In his latest book, How Design Makes The World, Scott Berkun discusses how we can all use the power of good design to think more critically about everything we make and use. Here, he provides an exclusive excerpt – Chapter 3: What is Good?
Get more with membership: As a Mind the Product member you can read chapters 1, 2 and 3 (Everything Has a Design, Building vs. Designing and What is Good?). Read chapters 1, 2 and 3.
What is Good?
What would the best hammer in the world be like? Maybe you think it’s Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, which flies into his hand whenever he asks. Or perhaps it’s a high-tech, voice-activated and power-assisted Bluetooth model, which counts how many calories you burn for each nail that you put in. But this raises a challenge: Thor’s hammer is for war. It’s designed to be a weapon, with a heavy weight to maximize damage. It’d be tough to use it to build a house. And that Bluetooth model would require electricity to work. It wouldn’t be very helpful if you were stranded on a remote island. It turns out there are hundreds of different designs for hammers, from the small to the gigantic, as artist Hans Hollein expressed in the amazing image below.
This means we can’t really say that something is well designed unless we identify what it’s going to be used for. The same exact hammer, or mobile app, or law, can be either good or bad, depending on which problem we are trying to solve. The very same object can be thought of as both a fantastic survival hammer and, say, a terrible bread knife or a horrible Frisbee. It’s easy to think a thing being “good” or “bad” is intrinsic to the thing itself. We often say “this is a good couch” or “these are great shoes,” but this is a dangerous line of thinking for people who make things. It assumes goodness and badness are defined by the thing, rather than by what the thing is used for.
Good designers ask two questions throughout any project to make sure the context is well understood:
- What are you trying to improve?
- Who are you trying to improve it for?
Asking the first question (which sometimes takes the form “what problem are you trying to solve?”) forces everyone to clarify the goal. If we don’t explicitly discuss the goal, we assume it is good and everyone has the same one in mind. That can lead to a goal mismatch: where different people on the team are working toward different goals. Perhaps someone thinks they’re designing a war hammer for the battle of Ragnarök, but the problem that needs to be solved is slicing bagels for the weekly staff meeting (where one hopes no battle takes place). Or it could be as simple as one person believing the mission is to improve durability but another is trying to lower costs, goals that are likely at odds with each other. Eventually, smart organizations learn how good designers are at discovering these problems early on, when they’re cheaper and easier to solve.
The second question is just as powerful. The designer of the Notre-Dame fire system assumed the guard would be someone who knew what ZDA-110-3-15-1 meant, which was not the case. This seems like an obvious mistake to us, but we didn’t do the work. When your job is to both design and build, it’s easy to get lost in the challenging work of building and forget the needs of the people you’re doing all the work for and how much less about the details of the problem they will ever understand than the builder will.
The improved door shown in chapter one is a more interesting example. It seems like a good solution at first, but are we designing for people in wheelchairs? Or who only speak Hindi? What about people who are very short, tall or wide? Or have arthritis in their hands? Or are carrying a stack of hot pizza boxes while looking at their mobile phone?
This all means we should resist judging how good or bad an idea is until we clarify the problem to solve and who we are solving it for. Of course, it’s convenient to not bother doing this. Who wants more work? Answering questions takes time. But skipping this step will leave you guessing about what good means. Sometimes guesswork in design is fine, like if you’re building a sand castle on the beach or making chocolate chip cookies without a recipe. If things go poorly, the stakes are low. But no one wants their artificial heart or the brakes in their car designed by guesswork—or the banking application they use to deposit their paycheck, or the airline website they use to book their family vacation (not to mention the airplane itself).
For fun, let’s say that SuperAmazingDoorCo has a change of business strategy. They decide to become more design mature, integrating design tasks into their decision-making. They hire a researcher to quietly observe and study people using their doors in different buildings. They learn about the confusion their doors create and wisely take responsibility (instead of merely accusing their users of being stupid, a copout bad designers often use). They realize that a better design is a business opportunity, a way to improve sales and compete with other door companies.
They decide on criteria, or requirements, for what a good door is, listing the most important problems and goals to solve. The list would look something like:
- Easy to install
- Sturdy and reliable
- Appealing, in style and price, to building owners
- Easy for most people to use for basic door tasks
- Made from sustainable and reusable materials
This list improves the odds that SuperAmazingDoorCo makes better doors. Every person who worked there could think about their tasks for the day and compare them against the list, making sure the tasks helped with one or more of the goals. If the Notre-Dame fire system had a goal that said “make it easy for inexperienced and exhausted guards to immediately identify where fires are and take the correct action” the resulting design would have been much better.
