The Irritation of Everyday Things

Tom Peters

I open the driver’s side door, lay down on my stomach across the seat, contort my left arm, and reach back to insert the key in the ignition—and turn the engine on. Then I rock back and push the little button (trying to hit the right one among eight) that sends the seat backwards. A tuck and reverse and I’m in the driver’s seat.

Honest! That’s exactly what I have to do when driving my wife’s Sterling if she was the last to use the car. I can’t even wedge my legs in under the steering wheel; and the designers of the electronic marvel overlooked any mechanical control for adjusting the seat.

Perhaps you should stop here. If I succeed in turning you into a product design and usability fanatic, you’ll rue the day you read this. You’ll forever wander about irritated at the inconsideration that designers and manufacturers exhibit toward us buyers.

My antennae went up after laughing/weeping my way through Donald Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things. “Over the years I have fumbled my way through life,” engineer-turned-psychologist Norman writes, “walking into doors, failing to figure out water faucets, incompetent at working the simple things of everyday life. ‘Just me,’ I would mumble. … But as I … watched the behavior of other people, I began to realize that I was not alone. … While we all blame ourselves, the real culprit—faulty design—goes undetected.”

Norman examines how the mind tries to make sense of things. And how designers get in the way. “Well-designed objects are easy to interpret and understand,” he says. “They contain visible clues to their operation. Poorly designed objects … provide no clues—or sometimes false clues. … Alas, poor design predominates.”

When design “works” the principles are almost obvious; for example, “natural mapping” of light switches for an auditorium: The layout of the switch panel mimics the pattern of the lights themselves. But most of the illustrations peppering the book are bad, even ludicrous. Take Norman’s car radio: “Twenty-five controls, many apparently arbitrary. … Imagine trying to use the radio while driving at high speed, at night. Or in winter when wearing gloves, so that the attempt to push one button succeeds in pushing two. … A car radio should be usable with a minimum of visual cues. But the radio designers probably designed it in a laboratory, with little or no thought about the car, or the driver. For all I know the design won a prize for its visual aesthetics.”

How important is all this? Authors John Dixon and Michael Duffey, writing in the California Management Review, go so far as to argue that “market loss by U.S. companies is due to design deficiencies more than manufacturing deficiencies.” They echo a theme laid out by British management expert Chris Lorenz in his book, The Design Dimension. Industrial design, Lorenz insists, is one of the most powerful new bases for fundamental product differentiation. But the Americans and British routinely give it short shrift; our designers are typically looked upon as “mere stylists” rather than full-scale members of product development team. When design considerations permeate a firm, Lorenz finds, the designers perform a lead role in integrating the entire product development process. Japan’s Sony and Italy’s Olivetti are classic cases in point.

While Norman also laments corporate neglect that fosters lousy design, he saves his most pointed barbs for the designers themselves. “‘It probably won a prize’ is a disparaging phrase in this book,” Norman writes. “(T)he reward structure of the design community tends to put aesthetics first. Design collections feature prize-winning clocks that are unreadable, alarms that cannot easily be set, can openers that mystify.” Moreover, Norman claims, designers “become so expert in using the object they have designed that they cannot believe that anyone else might have problems.”

In the 60 days since finishing Norman’s book, I’ve listed 73 everyday design and usability sins that I’ve encountered. These included tiny irritants, such as a hotel elevator where the basement appears as floor “one” and floor “two” is the lobby. Then there’s the high-tech lamp switch that’s activated by a touch anywhere on its outer skin; unfortunately, it turns on intermittently, due to random forces in the ethers. (Is it random? Mine always comes on just after I’ve dropped off to sleep.)

I have a few “good” entries, too. Avery Office Products’ Legal Size File Box is one. Directions for assembly are clear as day, and ingenious traits turn two flimsy pieces of cardboard—body, lid—into a rigid container in seconds. Moreover, putting this box together makes me feel like a mechanical genius.

Start a list of your own. Go berserk over hotels’ plastic shampoo packets that won’t tear (or bite!) open while you stand, soggy and fuming, in the shower. Get fighting mad about warranty or application forms that a rocket scientist couldn’t get through. Raise your consciousness about the design and usability of everyday objects. Allow yourself to become irritated at the designer and manufacturer instead of feeling frustrated with yourself. You’ll quickly become convinced of how much better we could do—and how important that could be to your business.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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