Feb 4, 2009

Design is When True Understanding is Self-Evident

It's 2AM and I can't sleep. There are a million thoughts rolling through my head and the one that looms largest is this repeating phrase:

Design is when true understanding is self-evident

It just keeps rolling up in to my head and I can't get past it without putting it all down "on paper." It has been a slow-burning theme in several conversations over the last few days. What makes certain products so good? How come some interactions are just incredible and some are horrible? This phrase is the culmination of my thoughts on this.

Why does my iPhone rock so hard? Why does this laptop feel so good to type on. Why is the sign up form on Twitter such a wonderful extension of the brand? Conversely, why is it so hard for me to remember whether the doors to our building are push or pull? Or why do we hate Microsoft so much?

True understanding. Empathy. Or lack thereof. When my wife says something to me about planning for my daughter's birthday and I reply with a comment about the new Mercedes GLK, it is obvious I haven't been listening and I don't understand.

Today we got a new MacBook for the team to use for presentations and travel. It is a slick little machine but there was one thing in particular that added to my notion that Apple has implanted a thought-reading device in my brain:

The DisplayPort VGA adaptor.

I've had a couple (4 actually) MacBook Pros/PowerBooks and they all have had the same DVI to VGA adaptor. It is a pretty nice piece of design work, especially when compared to what comes with your average Dell. However, one thing that has bugged me is the sound. The rattling of the little screws has always given the adaptor a cheap feel and led to absent-minded shaking back and forth. It was never something I would have complained about, until now.

The new version has no rattling screws. Someone at Apple hated this sound (Steve?). They realized that you're never going to plug this thing directly in to your display and that you'd alays plug it in to a display cable which has it's own screws. This is what I mean by TRUE understanding. They truly understand what it means to own and use a laptop.

The person who designed the doors to our lobby obviously didn't really understand what it meant to walk in and our of our building 5 or 6 times a day and have to make up a "pull in, push out" song in order to keep from looking like an idiot. A true understanding of this is not evident in the design of the doors.

The design of the doors say, "push me, pull me... whatever, I look cool." And then I look like a dumbass when I push instead of pull. They say, "I don't really understand the basic act of walking in and out of a building."

The best interactions are those we don't have to think about. They just work. They have been created with understanding and empathy. They have been designed by someone who deeply understands our point of view and that understanding is evident in the design.

I'm reminded of the story of the file menu in Bill Moggridge's book Designing Interactions. There is an interview with Larry Tesler about how the file menu as we know it was created. It demonstrates what is needed to gain true understanding. Basically Bill Atkinson and Larry Tesler worked as a team in 12 hour shifts. Larry would spend the day performing usability tests with people in the office. When Tim came in he would spend an hour sharing what he'd learned and Bill would set off coding the interface for the next day.

One night Bill came in and basically invented the file menu system as we know it. Some would say he had an epiphany or a stroke of genius but I would argue that it was the pattern of prototyping and testing and the insight he had in to how people actually used computers that gave him the inspiration. He had true understanding of what it was to use the product he was creating.

This immersion is what stands in the way of truly understanding the people who use our products. We take shortcuts, develop shorthand, create mythical "expert users," and are impatient with how long it takes to really understand our own user experiences.

So I'm kind of petering out here. It's 3AM and I am supposed to get up at 6AM. This concept will certainly keep rolling around in my head and drive me in the future.

The other idea that is bugging me is to tear down my entire portfolio web site and rebuild it using css, jquery, and web standards. I don't know the first thing about how to do it but I need to learn. Sounds like a good way to get in to it.

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