Friday, January 24, 2014

Design Matters--Revisited

Design matters.  When I get into my car and the seat belt nanny bot dings until I fasten my seat belt, I don't feel a sigh of relief that the car company is trying to save my life.  Instead, I see it as a paternalistic intrusion in my life that I resent.  I wear my seat belt as a matter of course.  But if I am driving to my mailbox at the end of the driveway, I don't need big brother Co. telling me to fasten up.

The same goes for keyless car door clickers.  The designers of these products seem to have an autistic sense about them--they know precisely how to make the products work for 1% of the population.  An intuitive design would be one click to unlock all doors.  The next click would lock the car again.  This would require only one button.  Instead, the designers create an overly complex sequence that opens some doors, sometimes opens others, and even sets off a panic mode to scare the hell out of you when it senses you are tired or annoyed.

This panic mode is the bane of my existence.  On my Escape, if you unlock the door with the key too fast, and then open the door, it will set off the alarm.  And this alarm is LOUD.  Your ears ring after hearing it.  The only way to stop this torture is to put the key in the ignition and turn the vehicle off.  Sometimes this works, other times you have to disconnect the battery. 

A friend of mine has a Honda Accord.  I am 5 ft 6, the same size as your average Japanese man.  You would think they would have designed these cars for someone my height given their market--wrong.  You have to be a contortionist to get into this car.  And if you have arthritis and want to get out of it, God help you.  Another lovely feature of the design of this vehicle is the window pillar right behind your left shoulder--perfect for eliminating visibility when changing lanes in heavy traffic. 

If you are a corporation spending millions of dollars to develop and sell a product, you would think someone might consider studying the design implications of their products on usability.  After all, this is only one of the most important things in owning a product.  The genius of Steve Jobs was that he took ordinary things and made them more intuitive to use.  The old mp3 players of yesteryear sucked.  They had a half dozen or more tiny buttons that controlled music playback on the device.  Using them was like programming your VCR--impossible.  By introducing the scroll wheel and a large hard drive with an intuitive menu system that made sense, the iPod revolutionized music playback.  The technology got out of the way and let people actually focus on listening to music instead of screwing around.

This was part of the great design of the iPhone.  The touch screen and intuitive menu system made smartphones accessible. 

Google and its ecosystem of cloud computing products shares a similar simplicity.  With one gmail address, you have access to a world of computing products that can have a dramatic effect on your life.  You can save your important files in the cloud and have them be secure with two step verification, watch Youtube, create spreadsheets and word processing documents that are available to all of your devices immediately, synchronize your calendar, run your voicemail and get visual voicemails on your mobile phone, check your email, back up your photos from all your devices, and much more.  You can restore your lost Android phone in a few minutes without losing your data. 

The bottom line is that design is as important as function.  If you have to interact with a product on a daily basis and that product makes you want to tear your hair out, then you remain alienated from the tools which are designed to make your life better.  Using your consumer goods should be intuitive, fun, and if possible, beautifully designed.  Even the most simple and inexpensive items can be all of these things if the makers of these products spent just a bit more time on design and not just on engineering--or cutting corners to save money.  If the world learned anything from the iPod, it is that corporations can make huge amounts of money by making products people can actually use.

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