The importance of invisible design

I want to mention about the the difference between cheap products and expensive products, and how that materialises in the light of product testing Vs usability testing.

Both ‘should’ be done – but with cheap products the second rarely is.

a cheap alarm clock radio will ‘work’ in its purpose and functionality.
An expensive alarm clock radio, will do the above _and_ work how a person needs it to work.

What’s the difference?
How human beings use products, extends beyond operational design. Think ergonomics. 4 legs, a back and a seat = a chair, but that doesn’t mean you can sit in it. Luckily, really bad chairs don’t often get made, because we know what is comfortable just by looking at something. However digital hardware, and particularly application and/or software products fall into a big trap at an early hurdle if usability isn’t considered.

How can this lack of usability testing materialise in an alarm clock radio?

If all the combinations of the technical functions can work perfectly, yet if when waking up to the radio in the morning, the clock displayed the radio station you were listening to, rather than the time. The clock then fails to function for the way that a person would need it. It would cease to be usable as a clock. Re-read this again if you didn’t catch it. The clock changes from being a clock, to being a radio – instead of a clock radio.  This very minor change in the software, yet a significant change in the way that it affects our usability and therefore our lives.

Surely this obvious error wouldn’t happen, right? Wrong. Massive companies make big mistakes all the time with brand new products off the shelves that ‘fail’ in the way that we need them. And what do we do about bad usability in product design? Return the goods? No, we don’t. We adjust our lives either to continue using the product, knowing that it isn’t perfect, or worse, we don’t recognise the impact of the issue and slowly stop using it altogether.

These errors of ‘invisible design’ will have an effect on how we interact, and embrace the use of these goods or services for the rest of the time we are in contact with them – which is why, we tend to shift them out of our lives depending on the way that they effect us. It is how people can end up holding on to items – clothing, books, exercise machines, blenders, whatever it may be, yet never throwing them out, because they are pretty much brand new. We buy things, we use them not realising the impact they are having on us with their faults.

With application and software development, usability testing is much easier, there’s always a thousand beta testers available to give something a go. However adjusting a fundamental way that a piece of software works ‘after’ the bulk of the work has been done, can often be the bane of a programmers life, expensive, time consuming, and lets face it, pretty vague to figure out.

Luckily, as with the chair example, smart programmers and product designers think through the usability into their productions. Unfortunately the bigger the demand and greater the pressure, the more transparent the invisible design becomes, until it isn’t even considered important at all.

The end result can be, weak or no signups, little or few downloads after much pimping, and hardly any click-throughs and ad revenue even if the product looks fantastic and is of real need by your audience.

How and why people don’t use something has as much to offer us as how and why people do.

Look around your life, computer and home. Do you have products, services and goods that don’t get used any more, even though they are virtually brand new and in perfect working order?

…and ask yourself, if you changed your mind, or if the product changed your mind for you.


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