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I'm calling for a design revolution! Why designing a product should be hard, not using it

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People like easy. People like simple. People like comfortable.

So, why do so many things that we experience on a daily basis seem to be the opposite?

There are even companies whose sole marketing strategy is to provide more options and features than the competition, whether or not those options can be accessed or even understood. They drive us crazy. They make our brains hurt and our heads want to implode.

I once worked for a major appliance company that insisted on having 19 program steps in the washing cycle – the competition had recently upped theirs to 18. The company was adamant that although you could only start the cycle in 3 places, the dial had to display all the 19 steps the wash went through. As a result, it was very confusing and frustrating for the customer who tried to set the machine to one of the other programs.

To launch the rocket, just press the big red button

While there is no point in oversimplifying products, or robbing people of choice or the ability to customise or modify experiences, most people are not rocket scientists: they don’t want the complexity.

And even if they were rocket scientists, there’s a lot to be said for having just one big red button to press for launch.

Things need to be easy to use. Yet ease of use is actually very hard to achieve. It means we need to have thought through all possible scenarios and have sorted them logically, culled the superfluous, promoted the important and made it very clear what happens along the way.

We need to refine the entire experience to make it easy. For instance, make the default setting simple, but don’t hide the options so deeply that the overall experience becomes difficult (yes Microsoft, you know who I mean).

Take another example – going out to eat. However you do this, it ought to be a satisfying experience.

You could go to a fast food place that offers 3 sizes of burgers, with a choice of 3 types of drinks. You don’t get many options; but you don’t have to think much either – the choice is very simple.

Now, suppose you go to an upmarket restaurant. The waiter guides you to the easy options first – the specials of the day. If there is nothing there that you like, you move on to the full menu. The waiter helps you customise further by letting you tweak the settings on how well your dish is cooked or the side order to go with it. At the same time, you get explanations and advice on how to order what you want.

It’s simple.

Moving beyond just “simple and easy to use”

As designers, and all entrepreneurs are designers, we should be striving to create the same kind of experience for all of our products.

But easy to use doesn’t always mean useful. Along the way we should look at the products we are asked to design and even be ready, if appropriate, to question their reason to exist. Is a product that notifies us of an incoming tweet or email by releasing a smell really necessary? Do we need the product that keeps our Facebook status and location continually updated so that our followers know when we are on the loo? If so, then as a minimum we need to make a really easy “suspend when” setting.

Examples of correctly designed ease of use abound. They also set the standards to aim for. There is no excuse for not designing products that people can use intuitively and with their eyes shut. The only possible difficulty concerning ease of use should be in the initial design of that ease of use.

By the time a product reaches customers, it should be “easy-peasy” – something they’re happy to pay for and use. And in that case, everyone’s happy.

Gary Bortz is the director of Bortz Product Design, a Sydney based industrial design company. www.bortz.com.au

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