It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of design as only skin deep. Products with good design have a competitive edge because they are “cool” and fashionable. Apple’s iPod and Motorola’s RAZR cell phone are examples that immediately spring to mind. And the business and design community often foster that view – just look at any article on Business Week about the latest hot new design.
Fashion is important – especially in this age of aesthetics (see Virginia Postel’s book on the subject The Substance of Style and her blog The Dynamist).
But usability may be even more important as a competitive advantage. If people can’t use the product, it really doesn’t matter how “cool” it is (at least for most people). And usability is where many products fail, as a recent Reuters story “Complexity causes 50% of product returns” points out:
Half of all malfunctioning products returned to stores by consumers are in full working order, but customers can’t figure out how to operate the devices, a scientist said on Monday.
Product complaints and returns are often caused by poor design, but companies frequently dismiss them as “nuisance calls,” Elke den Ouden found in her thesis at the Technical University of Eindhoven in the south of the Netherlands.
A wave of versatile electronics gadgets has flooded the market in recent years, ranging from MP3 players and home cinema sets to media centers and wireless audio systems, but consumers still find it hard to install and use them, she found.
The average consumer in the United States will struggle for 20 minutes to get a device working, before giving up, the study found.
Product developers, brought in to witness the struggles of average consumers, were astounded by the havoc they created.
She also gave new products to a group of managers from consumer electronics company Philips, asking them to use them over the weekend. The managers returned frustrated because they could not get the devices to work properly.
Most of the flaws found their origin in the first phase of the design process: product definition, Den Ouden found.
Product definition starts with understanding the user. In the 1990’s there was a movement in the engineering profession called “participatory design.” The idea was that maybe it was a good thing to have users involved in the design. That movement is still alive, but seems confined to software. In the traditional industrial design field, I am told that the concept of involving users — or even paying attention to user requirements — is still an alien idea. Students in leading design school are taught that the most important relationship is between them and the object. What the user does with the object is secondary. The notable exceptions to this mindset in the US apparently are the Stanford d-school and the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. (For example of Stanford’s approach to interdisciplinary teams see The Stanford Daily.)
I have complained earlier that design has been left out of the current discussions about improving our economic competitiveness. As part of the process of using design as a competitive weapon, maybe we need to also change the focus of design and stress the need for usability. Bringing the user into the process seems to me to be a common sense approach. At least any businessperson should be able to quickly understand the business opportunity that is presented by having 50% of your returns due to incomprehensibility of your product (unless of course you have the same boss as Dilbert).
Last month, in a piece in Business Week, Jeneanne Rae argued for “Bringing Innovation to the Classroom.” Part (but, as she argues only part) of that greater awareness of innovation is a better knowledge of product design. Maybe what we need to do as part of this whole competitiveness discussion is to get the business schools to work on product design — along with the design schools and engineering schools.
So, how about a series of fellowship, as Patrick Whitney suggested to me, that would bring practitioners and users — engineers, doctors, businessmen — into the design schools for a three month period? Or fellowships to have design students study mechanical engineering?
Product design can be one of America’s great competitive advantages. But we have to get over the hurtle of still designing products that people have a hard time using. That will take teamwork and interdisciplinary activity. Government policies and programs can, as they have in the best, help move business and academia in that direction. The result would surely boost our economic prosperity.