But this doesn’t go far enough. What does “easy to install” or “basic” actually mean? Without asking more questions, there’s too much room for interpretation and design theater becomes likely. Easy could mean it takes thirty seconds or thirty minutes, the difference between a minor disturbance and a catastrophe at Notre-Dame. And what are basic door tasks? Is it just opening and closing, or does it include holding the door open for someone? Is walking with coffee a basic task, or carrying a small child? Once you commit to good design and start thinking clearly, another layer of questions is always revealed. This is good. Good questions lead to more good questions, just as good thinking leads to more good thinking.
Our two questions mean that terms like user-friendly or intuitive are as flawed as customer centric. They don’t mean anything without context, and used generically they’re another form of design theater. And design theater can show up in unusual places. Take, for example, this bottle and how it describes itself to potential customers.
While grocery shopping I was surprised to see the phrase “Easy to Use” on food packaging at all. It’s strange at first to think of foods being hard or easy to use, but our survival has always depended on the design of food. An apple has edible natural packaging, fits in one hand and the less enjoyable parts are conveniently tucked away in the middle. Most of the packaged food in supermarkets has been cooked or processed to make it more convenient to eat. Compare this to a coconut or pineapple, which require tools and effort to make edible at all (an artifact of their own design goal of reproduction, as the hard shell of coconuts cleverly protects the insides from impact when they fall, and from animals after they land).
Even so, it’s strange to employ “ease of use” as a sales tactic for, of all things, dehydrated onions. More galling is that none of the facts listed have anything to do with usability at all. First, all forms of onions last longer in a pantry than in a refrigerator, so that first bullet is a deception. Second, having no preservatives might be good for your health, but it’s an attribute of the onions, not of how they are used. In truth, the two most easy-to-use aspects of these onions aren’t even mentioned: first, that they are diced and ready to go, and, second, that, since they’re dehydrated, the fumes onions release that make us cry have been eliminated!
This is mostly just bad marketing, but that’s the point: “easy to use” is a marketing term more than one good designers use. Ease of use can be measured, but only by comparison: time to complete a task, frequency of errors people make and success/failure rates are common criteria, but someone has to do research and measurement to justify these claims. “New and improved” is another common marketing cliché: being new doesn’t guarantee something is good. And if it’s improved, it could just mean that it has progressed from being terrible to being slightly less terrible, which isn’t much of an achievement.
A similar word is intuitive, which means a design is natural for people to use. The problem is that, unlike spiders or snakes, which enter this world with abilities like web spinning or slithering built into their brains, humans aren’t born with any notable skills.¹ We can’t sit up, talk or walk for weeks or months, and don’t do these things well for years. What we call “natural” depends on an accumulation of what we learn through culture.
For example, a car steering wheel feels intuitive today because cars have been popular for a century, and we’ve seen them used in movies and on TV. But if you had a time-travel machine and handed a steering wheel to the Notre-Dame cathedral builders in 1163, or to the neural implant cyborgs in 2855 who have direct neural-Matrix interfaces, they’d have no idea what it was or how to use it. It would be definitively non-intuitive. This extends to the meaning of even trivial-seeming design choices in the present. The color red means danger or di(culty in Western countries (“red tape,” “in the red”), but means joy and happiness in much of Asia. And the “thumbs-up” hand gesture is a positive sign in the West but is the equivalent of the middle finger in West Africa and the Middle East.²
We often fall into the trap of calling something intuitive if it makes sense to us, and call it hard to use if it doesn’t. This assumes that everyone has the same knowledge and culture (ours!). It’s an understandable trap: we are primarily emotional creatures. Frustration and delight are intense experiences that supersede logic. If we hold a prototype of a new mobile phone or video game controller in our hand and it feels natural, that positive feeling outweighs the desire to ask “how is my hand different from other people’s hands?” or “how can someone with no hands at all make use of this?” Asking those healthy design questions puts our own sense of pleasure at risk, forcing our emotions and our reason to be in conflict.
Thor has supernatural strength, so for him lifting his hammer feels easy and natural. Until he watched someone else try, and fail, it’d be easy for him to forget most people are not like him. Powerful people like executives and politicians often forget how distant their daily life experience is from what their customers’ and constituents’ lives are like. It’s no wonder so many things in life seem perfectly made for the people who made them, and few others.
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As a Mind the Product member you can enjoy chapters 1, 2 and 3 of How Design Makes The World today (read all three chapters now), but that’s not all, you’ll also be able to join Scott for an AMA session on June 17, 9am PDT. Join today and, when you do, you’ll find all the information about this event, and more, on your membership dashboard.
Buy the Book
In addition to How Design Makes The World today, Scott is the author of seven other books including The Myths of Innovation, Confessions of a Public Speaker and The Year Without Pants. His work has appeared, in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Guardian, Wired magazine, USA Today, Fast Company, National Public Radio, CNN, NPR, MSNBC and other media.