which connects us to them, it is after all why we chose one brand’s product over another. But how far should usability be compromised by style? For me, it depends on the product and how often I have to interact with it but after a while, you’ll know whether you made the right decision to buy that product over another.
One thing I find interesting is it’s not just cheap tat that you buy off Amazon that doesn’t consider these factors, quite the opposite in fact. Some budget products I see are much more considered than some of the largest companies with huge product development teams and budgets.
The Mighty Apple 'Magic' mouse... Image: theVerge
Take the Apple Magic Mouse for example. It is an elegant, seamless design. It, like a lot of apple product oozes quality and the material choices are very well considered. It does however have an incredible usability drawback.
Like most wireless products it has an integrated battery and needs periodically charging via a lightning port. In order to maintain that seamless design, Apple decided that you shouldn’t be able to remove the battery to swap out and the lightning port shouldn’t be seen during use, so Apple located the port on the underside of the mouse. Now, the problem with this is that you can’t use and charge the mouse simultaneously so if you run out of juice in the middle of a job, you are left without a mouse. Apple have stood by this design for seven years now and clearly feel it is a compromise worth having for good aesthetic.
Apple have designed features to mitigate against being left stranded. The battery lasts for several weeks and you get plenty of notice that they are running low, but humans being humans push their luck. There are many theories as to why Apple haven’t moved the port, including questioning if people would ever unplug it from the charger, thus making it essentially an £80 wired mouse and ruining that sleek design language of theirs in the process.
There are various approaches to design thinking and user centred design but most condense into 5 steps. The key to avoiding most design related pitfalls is research. This should include:
5 stages of design thinking: as illustrated by Radient Digital.
Empathising: By researching your target users’ needs and truly understanding their interactions by research and observation, busting any assumptions you may have initially crated.
Defining the problem: time to analyse and synthesise your observations to define and identify the problem statement. This often leads to the creation of personas to maintain a user centred focus.
Ideation: this is all about divergent thinking, generating many ideas looking for innovative solutions to the problem statement.
Prototype: Identification of the most credible solutions to generate some quick models in order to test the concepts.
Testing: Rarely do you come up with the perfect solution first time. Often testing leads you back towards design refinement, iterating in a loop until you find the least compromised solution.
Now this is very watered down and often there is much more to consider. In reality these steps are not necessarily sequential and a good designer will tailor these for each project, but the fundamentals of keeping the user and their specific needs at the forefront remain. How well a designer can divergently think, then converge on a ‘game changing’ solution is what makes a good designer great.
There really is a lot to research and consider as a designer. For example, regional demographics are something that should be considered early on, however some designs are compromised by overlooking things within the process like local legislation.
I remember reading an article about how Mini’s famous Countryman Union Jack flag rear brake lights (which were very well received in the European market) had some teething issues in the USA.
Mini Countryman's Union Jack Rear Light Cluster.
In the US, car's don’t always have separate indicator lights and the government haven't standardised on using different amber coloured lights as we traditionally see in Europe. This means that US manufactured cars often use their brake lights to signal by flashing on whichever side of the car is indicating a turn.
In order to comply with US regulations, often European manufactured cars have their brake lights converted to flash when used as an indicator and remove the amber indicator light.
Now this is all well and good for most car manufacturers, but school busses and large trucks frequently use lit flashing arrows to signal which way they are turning. Mini probably didn’t consider that in the dark, their cool, funky Union Jack light signalling to turn left could be mistaken for an arrow of a vehicle turning right causing a potential accident. oops!
You had one job Mini!
There are some fantastically well-designed products in the world and the more we focus on inclusive and user centred design & usability, the more likely we are to see these considered products filter through…. Or will we?
The BIC Cristal design has not changed for over 70 years and has sold over 100 billion units worldwide, but have you ever stopped to notice it.
You see it has always been the view of great designers that truly good design should be invisible. No thought should go into using it, it should be able to be used purely on intuition and seamlessly blend into its surroundings, so does this mean will we end up noticing bad design more? I’m off to brew some tea and ponder this whilst I wait for my mouse to charge.
Paul is co founder of Element Creative Ltd. An agile UK design agency supporting in a diverse spectrum of industries from micro start-up to blue-chip.