Tim Rich: Object lessons to learn

We can all empathise with Tim Rich when he accidentally videos Heartbeat instead of Frasier, but he’s unsure whether the fault lies with himself or with bad design

I have an affliction. Objects that others find easy to use often confuse and bemuse me. My dysfunction comes and goes. I may be entirely competent one moment, hopeless the next. The diagnosis is intermittent contraptionitis.

One side effect is a suspicion of seemingly helpful everyday paraphernalia. To you a stapler is a stapler; to me it is a spring-loaded devil capable of nailing my digits to a piece of A4. Packaging often defeats me, I can’t master swipe cards (too quick, too slow), releasing the petrol cap of a hire car is akin to untying the Gordian knot and I am to DIY what Vlad the Impaler was to community relations.

It is tempting to blame others for our misfortunes, but I have always taken responsibility for my object-stupidity. Last week someone offered me a different

point of view. I was attempting to make coffee when a friend – an accomplished designer of information and information technology – appeared. ‘I have contraptionitis,’ I intoned, and held up a jar topped with a jagged crown of foil, granules and fingernail. ‘Nonsense,’ he replied. ‘You’re simply experiencing bad design.’

He proceeded to offer a succinct dismissal of the coffee jar’s design. Each arrow to the heart of the errant designer lifted the weight of blame from my shoulders. With coffee and hot water now safely located in two mugs, my liberator requested the addition of milk. I pulled back the wings of the carton and a white Tsunami crashed on to his shoes. ‘Forget bad design, you’re an idiot,’ he scowled.

My affliction raises questions. What level of competence can a designer expect of a user or viewer? How do you judge whether a mishap or mistake is bad design, bad luck, a user’s unconscious desire to cause an accident or simple stupidity? Getting lost in a building, not understanding the front cover of a company brochure, video-taping Heartbeat instead of Frasier – when should we put something down to ‘human error’ and when should we put down the designer? And to what degree should a designer risk user confusion in pursuit of innovation?

Truth is, the line between user error and design error is wide, grey and prone to blurry edges. It is in the relatively new discipline of Web design that this line, let’s call it the responsibility line, has been most widely discussed and researched. Two key and opposed views dominate: some Web designers prefer to leave the digilliterates behind and chase innovation, while proponents of usability-led interaction, such as Jakob Nielsen, have established a strong case for designing from the least savvy user up.

There are now numerous research papers and usability principles to guide Web designers. Many other design disciplines lack such discussion and formal rigour. For example, in the absence of widely agreed principles on how the current British public reads and sees, most graphic designers make judgements about readers or users on the basis of previous experience, common sense, aesthetic truisms and hope. Consumer research may now be considered a mature activity, but user research is just entering its early teens.

Is this a problem? I’m not sure. I know of projects where comprehensive user testing has led to an unnecessarily conservative solution. I also know of countless design projects where a pinch of instinct, professional care and some basic nous has created excellent, user-friendly design. But – Web design aside – perhaps it is our industry’s reliance on such intangibles, and its failure to generate and circulate enough thorough and innovative user research, that causes business and the public to doubt the value of what we do?

In the unforgiving world of commerce, dysfunction can be damaging. A few thickos is one thing, but if many people have a bad experience it can kill a product or service. We are told that people are increasingly design, technology and media literate, but it is dangerous to overestimate the public’s ability to interact with something. The word danger probably springs to mind, as I’ve just seen a remarkable statistic about design and health. Each year around 70 000 British people are so badly injured by packaging that they have to go to a casualty department.

It seems I’m not so unusual after all. A large chunk of the British population appears to share my ability to transform a simple manual operation into an urgent medical operation. Perhaps we should get together – a rent-a-buffoon service may be just what designers need to idiot-proof their work.

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