Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On designing

Lots of talk this week about design, including Business Week writer Bruce Nussbaum's broadside on arrogant designers, and reaction here, here and here.

I am a rank amateur when it comes to the aesthetics of design. For example, my wife created the vision and look for our house's new addition, specifying materials, sizes, configurations; my biggest contribution was to appreciate the result.

With regards to technology products, I perhaps have more to offer. Aesthetics are a small (though significant) part of what constitutes design for tech products. A much larger component is answering this question:

What will the product do, and what will it not do?

The functions of traditional products (buildings, furniture, housewares) are typically constrained by tradition, physics and the properties of the materials used. Designers of high-tech products, especially those that are software-driven, face innumerable choices about what to include (a term has emerged describing a typical result: "software bloat"). The first personal computers sidestepped these decisions by providing platforms with little built into them (except a compiler--the message to users was, "use it for whatever you can build!"). Word processing programs, spreadsheets, Powerpoint, games, web browsers, anti-virus programs, e-mail programs, etc., followed.

Formerly lower-tech products like automobiles and airplanes now confront this scoping problem. BMW replaced radio knobs with iDrive, a function-stuffed, nearly unusable system. Delays in Airbus's A380 project stemmed not from issues with airworthiness, but from problems with the 300+ miles of electrical wiring.

iDrive and PCs demonstrate the biggest negative side effect of the urge to function-stuff. The more things a product can do, the harder it is for mere mortals to use. Consider the following question: if you have one PC in the house, in which room do you place it?

Apple's genius with the iPod, iMovie and other products was to design them to do less, to make them supremely usable (and good-looking) and of limited functionality. For them, the iPhone will pose a challenge: how to create something with as many uses as a Swiss Army knife but which doesn't baffle its buyers.

(Picture by Annette via stock.xchng)

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