Innovation Talk: Sacrificing ease of use on the altar of design

Good design doesn’t just involve attractive colour schemes and judicious font choices, it’s also about rigorous attention to detail and exceptional usability


What is good design? Most of us now appreciate that good design goes a lot deeper than making something look nice – it’s also about making it work well. Good design doesn’t just involve attractive colour schemes and judicious font choices, it’s also about rigorous attention to detail and exceptional usability.

But perhaps it’s time we expand even this perception of good design. Maybe it’s time we realise what the best designers have intuitively always known – good design should determine not just how products are built, but how they are conceived.

As technology writer Ben Thompson put it last week, design is “about identifying, understanding, and ultimately feeling your end users’ needs, and then meeting those needs”.

To illustrate how important this approach is, we can take a look at two recent examples of technology failures. Both products have received deserved praise for their “design”, in the traditional sense of how they look, but their conceptual design, in the sense of how they answer user’s needs, was deeply flawed from the get go.

The first example, and the one Thompson was discussing when he wrote the above observation, is Facebook Home, Mark Zuckerberg’s loudly trumpeted first move into the smartphone operating system space. Home is a clever system layer that can be installed on Android phones, for most intents and purposes replacing the basic Android operating system with a Facebook-ified alternative, full of pictures of your friends and updates from your news feed right there on your home screen. It was undeniably beautifully “designed”, in the sense that every pixel looked great and every animated interaction felt fantastic.

But if reaction to Facebook Home is to be believed, the entire thing is a colossal flop – the HTC First phone with Facebook Home pre-installed is reportedly being discontinued just weeks after its launch, with a mere 15,000 units sold on AT&T in its first month. Meanwhile, downloads for Facebook Home apparently number about a million, a pitiful figure given Facebook’s billion-strong user base.

For our second example, I present Windows 8, the ambitious attempt by Microsoft to make some impact in the tablet space. With the iPad and assorted tablet devices eating into the sales of traditional PCs, Microsoft attempted to offer a “no-compromises” device that would function as both traditional computer and touch-screen tablet, with two distinct modes of interaction. Basically, the Redmond giant’s relevance in the post-PC era is declining rapidly, so their solution was to shoehorn the PC into a post-PC device.

The idea is one of those things that seems like an obvious step – offer the best of both worlds and attract consumers with the promise of a single, do-it-all device, while also painting your rivals as offering limited, under-powered gadgets.

But attempting to offer such a “no-compromises” device immediately throws up all sorts of problems about how to elegantly switch from one environment to another – and it was a practical design challenge Microsoft failed, with Windows 8 requiring users to hop repeatedly from classic Windows to the tile-based touch environment, resulting in much user frustration. In attempting to offer no compromises, Microsoft ended up producing a highly compromised Windows computer and a highly compromised tablet computer.

The market response has been devastating – PC sales declined 14 per cent in the last quarter, where new versions of Windows would normally be expected to cause a spike in sales. Microsoft is having to release Windows 8 Blue later this year to rectify some of the design problems that have so baffled users.

In both these cases, the companies claimed, and possibly even believed, they were designing to meet users’ needs. But in fact it’s pretty clear they were designing instead for their own needs, strategic attempts to shore up their relevance in an ever-changing technological landscape.

Zuckerberg is desperate to compensate for Facebook’s tardy response to the rise of mobile computing, while Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer is in the invidious position of having to play catch-up in a sector he insists Microsoft invented – the tablet.

But most Facebook users don’t need such an interface to keep up with their friends’ activities, and they sure don’t need it to make their smartphones more useful. And Windows 8’s clumsy mash-up of laptop and tablet ignored the fact that one of the attractions of the tablet form
is the way it removes the complexity of
the traditional desktop computing metaphor.

Facebook Home serves Zuckerberg’s needs, not his users; Ballmer offered a solution that attempted to solves Microsoft’s problems, not those of most consumers. There are numerous other examples in the technology sphere – Google+ is probably the pre-eminent case study, while Apple’s Ping was similarly misguided – and countless instances in other industries.

As a way of understanding why some products succeed or fail, asking whether it passes Thompson’s definition of design is a good first step. And as a way of conceiving new products, it should be an obligatory first step.

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