Good design is in the details

Cover of "The Design of Everyday Things"

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the work of Donald Norman and his seminal book “The Design of Everyday Things” (the title itself was in true design fashion improved from the original “The Psychology of Everyday Things” or POET.)  I was also bemoaning that people seem to be far more familiar with Jonathan Ive, the much heralded (and recently knighted) designer of many things Apple, than with Don Norman and his now business partner Jakob Nielsen, who’ve been evangelizing human-centered design longer than most.

Of course reading The Design of Everyday Things has once again made me sensitive to good and bad design decisions that surround us and I wanted to share a couple of instances of poor design (or poor affordances, as Don terms them). Just the other day I swung by an ATM machine, tucked in next to a Food World store. And here’s what the greeted me at the door.

Push or Pull A sign that said PUSH but a handle that said pull. This is one of the first examples Don cites for cognitive dissonance – a fancy term for when what the sign says (push) doesn’t gel with what your brain says you should do (pull). Alas Don wrote his book more than 20 years ago and we are still grappling with this one.

Another favorite one of his is figuring out which switch (on a bank of switches) controls what light or electrical equipment in a room. Just this last weekend we sneaked away to Yercaud (an largely unspoilt hill station near Salem, Tamil Nadu). The hotel we stayed in was relatively new and the first thing that greeted me, as I tried to turn on the lights was this bank of switches.

The housekeeping staff, had to put a small sticker with a sign that read Fan. Given that there are only five switches, sure we can run through them quickly – however you’d have an irate spouse in the middle of the light if you turned a light on rather than the fan 😦 In this particular bank of switches, you can see the set up is a pair of switches (neither of which controls the fan) and the regulator in one block while three other switches in another block (one of which controls the fan). Ideally pairing the regulator and the switch into a single standalone block would have worked or having them at the very least on the same block would have provided a clear affordance.

The good news is that good design shows up in most unexpected places. The office provided me with a Tata Photon 3G broadband USB dongle. Most of us who’ve used any sort of USB dongles, whether memory sticks, Bluetooth, WiFi or broadband, have experienced the bother of losing the caps that come with them. Invariably once I’m done using the stick and remove it from the computer, I am constantly searching for the cap and usually end up just doing without it. The Tata Photon previous generation dongles suffered from this same short coming as I saw with my colleagues. However the latest dongle that I was provided, had a most ingenious solution – a wrist band that was strung through the cap – so not only was carrying the darn thing easier, but the cap even when removed stayed attached (and conveniently) out of the way, so that when it was time to stow away the stick, I don’t have to begin searching for the cap. Good design, like god is in the details.

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3 thoughts on “Good design is in the details

  1. Pingback: Consistency in User Experience | Design of Business

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