January 31, 2014

Design: More Than Just a Pretty Face

“Design” is a term that seems to have taken the world by storm in the last decade. Much of this obsession with design can be traced back, in my opinion, to Apple’s wild success and Steve Jobs’ well-documented attention to every minute detail of Apple’s products. Designers like Apple’s Jony Ive are the new rock stars of the business world, a development that would have been unthinkable a few short years ago.

As design has entered the every-day lexicon, however, the word has become so overused that in my opinion it has lost some of its meaning. In this blog post I will share my perspective on a wide array of issues around the subject of design to give my answer to the question, “What is design?”

Defining Design

Let me first begin by defining the concept of design, what it means, and how it impacts our lives. Designing in its simplest form is essentially a problem-solving approach. People just naturally design solutions to every day problems. One can see this in people who do not have an official title of a “Designer.”

Looking back in history, the visionary John D. Rockefeller, who pioneered the oil business, applied design thinking to solve core business problems. Plagued by the rising cost of transporting oil via trains, Rockefeller devised a problem solving approach that designed a new way to transport oil, using oil pipelines. That was some 170+ years ago. And this is as much a “design” as it is when we design software products.

There is no dearth of design examples around us. Looking at the real world, the roads we use and the cars we travel in while commuting from home to work and everything that we touch in our daily lives are examples of design. People have designed solutions like transportation systems and vehicles in response to a real-world problem. Design has played a huge role during the industrialization period.

As we have moved into a more digital world, we have faced more unique challenges. We now design more and more for the human brain and not just the human body. For example, when designing a chair, one could study the human body, measure different parts, and understand how it works. But when designing software products, the solutions have to align much more to how our brains work, and that’s much harder to understand and measure.  A lot of the work involved in designing software solutions is about building that very understanding of how people think about problems, what their mental models are, and then designing solutions that align with those mental models.

Look & Feel + Functionality=Design 

No amount of back-end brilliance, be it the endless amount of coding hours you put in or the testing efforts that go in to making sure everything works properly, will come to your rescue if your product does not align with the way people think and work. Products need to be designed to facilitate interaction, so as to enable people to easily understand how to use a product without much instruction.

Take, for example, a simple interface element like a text field. Look at how much must going on in the simple interaction of using a text field. The user must first identify the text field as an object that they can type something in. A text field communicates this by its size, the box around it, the inner shadows, etc. Next the user decides to interact with it, and she puts her mouse in the text field, or her finger if she is on a mobile device or tablet. Next the cursor changes to a pipe to provide the feedback to the user that the text field has been selected. The cursor blinks inside the text field, inviting interaction. As the user types, the cursor moves. All these little things are communications between the interface and the user’s brain.

The look and feel of a product is often equated to the design. As we have been discussing above, design is a lot more than just how something looks. At the same time look and feel is also very important. It can help support the core interactions between the user and the interface. For example, the usage of shadows for a text field makes it look like a container that the user can enter things in. The look and feel is also critical for the emotional side of people. People spend large parts of their lives interacting with software products and digital interfaces. Whether they enjoy looking at these products, or feel good interacting with them, can have a huge impact on the success of a product as well.

Apple is a great example to cite here. The products that they have designed have not only been a success in terms of look and feel, but the attention to detail from a usability standpoint has also been tremendous. Visual and interaction design have both been central to Apple’s design ideology. For instance, using the click wheel on a product like the original iPod was not rocket science, and users picked it up the moment the product was launched in the market.

The Value of Design

I have often been asked this question: How can user experience design contribute to a seamless user experience, and how can one measure its effectiveness?

Since the design process is about solving problems for people, it is important that people are at the center of the process. At 3Pillar, we follow a user centered design methodology that puts the needs of the users first at every stage of the design process. How we do this can best be explained using the following example:

While working with one of our clients, a very large event management company, we worked closely with them and spent a lot of time interviewing their employees who managed event registration, housing reservations, and other critical functions to learn how they were handling these areas. By just talking to them we started to uncover how they looked at the whole event management space. We built an understanding of their world and their goals.

For example, part of their job is to manage an inventory of hotel rooms that they want to sell. This is one of the most critical parts of the solution for them. As we talked to them we came to understand that their mental model consists of two buckets. One bucket is all the rooms that they have available, and the second bucket is all the different allocations for those rooms – like some rooms are kept for the VIPs, some for Media, some for regular event attendees, etc. This simple concept led us to a design where we showed these two pieces of information side-by-side on the screen, and that aligned beautifully with how they naturally think about this.

The process of reaching that design included creating many sketches on how we can reflect their mental model in the designs we created. We then went back to them with the sketches to test and validate our direction, and through this process of designing and validating we refined and achieved a design that worked well for their needs.

This not only lead to a better design, but the early validation done before even building any software reduced the risk of investing in the wrong solutions. Further, the benefits of a solution that was more naturally aligned to people’s thinking means reduced training and support costs and greater efficiency and productivity.

‘Design Thinking’ Deciphered

The concept of ‘design thinking’ has become very popular in recent years thanks to pioneering companies in the design space like IDEO. Design thinking is really the sum of everything that is stated above. I see it essentially as the idea of applying design to solve problems. While many people today associate design with just the way something looks, increasingly there is becoming a recognition that design is just as much about how something works. The principles of design and the approach that is used to create successful designs can be applied to problems that go far beyond just user interfaces.

I participated in a conference last year at the Harvard Business School about design thinking, and there were a number of speakers from the public sector and education space that spoke about design thinking. They talked about how traditional approaches of problem-solving have been very limiting in those areas and about how they require more innovative thinking. They were applying design thinking to define how their government should be structured, how can they improve their transportation system, or their education system. So any kind of a problem that one can look at, one could apply design thinking to solve.

More Than Just a Pretty Face

In conclusion, while the aesthetics of a software product – or any product – are a part of the whole that makes up “design,” it’s really about much more than just the look and feel of a user interface. Design is as much about how a product works and helps solve a user’s problem in the real world as it is about how it looks.