Human Factor: Why is there so much bad design?

Bad design is everywhere, good design still in short supply. Why is that? Are not there enough experts? Is misdirected from somewhere? Is it in the nature of man? Let’s take a closer look together.

Yesterday I wanted to do a very simple task. I wanted to correct the time on my microwave. The clock went on for a few minutes, for whatever reason. Guess if I did it. Right, I did not make it. And I will not make it without the manual, which I did not want to search any more because of all the trouble. Is that my mistake? No. The design of the device is simply bad.

We all know far more bad than good design. To distinguish one from the other, you do not have to be a proven expert. Anyone can do that. To create good design, however, expert knowledge is required. Because the road to good design is paved with many decisions where you can easily hit the wrong one.

A good maxim is certainly the Einstein quote “Make things as easy as possible, but not simpler”. However, the problem seldom today is that a design would be too simple. Much more often we see overdesign. But let’s start with a few basics.

What design is

As Steve Jobs said, design is not just the look of a product, but also its functional core. The former Apple boss was downright a radical in design issues. When he returned to Apple in the late 1990s, he reduced the product portfolio from 350 products to around ten. The remaining development focus was placed on the remaining products. So you can say“Design is focus”, in relation to a trade mark in its entirety.

If we are in the place, we can attach now“Design is the brand”, For what are brands differentiating themselves in the first place these days? Exactly, about the design. This is particularly evident in the market of motor vehicles. Technically, there are hardly any relevant differences, but the design is sometimes radically different. Optics and user experience play a serious, if not for many even the only role when buying a car. The stronger the design, the more the brand is perceived. This leads to a competitive advantage.

If we do not want to look so alien, we just need to look at the app design of today. What are the differences between surfaces today? In many cases, differentiation only takes place via microinteractions, as I wrote in this article.

“Design is leadership”arises from this realization. If we now know that design is focused on focus and represents the brand, then we have to take on leadership roles with the design as well.

On the one hand, leadership concerns the aspect of usability. Products must be designed so that they can be used. It must be selected from many different conceivable variants the one that most closely matches the user. So we can not leave it up to the user how he interacts with the product, but we need to make it clear for him to feel confident in using the design.

Incidentally, this was not only the fault of the manufacturer of the microwave, which I mentioned earlier, but also of the manufacturer of my state-of-the-art, pyro-self-cleaning oven. There the clock is even on summer time and I just do not get changed. Wait a little while …

On the other hand, the aspect of leadership also concerns the question of the diversification of the product range. We must assume that the vast majority of potential users of our designs are not experts in using the product. It makes no sense to offer many products of the same kind with slightly different features. By the way, it would be nice if it was finally recognized by major manufacturers such as Asus, Acer and what they are called.

Or let’s look at the smartphone landscape, where a major supplier like Samsung makes a good dozen different similar offerings, while Apple essentially makes three. The potential buyer has a much easier time deciding. The designer has to make sure that his design represents a good combination of all possibilities, so that the buyer does not later come to the conclusion, due to missing features, that he made a wrong purchase. The approach of “design is leadership” therefore means a great responsibility that should not be taken lightly.

Otherwise we can do the important thing“Design solves a problem”not satisfactorily implement. As a designer, we always start from a problem to be solved, never from the solution as the focus of consideration. In other words, “People do not want to buy drills, they just want holes in the wall.”

What do you think? Was this drill bought for beauty? (Photo: Depositphotos)

At the core of the design process we must then additionally the principle“Design is easy”heed. If we collapse the above principles and distill, nothing else can come of it. At the same time, it is very difficult to comply with this principle. There are a number of reasons why this is so.

If we have managed to implement the above principle, then it is true“Design is timeless”, That may sound like you have to design a product just once in the right way and then become unemployed. And at the highest level, that’s true.

Fortunately, technological progress reliably puts us in the position to create new innovations that were simply not possible by that time. So seven-millimeter-thick smartphones were certainly in the nineties, a better design concept for mobile phone calls, but we did not have the technical means to implement. Insofar as one can be quite confident, designers will keep their jobs for a long time. I have dealt with the job security of web designers in times of digitization in this article.

In addition, applies“Design is in the details”and“Design is created by observation”, We often find that a good design can be perfected by working on individual details. We gain this insight through observation.

It’s not that rare that we’ve overlooked one or more points, perhaps even unexpected aspects, in our deliberations on how the user will probably handle the design. It is up to us to make the necessary changes. As “necessary” I define already identified optimization potentials, not just already recognized functional deficits.

What design should not be, but unfortunately is too often

Let us now turn to the aberrations that you can easily see in every corner of the world if you want it.

Self-love: Design as a solution in itself

Of course, design should offer a solution. However, the underlying problem really has to exist. What we see many times today is that companies are developing products and services that may offer terrific solutions. However, they do not enforce when there is no need for the user.

