A convergence of topics, and a design lesson (disguised as an Apple rant)

That phenomenon of a “just-in-time” tweet, or a particular passage in the book you are currently reading that you underline the hell out of (yes, I put marks in my books).

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately that have been creating an underlying convergence of thoughts, which in conversation sometimes trips me up when I can’t recall who said what, because in my head it starts to blend and tell the same story. When you are deep in problem-solving mode, and you are able to apply the requisite amount or head space to it, your mind becomes receptive to a multitude of stimuli. That just-in-time thing didn’t magically appear when you needed it; it was there the whole time. You were just in a mindset that could receive it in a useful way.

A quick stop to highlight the books I’ve been reading lately, roughly in order:

  • Designing with the Mind in Mind by Jeff Johnson
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • Microinteractions by Dan Saffer
  • The Black Swan (2nd Ed. with Anti-fragility essay) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • Service Design by Andy Polaine, et al.
  • Dark Matter and Trojan Horses – A Strategic Design Vocabulary by Dan Hill
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett
  • and currently, The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman (yes, I’m late to the party on this)

Last week, Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini’s epic more-than-just-a-rant article “How Apple is Giving Design a Bad Name” triggered a convergence of underlying thought.

The article naturally polarises people, and no doubt there are rebuttals due (even-handed or otherwise). I think it would be fair to say it was so long that many didn’t actually read it to the end. And that’s a shame, because behind the almost-click-bait headline there is a very good overview of important design guidelines, informed by scientific research from the field of psychology, with specific reference to Norman’s own books, and to his tenure at Apple.

The headline suggestion is that Apple is slowly changing their own guidelines to be weighted more and more toward visual aesthetics, at the expense of established usability principles.

Why does it matter? Because what Apple does is incredibly influential, and there are many people who follow their design trends. Not just designers, but the people who buy their services. E.g. “Look at this app on my iPhone. Can we do it like that?”, or “If it’s good enough for Apple, then it’s good enough for me”. Apple’s design is pervasive, so a swerve in this direction (gradual as it may be) could be perceived as dangerous. Call me crazy, but extra light typefaces and hidden signifiers to a vast array of affordances built into impressive technology might not be the right solution for every design problem. I’m generalising, but hopefully the point is made.

Aesthetics are important, but as Norman and Tognazzini point out, aesthetics are not just the veneer; aesthetics are also the experience, and the flow, and making sure to minimise instances of your target user feeling dumb. Know your audience. Do the work to design services and interactions that prevent failure. Sure, use established patterns and conventions. Use tried and tested design tricks. But make sure you’re solving the right problems, not someone else’s. Use the appropriate validation measures and tests, e.g. prototyping, usability testing (not “user testing” – thanks Katja).

Looping back to Kahneman, and other readings in psychology, everything is multiply determined. There is never just one thing that determines why people need what they need, do what they do, or indeed how they make decisions. There isn’t even one single part of the brain solely responsible for any given thought or action. Designing for humans isn’t easy (though as Kahneman and Dennett point out, we can stand on the shoulders of those before us to learn and do the work). One single convention isn’t going to solve everyone’s problems or meet their needs. Make sure your target users, and their needs, are as well defined as possible, and design for that.

And looping back to Taleb, build robustness into your design solutions to help meet those needs, and help humans achieve the goals that your service is supposed to provide. There are known knowns, and known unknowns. You can design for these.

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