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February, 2006

Great Design

Joel Spolsky (of Joel on Software fame) hits on some points I've been meaning to write about for some time (and actually have written about before). He's working on a series of articles about great design. In his latest, "What Makes it Great" he asks the question: what allows the iPod, despite design flaws rise so far above the rest? There's a certain mystery to what makes a product rise to the top. Joel explains:

Getting every aspect of the design perfect, making a usable product, making the right tradeoffs between price and functionality, between flexibility and ease of use, between weight and battery life, etc., etc., etc., is all really important, but the most it can possibly get you is to #2.

In his series he's going to try and tackle the question of how to breakthrough to number one: how to create great design. It'll be fun to follow his thinking, as this is something I've been thinking about a fair amount lately. I was recently in a bathroom and couldn't help but notice how nice everything looked. It was clear that someone had thought about the aesthetics of the bathroom, not just thrown things together. But then, as I got further into the bathroom (like walking into a stall), design flaws started to become apparent.

First, there was a big column which made it difficult to close the door of the stall until you were fully on the other side. There just wasn't enough room to squeeze through. Then, when I went to wash my hands it wasn't a regular faucet, but rather one of these newfangled high design things. Rather than the regular hot and cold levers which you pull in opposite ways, it had one control which you could turn left or right for hot and cold. The thing was, when I tried to pull up the thing to turn it on nothing happened. Turned out you had to push down the lever to turn it on. Having used faucets for most of my life, I'd never run across a faucet like this. Just to prove I'm not crazy when I washed my hands later I again tried to pull up the lever before pushing it down, that was clearly my natural motion.

In the end, the aesthetics were nice, but it was not the full package. Someone had spent too much time deciding which fixtures would look nice and not enough thinking about what fixtures would work nice. That's not great design. Joel sums up his piece with an old quote of his about Jakob Nielsen, the usability guru. He writes:

"Every time I read Jakob Nielsen," I wrote in 2000, "I get this feeling that he really doesn't appreciate that usability is not the most important thing on earth. Sure, usability is important (I wrote a whole book about it). But it is simply not everyone's number one priority, nor should it be. You get the feeling that if Mr. Nielsen designed a singles bar, it would be well lit, clean, with giant menus printed in Arial 14 point, and you'd never have to wait to get a drink. But nobody would go there; they would all be at Coyote Ugly Saloon pouring beer on each other."

No one piece can complete the whole.

February 8, 2006
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.