Came back from beautiful Thailand speaking at the Design Is Opportunity event. Everyone is thinking about design not only as producing great products but also as a competitive advantage for creating new industries and as comparative advantage for countries. Met many people who are passionate in design and design thinking.
There are 16 remote controls that sit on my coffee table at home, and I have no idea what they are all for. It’s enough to make one think twice about turning on their phone, buying a new camera or downloading a new app. Looking around my surroundings, I’m struck with how overly complicated life is. Products that are supposed to simplify our lives now require a steep learning curve and possibly a special diploma.
Which leads me to wonder whether the concept of ‘usability’ means anything to designers and manufacturers anymore. Are they not concerned with alienating a large part of the market with their constant stream of complexities and change? Are they so sure that we’ll loyally follow them to the ends of the earth, syncing our lives to their products? Only a handful of companies are doing it right.
Usability springs out of a discipline called Human Factors, which has deep roots in military strategy. Crucial during wartime, when soldiers needed to design tactics to easily and accurately protect themselves while defeating their enemies. In the most intense and critical moment of one’s life, human factors mean the difference between survival and death. Many are confused over the difference between Industrial Designers (ID) and Design Engineers (DE), let alone between Industrial Designers and Human Factors Engineers (HF).
Industrial Design (ID) is an applied art whereby the aesthetics and usability of products may be improved. Depending which school of design you come from, you can be an artist or a designer that follows most if not all of the 10 principles of good design from Dieter Rams. Design Engineering (DE) on the other hand is a discipline that creates and transforms ideas into a product definition that deliver on customer needs.
The key difference between the two is: ID is an applied art, whereas DE is a discipline. This means that industrial designers' job is to dream up products and design engineers' job is to make it work. Dieter Rams is both a indistrial designer, artist and human factor engineer. He wants his product to be usefil, elegant and easy to use. Sometimes an indsutrial designer performs all three roles.
How did human factors come into design? WWII launched the starting point for electronic systems with user interfaces that were controlled by human operators. At the time, industrial psychologists like John Flanagan discovered that reducing the amount of clutter, such as buttons, switches and knobs on the control panels of aircrafts could dramatically improve operator performance. New models became increasingly streamlined, such as the P-51 Mustang fighter, “one of the conflict’s most successful and recognizable aircrafts.”
Aviation and weapons designers must consider a myriad of human factors, including how to prevent accidental firing, decrease use fatigue, withstand climate conditions, and equipment maintenance, to name just a few. Perhaps the most important factors that guide design involve the human condition. In short, the design must take into account those that will operate the equipment. The degree of automation and ease of maneuverability also play a role. Usability is all about transcending human limitations to achieve the upper hand.
The concept expanded when computers came on the scene. The evolution of the computer, from military technology to personal use, spanned many decades but it finally reached the hands of the public. For the first time, employees could have personal computers, but during this first introduction there were little to no instructions or guides. Despite this, software designers continued to assume that their users were knowledgeable and competent enough to understand the technical lingo and structure of operating systems to not only use the systems but also troubleshoot errors. Such implicit assumptions proved unacceptable, especially if computers were to achieve mainstream success. Today, we expect them to accommodate our limitations, intuition and even emotions.
Adapted from an article Usability Beyond Simplicity from the upcoming Sept issue of MISC- The Simplicity Issue which be available in newstand around the world in the third week of Sept 2012.