Design with Usability - nay, Stupidity - in Mind!

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe,” said Albert Einstein.

This is quite true, especially in the field of technology. In a world of increasingly advancing technology (power/capacity doubles every 18 months, and gadgets become obsolete the moment you buy them), It’s just too bad that the human intellect can sometimes find it difficult to catch up with the capability of machines! What’s even worse is that although machines are designed by humans, it seems that many designers have become too preoccuppied with putting in all the bells and whistles that they forget the most important aspect of their work: to create objects that will be usable.

This makes the average human stupid, when faced with the possibility of having to deal with technological thingamajigs with poorly-designed interfaces and functionality.

Of course by “design,” I do not only mean “style.” Style is but a subset of design. Style pertains only to the aesthetic aspect of design. Design itself encompasses a larger domain, definitely more sensual, definitely more intellectual. Design is the overall concept of any creation, from the way it looks to the principles behind how it works, to the way a person is supposed to see it, touch it, feel it, use it, enjoy it–now that’s design.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of poor design in technology–for the most part, that is! Mostly this is because design takes a back seat to style. I’ve had my share of reading tech/customer support humour dealing with no-brainer problems. And I’ve been around long enough to remember tacky Web design in the mid-1990’s (up to now, actually, but nowadays the sin is having snazzy looking, but hardly navigable, sites). And yes, ever heard of this thing called Windows?

I’m of the opinion that if a product is elegantly- and well-designed, there should be no reason for users to RTFM (read the effing manual).

Things should just work as expected, and work well at that.

If there is a way you could lessen the confusion when a user uses your product or service, do it. Think of Apple’s deciding on–and sticking to–having only one mouse button (Mommy, what’s a right-click?). Think of Google’s having that simple, uncluttered interface with just that one form and a few lines of text. Ugly? Sometimes. Works? Yes.

It shouldn’t take a year to figure out how to program that darned PVR! And it shouldn’t take more than ten seconds for users to find what they’re looking for on your websites (or where the frickin’ home link is).

In designing something–anything–whether it’s a webpage, a mobile phone, an automobile, or an electric razor, think of your intended user. Is he the upscale techie-type? Is he the busy executive with no time to RTFM? Is he a he at all? Maybe your user is a she.

Still, regardless of intended user or audience, you should leave space for the most common element in the universe–stupidity. In most cases, you’d have to design expecting the worst of situations. In short, stupid people.

Think of making the stupid people happy.

It’s unfortunate that engineers usually design with engineers in mind. And of course there’s this traditional dichotomy with the marketing people, with all their babble insights on customer-research. People, we need to strike a balance here.

So make things as simple as possble. Make things as usable, intuitive, and uncluttered as possible, with the stupidest of people possible in your mind. That’s unless you’re designing an aircraft control panel–but still, you have to remember that your pilot should be comfortable with controls lest you want him to crash the plane (Oh, so I pull this stick toward me to get the plane’s nose up! Or is it the other one? So many sticks and switches!).

It takes more effort to design with usability in mind than just putting in all the bells and whistles in one place. For one, you may have to trim down your work reasonably–in some cases, you may have to hold off on that cool feature you’d been working on for months. And in most cases, it boils down to only keeping the basic stuff (or at least reserving/hiding the snazzy stuff only for advanced users to explore). What’s important, after all, is that your creation works the way it’s intended to, and that your user won’t have to read hundreds of pages of instructions to learn how to work things.

Case in point: my home entertainment system plays WMAs, MP3s and JPEGs off compact discs. It cannot, however, both play music and pictures from the same disc (it reverts to only JPEG view). The last time I burned my MP3s and WMAs onto a disc, I copied the entire folders–including album images–along with the music. Guess what? I got no music from the player, and got only album images displaying on my TV.

So I opened up another fresh CD-R and burned another copy of my songs.

I forgot to exclude the JPEGs.

Now ain’t that stupid?

(Or maybe I’m being punished for ripping from my CDs into compilations and for downloading copyrighted music free?)

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