Innovation and design: The coolness (and unusability) of our rich friends’ houses

What is often thought of as "good" design is, in actuality, cool design. While there is certainly nothing wrong with cool design per se, and while cool is something to which we should always aspire, cool does not automatically denote usable. In fact, the two can often be in direct conflict. So as we innovate, we need to make sure that we are doing it for more than just a J.D. Powers award or an invite to a design conference.
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innovation and design

Philippe Starck’s juicer. Steve Jobs’s iPhone. Marcel Breuer’s chair. Among the design community, these products are practically synonymous with good design. When we see them, the words “elegant,” “sleek” and “refined” come to mind. That is quite the trifecta of modifiers. What designer wouldn’t want their creations to be called that? “Elegant,” “sleek” and “refined” get good press. They get people talking. They win awards. They summon skinny people in black shirts out of enchanted bottles to speak at global design conferences and drop references to brutalist architecture. We see these types of design and the fanfare around them all of the time. It is very inspiring, and the smooth surfaces and rounded edges of these products seem to promise escape from the hard-edged, coarse lives we often lead. No doubt about it, these products are cool.

But are they usable?

What is often thought of as “good” design is, in actuality, cool design. While there is certainly nothing wrong with cool design per se, and while cool is something to which we should always aspire, cool does not automatically denote usable. In fact, the two can often be in direct conflict.

The new Lytro Light Field Camera provides an excellent example of cool design failing to be usable. The technology behind this camera is insanely cool. As if able to manipulate the laws of Time itself, the camera allows you to take a picture now and focus later. What’s more, the creators housed this game-changing technology inside a form factor that is rebelliously minimalist and un-camera-like. It is essentially a little rectangular box with a lens on one small end and an LCD on the other small end. You hold it like you would hold a tiny kaleidoscope; the casing includes almost no controls.

That’s where the coolness ends and the issues begin. Feedback from customers suggests a great technological leap forward delivered in an unusable product. The LCD screen is too small to manipulate, the magnetic lens cap is not secured to the camera and is easily lost, and holding the camera to shoot a picture is awkward. Consensus seems to be that people are very excited about the technology but plan to wait until the creators iron out the ergonomic problems (and add some features like shutter speed control) in future iterations.

But we don’t need to buy a brand new camera to experience instances of exquisite design being unusable. Ever been to a rich friend’s house? You go to use the bathroom and spend ten minutes trying to figure out how to get hot water out of the sink or you burn your face off trying to get cold water out of their shower. Your friend spent kingly sums on their interior furnishings, never once considering that their family and loved ones would have to seek medical treatment after wrestling with their eight-headed Shower of Woe. These high-end sinks, toilets and showers are often breathtaking examples of minimalist design, but basic usability considerations like affordances are either an afterthought or not a thought at all.

Then there are companies who successfully marry coolness and usability of design. Consider something as basic as the Good Grip line of products put out by OXO (Even the company’s name is intentionally cool and usable – you can turn it any direction and still read it as “OXO”). Can oxo can openeropeners were once a misery to use. Every twist forced hard metal edges into the palm of your hand.  And many of us refused to move to electric can openers because they seemed like overkill – a Rube Goldberg device for hitting a key on a piano. Then along comes a company like OXO and now the task of opening a can is painless. As another example, Dyson is often hailed for creating effective products with usable design. Most notable among these is their series of vacuum cleaners, which have garnered many positive reviews. I admittedly have never used one, and would appreciate your feedback if you have. The general consensus, though, seems to be that Dyson vacuums are feature-rich while remaining easy to use.

We designers at Nuance can take a lesson from these examples. We need to avoid building gorgeous interfaces that are difficult to use. Natural language understanding offers a perfect opportunity to either succeed or fail at this. If we design the prompt too “simply” and just assume that simple aesthetics means simple use (e.g. “How may I help you?”), it stands to become the speech equivalent of the Lytro camera; a sleek, refined, powerful entity that is baffling to the end user. What does it understand? What are the rules of engagement? Can I speak to it like another person?

Don’t get me wrong. Cool can be married with usable, as the OXO and Dyson examples show us. When our U.S. Airways system plays out callers’ names, it is simple, sleek, elegant, and also very cool. That little touch engages callers, communicates intelligence, and puts our IVR’s at the forefront of 21st century design.

Now I write this next paragraph as an admitted outsider who doesn’t know what I’m talking about.  I have been only tangentially involved in Nuance Nina, but I would imagine that multi-modal projects need to consider this “cool vs. usable” issue as well. From the presentations, IxD documents, and usability tests I’ve seen, Nina is amazing, and its iconography is no exception. A lot of thought has clearly gone into creating an interface with just enough anthropomorphism to communicate state, but not so much as to be creepy or off-putting. However, we continue to challenge ourselves even here. Work is underway right now to gauge the differences in discoverability and user engagement when using variations in the Nina persona. When should we use a microphone, when should we use an anthropomorphic design, when should we embed Nina into a search bar or other existing UI paradigm? I’m sure that more than coolness and usability are at stake here, and I would love to hear some feedback.

I hope the point of this post is clear. It is directed at me as much as it is to others: As we innovate, we need to make sure that we are doing it for more than just a J.D. Powers award or an invite to a design conference. While flooring people with cool innovations, we need to make sure our designs are facilitating task completion and increasing user satisfaction.

[Straightens cummerbund and bow tie] Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a dinner party to attend. “[beep] Give me directions to my rich friend’s house.”

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Jonathan Bloom

About Jonathan Bloom

Jonathan Bloom is a senior user interface manager for Nuance’s Enterprise Division. He joined Nuance's team in 1999 as part of Dragon Systems where he was the company's first usability engineer. He has designed both graphic and speech interfaces for IVR’s, dictation software, automotive, and mobile applications. Jon took a detour for some time to work for a startup called SpeechCycle (now part of Synchronoss) where he contributed to the creation of an infrastructure for generating completely data-driven user interfaces. He lives in New Jersey and works out of Nuance's New York office. In addition to managing a team of senior designers, Jon also sits on Nuance’s Innovation Steering Committee and continues to design on his own projects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the New School Graduate Faculty. Jon is also a husband, father of two, self-published fiction author with a black belt in Isshinryu karate.