We got a new washer and dryer set recently. The curves and sleek cherry red paint job and chrome detailing remind me of a classic car. Instead of “start” buttons, both units have large “play” and “pause” buttons that light up when pushed. They look like remediations of later generations of portable CD players. And, for example, when the dryer is done, it alerts you with a gentle ring-tone sound. Amazing AND pleasant. Not like the full volume “BEEEP!” my old dryer used to scream out giving me a heart attack if I was standing next to it. I never thought I’d be so excited about such items of domesticity…but the design of them has me excited. That is brilliant on many levels.
And now, I geek out about why this is cool:
What is new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media. New digital media oscillate between immediacy and hypermediacy, between transparency and opacity. This oscillation is the key to understanding how a medium refashions its predecessors and other contemporary media.
Donald Norman wrote a book called The Design of Everyday Things and makes the following points.
Designing with the user in mind has historically been a problem with telephones and their designs, as pointed out by the author (and to which I concur!). He notes the many different problems that can be experienced with a phone system for example, poor instructions, too many command functions, arbitrary letters (‘R’) on the phone, etc. The author notes that lack of visibility and a poor conceptual model create these phone problems, which in turn can create the “telephone chase” (of which I am also familiar with). Another problem is that any feature not associated with negativity, regardless of it creating a positive function, will likely be left alone by the designers, creating arbitrary and useless functions that don’t evolve out of the design.
Another aspect of design discussed is AFFORDANCES, or, “what the object is for” (perceived and actual properties of the item) which is embedded in the psychology of materials. When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking at it: no pictures, label or instruction is required. When simple things need pictures, labels or instructions, the design has failed.
FEEDBACK is also an important aspect of successful design: sending back to the user information about what action has actually been done. i.e. When a button on the phone is pushed, one can hear a beep as a cause of their action of pushing it. “When an action has no apparent result, you may conclude that the action was ineffective. So you repeat it.” (This reminds me of the “click” sound of the clunky buttons on a cassette player walkman.)
Norman reminds us of the CONCEPTUAL MODEL, the mental simulation of a device’s operation. Other clues come from visible structures of items – in particular from AFFORDANCE, CONSTRAINTS, and MAPPINGS. Visible relationships help determine a discernable relationship between the actions and the end result as given in the example of the pair of scissors.
The author points out that fundamental principles of design for people 1) provide a good conceptual model and 2) make things visible. He uses the car as a good example of design because of visibility and placement of objects in a car (natural mappings). MAPPING, being the term for the relationship between two things. Some natural mappings are cultural or biological as in the rising level meaning a greater amount <and a diminishing level meaning less >.
MENTAL MODELS, the models people have of themselves, others, the environment and the things they interact with. The mental model of a device is formed by interpreting its perceived actions and its visible structure. The example of the refrigerator temperature control instructions design failure is given. The visible part of the device is what the author calls the SYSTEM IMAGE. When the system image is incoherent or inappropriate such as in the refrigerator example, usability problems occur. VCR programmability in the 1980s seemed to reflect this same problem.
An example of good design given is the 3 1/2 inch floppy diskette and the felt-tipped pen: subtle design cues on both that are functional, visible and aesthetically unobtrusive. I would also volunteer a door key (or skeleton key, for that matter) being of good design.
Design failures, even though the idea may be good (like voice commands on a camera), cannot take hold if they go through three redesigns after being released to the public. The general concensus is that the idea will fail. The author notes that it takes 5 or 6 tries to get an idea right within production.
The paradox of technology is that technology is intended to make life easier and that the development of technology typically goes through a U curve of complexity: starting high, dropping to a low, comfortable level then climbing again.
And in the end all I can say is “how cool is this?”