Thursday, July 15, 2010

The secrets of good product design.

Post 524 - There’s a certain amount of homework involved in recognizing and turning new technologies into new products. Steve Jobs of Apple says, “Mostly, this involves picking up things you can see on the periphery ... I always pay close attention to the whispers around me.” Jobs goes on to say that spotting new technology isn’t the hard part. “The hard part is, 'Who’s the customer? What’s the product? How are they going to buy it? How do you tell them about it?'”

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment” according to Eliel Saarinen.

People interact with products on two levels: physical and emotional. The physical part is called “ergonomics” - what feels good to people. Some designers call the emotional level "psychonomics"- what makes people feel good. The baseline of good design is a perfect balance between the two. Form and function are developed together and are intertwined. A design that stands the test of time is done as efficiently as possible and has nothing more than it needs to do the job. Charles and Ray Eames's molded-plywood chair of the 1940s is a perfect example. The wood was molded into flexible shapes that perfectly conformed to the body and absorbed shock when the sitter moved. Herman Miller's Aeron chair is descended from that Eames chair but it’s more concerned with performance - action, movement, and mobility.

Like the Eames chair, the Aeron is pared down mechanically to exactly what's necessary and its cushion uses the least amount of material needed to achieve comfort. That’s the real art and skill of a designer: to achieve elegance in design with the highest degree of efficiency. Ultimately, any well-designed product or experience acknowledges the user. It's that respect for the user that makes a design great. That's true for a table, a chair, a book, a film or a Web site.

Designing a product is not so much about the end product as it’s about the process of use. This is especially true for Web design, which isn’t dealing with an immutable, static object. Instead, the focus is on designing sequential, ongoing activities - creating a series of linked interactions and experiences.

However, it's always good to remember Doug Adams' observation: “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something to be completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.”

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