Thus goes one of the first lines of Don Norman’s lauded book, The Design of Everyday Things. It illustrates perfectly the seemingly irrational extent of the frustrations people have with everyday objects and systems.
But what leads to the sort of design that leaves us scratching our heads over apparently simple things?
Norman proclaims that it is, fundamentally, a lack of understanding of both technology and people. This leads to features such as unnecessary buttons that people press only by accident, camouflaged links on websites, and useless appendages.
According to him, many products ‘defy understanding simply because they have too many functions and controls.’ For uncomplicated devices and systems, instruction manuals should never be necessary.
The good news is that certain components of good design inevitably set designers and managers on the right path:
The 80/20 Principle
Approximately 80% of the results of a system come from 20% of its components.
This is the 80/20 principle, also called the Pareto Principle. It is observed in many large systems, including, for instance, user-interface design, management, economics, and engineering. Following this principle, 80% of a product’s usage involves 20% of its features, and 80% of errors are caused by 20% of the features.
‘Noncritical functions that are part of the less-important 80 percent should be minimized or even removed altogether from the design,’ assert the writers of Universal Principles of Design.
The concept will, of course, vary according to context, so it is important to not fixate on the numbers. The crux of the idea is that a few core variables of a system affect the general outcome.
Human-centred design (HCD) is a solution to the ‘rapid rate of technology change’ that ‘outpaces the advances in design’, as Norman writes. HCD focuses on the people you are creating your product for, so that you can come up with a solution to their problems or needs.
There are four activities in the HCD process:
Observation. This is the research you conduct to understand the nature of the customer or potential customer’s problem.
Idea generation. You devise solutions according to the design requirements that were outlined during observation. Creativity is critical at this stage.
Prototyping. You determine whether an idea is reasonable by building a prototype or mock-up of each potential solution.
Testing. A small group of people who correspond closely to your potential customers use the prototypes. The research team observes.
Low Performance Load
An object or system might have clear indications of how to use it, but ideally this will be coupled with a low performance load.
Performance load is the amount of effort required to achieve a goal. It can be cognitive (relating to problem solving, perception, or memory) or kinematic (relating to number of movements, amount of force, and so on). If the performance load is high, the potential for errors increases, and thereby, the chances of achieving a goal decrease.
You can reduce cognitive load by doing away with information to be memorized, minimizing visual ‘noise’, using memory aids to assist in recall and problem solving, and automating computation and memory-intensive tasks. General strategies for reducing kinematic load include automating repetitive tasks and decreasing range of motion, travel distances, and the number of steps required to complete tasks.
A magnificent instance of reducing kinematic load is that of Morse code. Samuel Morse assigned the simplest codes to the letters that occurred the most frequently. For example, the letter E, being used often, was expressed as dot, and the letter Q, being used more rarely, was expressed as dash dash dot dash. This dramatically reduced error rates and transmission times.
These principles remain in textbooks with good reason. There are, however, other aspects of good design that have yet to enter the regular jargon of designers and managers.
In today’s world, for instance, with global warming and unmanageable pollution levels on the rise, consideration must be given to a product’s entire life cycle, including the environmental costs. Furthermore, accessible design has always been a necessity, but we have yet to make it commonplace.
While the cornerstones of good design will hold against the winds of change, we can be certain that further insights, born of technical expertise, research, and empathy, will be allotted a space beside them.
Norman, Don, The Design of Everyday Things
Krug, Steve, Don’t Make Me Think
Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler, Universal Principles of Design