jueves, 2 de octubre de 2014

Better by design: when less is way more

As technology evolves and cheapens, more and more people jump into its bandwagon. Technology offers a new world of possibilities and enhance our lives. But does it really come cheap?

In the early days of computing, computers where huge machines built by engineers for engineers. They were far from user friendly and no average Joe could even turn one on (they didn't want, either). As they became smaller and cheaper, a new concept emerged: the personal computer. A lot of criticism came with it, as many people doubt about the need of having a computer at home. Those computers, however, were still not too user friendly, with command line interfaces (CLI) and a limited set of commands you should keep in mind in order to use them.

Evolution continued to the GUI (Graphical User Interface) and our beloved mouse. Now, computers were really and truly intuitive and user friendly; or weren't they?. With Windows 3.1, Microsoft started its conquest of the world and I remember spending lots of time moving windows around, trying different color schemes, playing solitaire and minesweeper, because there wasn't much to do..., for me. However, it was a breakthrough in terms of office productivity. With each evolution of Windows, the applications that run on it became more powerful and more complex. Menus, sub-menus, nested-menus, drop-downs and standalone panels when there were too many options, macros and even scripts!. Nowadays you can do a ton of things! (if you happen to know how to do them).

It would be shocking to know how much of current devices power is being used, compared to early years ones. I think that Pareto's law applies here and 80% of users use 20% of the power of their computer (hardware and applications) and I guess it's just because they are huge. The concept of "more is better" is to blame here. It's been shown that the broader the options, the less happy the average individual is about the choice.

During the early cellphone days, people spent lots of time choosing the ring tone, alarm music, background color... Then came the first smart phones, with Symbian, WindowsCE and PalmOS. Now you could spend days playing around with options!. Android 1.X was the pinnacle of options...

However, the iPhone arrived and it was a truly "better by design" breakthrough: simple, functional and with less options. It freed the user for the task of thinking how the wanted the things to be. Things were the way "they should be". And orthogonal, simple and logical design that everybody could understand. In fact, Android has evolved that way, simplifying most of the things, both in the general interface and in the settings... However, Apple has gone the other way around...

Another great example of this paradigm is Nest thermostat. The user just sets the temperature every now and then and the device cares about the pattern. It just makes the technology vanish up to the point of almost disappearing. "Better by design" is, as Jony Ive said in the original iPad introduction video, when you don't have to change to fit the product; it fits you. It's a pitty Apple completely lost the focus after Jobs passed away.

Apart from the technology, bad design principles apply all around us, as Donald A. Normam describes in one of the best design books: The design of everyday things.

In my years of experience, I've seen one major cause of poor design: design made by engineers. We tend to cover every possible scenario and possibility. However, "better by design" implies simplifying and thinking the best way of doing what the product is intended for, not providing support for all the possible ways of use.

So next time you find yourself developing a product, make a favor to your users and think about how it will be used before starting :)

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