Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Forgetfulness of Design

So I've had a little trouble finding an interface I actually liked. I guess I could blame Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things, but it would be rather fruitless of an exercise. So, here's my thoughts on a particular design, probably with a touch of good, that has some flaws found within.

The example I give is that of the locking (and unlocking) system of my 2006 Toyota Corolla CE, a fine vehicle. One problem though! I couldn't intuitively learn the features of it, specifically one that would require me to take numerous extra steps!

As outlined in the photo below, the manual does an excellent job of explaining the features of the locking system. Things like that the doors can be opened while the car is moving but also the lock/unlock features using the keylock. Also more obtuse things, like the directions of unlocking and locking...who decided "forward" and "backward" were good terms to explain the key turning? How about "right" or "left"? Or better yet, which is more intuitive for the action? Who knows...

It's understood that one can lock in one direction and unlock in the other. But what kind of feedback do you get to know that the doors are locked? None—the locking indicator inside the car is out of purview, the sound feedback of it locking or unlocking is indistinguishable between either and so the user must resort to the task of pulling on the door handle of the door just locked, usually the driver-side door. You are then on your own to know if the other doors have locked. How about when this is on a dark night? Is there any afforandance to this? No, you're just out of luck.

It's a given to expect for the user to have a little trouble in getting the system down as the designer's intended, but there is also the case of how many doors do each door unlock. So, how many do they unlock? Well, the rear doors intuitively don't unlock any. That's a given since they don't have keyholes to begin with! But the front two doors have more than meets the eye.

The feature given is to either lock one door or two. But how does the user know that? With the passenger-side front door, the user can easily notice it opens two. Aah! Easier actions, two people can enter the vehicle. But if the driver unlocks their door first, then they're in for a surprise. It only opens the driver door, nothing more. Maybe this is a safety feature (for those dark nights), but what recompense does the user have in way of opening the other doors? Little, except to open the driver-side door and use the power locks to unlock the others (or do so manually).

That's all unless the user digs deep down in the nice glossy 50-plus-page owner's manual to find the section on unlocking doors. Ah hah! There is another way after all! Two turns in the unlock direction gives you the secret password to opening the doors. "Open, Simsim," indeed!

"The Design of Everyday Things": A Review

Posted comment on George's blog and Drew's blog

Donald Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things turned out to be an exciting and thought-provoking read. Although going into a repetitive cycle of discussion. He takes a deliberately non-technological focus in his book. And, though dated (1980's), the information is as crisp, refreshing and pertinent today as it was when ink was pressed into the pages of its first edition. He takes the reader on a survey (describing psychological points along the way) of good designs but also bad ones. The book closes with a justified look at user-centered design and a summary of good length to remember: fads change but good design remains timeless.

As I mentioned before, the reading got to be a tad repetitive as little was substantially added towards the end of the book, but in all I found the examples of design (and bad design) to be spot on. Who knew a teapot could be so laughingly designed? I found myself to be looking at everyday things much more with a critical eye after reading this book. I began to stop more and think: what's wrong (or right) with this picture? How is this improvable? In the end, looking at the bad designs of things can give you more answers of how to do it right than most well-designed items. Counter-intuitive as this supposition may be, it's important to learn from past mistakes than trying to reinvent the square wheel...and realizing it won't roll down the hill.

So, in closing, I think the author did what he accomplished to do at the start—provoke thinking of objects and their required actions and have the reader think: how can we improve that?