Design must therefore solve an actual problem that literally burns people under their nails. A design for its own sake is not good, even if it is beautiful.

If your own reflection is the most beautiful … (Photo: Depositphotos)

In the same direction are designs that stand out from similar designs only by being designed by someone else. When I look at the myriad of me-to-app apps in the app stores around the world, this problem keeps coming to my attention. There is no point in offering a solution to a problem that has already been solved in many ways, if the solution does not differ fundamentally from others and is even better.

In general, one may argue with impunity that creative people are always a bit self-centered. But this must not lead to a self-love in such a way that one raises oneself to the measure of all things. Design must always be modest. The most effective solutions are often the simplest. There is no room for narcissism.

Fear: Design as Everybody’s Darling

You can understand it for a while. Companies want to bring products to men and women. That’s hard enough. As you know, nothing is more difficult than getting money from other people. So it always resonates with every product with fear. Will you like it? Will it sell? Should not we build this or that variant if someone does not like variant A?

So Apple was before 1997. Heap-wise products, sometimes only with a doctor to configure, glued the clear view of the unique selling point. Everybody’s Darling is fast becoming Everybody’s Dork. And so Apple was about to go out. Of these, today, with a radically reduced, clearly focused portfolio, there can be no talk.

More than three years ago, a radical design decision was made in California, namely the renunciation of the headphone jack on the iPhone. You do not do that when you’re scared. And that’s how Phil Schiller sold it at the Apple Congress in San Francisco. The decision required courage, he said, and Apple has courage. Of course, not everyone agrees with that, but that was exactly the same ten years ago when Apple introduced the iPhone, a mobile phone without a keyboard (!).

Three years later, we see more and more smartphones waiving the headphone jack. Which I have by no means said that I think this design decision is the right one. Here even the opposite is the case. In the meantime, I have tried over a dozen Bluetooth headphones and have found no unreservedly recommendable. While running, I use cable headsets with USB adapters for sound quality and endurance, which is ultimately a joke.

Nevertheless, design must make clear decisions and endure them. Fear is a bad adviser, but at the same time one of the reasons for many bad everyday designs.

Greed: Design for fast sales

Shortly after the introduction of the first iPhone, it came to imitators in the cheapest segment. The devices looked quite similar, so you could say they were well designed. However, they made far too many unbearable compromises for price reasons, so in the end they were just a shadow of the original design. Why were they built anyway? From greed, the desire for fast turnover, after the exploitation of deadweight effects.

Greed is an equally bad adviser. (Photo: Depositphotos)

The big manufacturers are not immune to this form of greed. My favorite example of greed design is Nintendo, in many ways. Look at the revenue earners, such as Pokmon. About every two years, a new game for the small consoles of the house comes out. Each has changed virtually nothing. The principle is identical, only the “world” in which one moves is slightly (but very slightly) different.

Or let’s take the company’s handheld, Nintendo 3D and its successors. Again and again, Nintendo tried to initiate exclusive developments for the latest model by making only slight changes. This never worked, because both the customers and the game developers were able to see with their naked eyes that the “new” model was not much more than old wine in new hoses.

In the end, this insight was also able to prevail at Nintendo and so the patient customer can look forward to the quite innovative console called Switch. Here you will find a hybrid of TV recordable and handheld gaming device. Also the available games are no longer limited to candy colored blocks.

A variant of greed, if that sounds a bit strong, is the goal of reaching or undercutting a certain market price. In this case, compromises are always made that are at the expense of the design. That’s fine to a degree, because it’s inevitable. After all, we do not live in Utopia. Adherence to reasonable limits is a deliberate design decision.

Developing products only out of greed is a strategy that is only successful in the short term, if at all. Nevertheless, it is constantly tried, which in turn does not go unnoticed and is also one of the reasons for bad everyday designs.

Umklammerung: Design to design

Once designers fall in love with their design, anything can happen. Then add a function here and there. And all for the reason that you can do it. The designer has created something that he does not want to solve now. You may know that from the plush garden of your grandfather. Here comes a little tree, there is still a rose, there is still a paved area. And if you look around after two years, the garden looks like Sanssouci, just over a hundred square meters.

But in the case of your grandfather, what’s perfectly alright is generally a disaster in terms of design. Also this aspect explains many, mostly overloaded acting everyday designs.

Conclusion: Man is the problem

Design itself is a largely objectifiable matter. If you design and execute the process cleanly, the best approaches are almost self-evident. You have to adhere to some basic rules of course.

Only when the human factor gets out of hand does bad design emerge. Or if you let someone design someone who simply can not. 😉

(Image credits) Product Image: The likeable hipster in front of the notebook comes from the portfolio of DepositPhotos)

(The article first appeared in April 2018 and has been kept up to date since then, the last update was on March 11, 2019.)