Posted by: karisyd | June 12, 2013

Understanding design from the user end

In a guest piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Slate writer Farhad Manjoo argues that “Apple needs to do more than just change the iPhone design“. Quite surprisingly he equates design narrowly with the aesthetics of the device, arguing that when Apple “hits a bump in the road, its instinct is to rejig how its products look”.

I would like to respond to what I think is a misunderstanding for the nature of design in general and the design of end user devices in particular.

1) The first and most obvious misunderstanding is to equate design with aesthetics, the cosmetic side of design (what the thing looks like). Apple, its chief designer Jon Ivy and Steve Jobs in his day have argued at numerous occasions that design is much more and runs much deeper than just the cosmetic surface of a product.

Good design imagines new devices in their (yet-to-be-created) use contexts. In essence, design is about changing the world. It is about imagining new practices and make these happen by creating devices that are radically usable. This is what Apple does best. Apple is in the business of changing our world – great devices are the means for doing it (and they make lots of money in the process, because they are good at it). This is what the iPhone and iPad have done, they have changed how we communicate, work, compose music, serve our clients, how we play games, review academic papers, you name it.

2) However, the more significant misunderstanding is that we (as people who enjoy dealing with technology) extrapolate our own relationship with technology to the user. While geeks, technology commentators and all those people whose business is technology per se will naturally see devices as things with features, users normally don’t! This is an important point and not a trivial one. We have written about this in more depth elsewhere.

In essence, for users when devices are fully adopted and work properly they move into the background, they withdraw from experience, they are not things to be manipulated but rather a transparent means for doing stuff. This does not mean that I cannot look at it as a thing, but for it to function most effectively it needs to get out of the way.

When I work on the computer and I am absorbed in writing a text, all hardware and software should just get out of the way, it should inconspicuously function and let me do what I am doing. When working at our best we are in automatic mode, our body deals with the device while we can concentrate on the task. This is why I enjoy my Mac, it gets out of the way, it does not intrude on my tasks in the same way Windows used to do. The same applies to the iPhone or iPad.

End user devices should just work and make themselves invisible whenever we are surfing the web, tweeting, doing our banking or whatever else we’re doing with these devices. The device and app should simply be invisible if everything goes well. Apple makes this its goal, and it achieves this quite well in my view (it is an extra perk that the thing really looks good if I choose to bring it into view and marvel at its slick aesthetics). We know that Apple does this quite well, because Apple users are much more active than Android users in any possible usage statistic available (they spend more time on their devices, buy more, browse the Internet more etc).

Good design withdraws from experience and lets me do my stuff.

Once we understand this phenomenon, we can see why any radical redesign of the iOS operating system at this point in time would really be a bad idea! As a geek, I would probably enjoy indulging in its newness, but as a user it would disrupt my flow. I would have to deal with the changes, I would have to re-learn. Users don’t want to learn devices, they want to use them. That is why evolutionary changes, step by step, improvements here and there, in easily digestible portions will just do the trick for most of us (users). No geek or tech commentator gets excited by this (they want new features, new UI, bold changes), but it works for the user. I am glad Apple understands this and keeps it that way.

When Apple wants to be bold they create a new device category, a new market, a new ecosystem, in short they change the world. But applying revolutionary changing to an already existing (and working!) ecosystem is really not a good idea.


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