Dieter Petereit June 21st, 2018

The Human Factor: Why is There So Much Bad Design?

Bad design is everywhere, while there’s still a lack of good design. Why’s that? Are there not enough experts? Are they being misdirected somehow? Is it human nature? Let’s take a closer look together.

Yesterday, I wanted to take care of a straightforward task. I tried to correct the time on my microwave clock. For some reason, the clock was fast by a few minutes. Do you think I succeeded? Right, I didn’t. And, without the manual that I didn’t want to look for, because of my anger, I won’t get it done. Is that my mistake? No. The device’s design is simply bad.

All of us know a lot more bad than good design. You don’t need to be an expert to tell apart the two. Anyone can do that. To create good design, however, expert knowledge is required. The path to a good design is paved with many decisions, where it is easy to make a wrong one.

The Einstein quote “Make things as simple as possible but not simpler” surely is a good maxim to follow. However, today, the problem rarely is the design being too simple. Instead, “overdesign” is a lot more common. Let’s start with a few basics, though.

What Design Is

As Steve Jobs said, design is not just the looks of a product, but its functional core as well. The former Apple boss was almost a design radical. When he returned to Apple in the late nineties, he reduced the product portfolio from 350 to about ten products. The complete development focus was put on the remaining products. For a brand in its entirety, one can say “Design is focus.”

While we’re at it, we could also add “Design is the brand.” What is the thing that brands use as their primary means to set themselves apart from the competition? Exactly, the design. This becomes especially obvious on the car market. Regarding technology, the differences are mostly irrelevant, but the design is often radically different. Looks and user experience are a major, if not the only factor when it comes to purchasing a car. The stronger the design, the stronger the brand is perceived. This leads to an advantage over the competition.

If we don’t want to look into something so different from our branch, all we need to look at is the app design of modern apps. What are the differences between today’s interfaces? In many cases, the only differentiations are micro-interactions, as I pointed out in this article.

“Design is Guidance” is the result of this realization. If we know that design is focus-oriented, and represents the brand, we have to make the design take care of guiding tasks as well.

Guidance affects the aspect of usability. Products need to be designed in a way that they can be used. For that, the version that suits the user the most has to be chosen from many different possible variants. We can’t let the user interact with the product freely, so we have to set clear guidelines to make him feel safe handling the design.

By the way, the manufacturer of the microwave mentioned above is not the only one that messed this up, as the manufacturer of my high-tech pyro self-cleaning oven did the same. Here, the clock is still set on winter time, and I just can’t fix it…

The aspect of guidance also affects the diversification of the product range. We have to assume that most potential users of our design are no experts in handling the respective product. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to offer many products of the same type with slightly different features. By the way, it would be nice if larger companies like Asus, Acer, and so forth were to recognize that.

Or let’s take a look at the smartphone world, where a large provider like Samsung offers a dozen different similar offers, while Apple basically offers three. This makes it a lot easier for the potential customer to decide on an offer. The designer has to make sure that their design represents a good combination of all options so that the buyer does not think of it as a mispurchase due to missing features. The approach “design is guidance” means great responsibility, and is not to be taken lightly.

Otherwise, we could not realize the critical aspect “design solves a problem” to a sufficient extent. As a designer, we always start with a problem that needs to be solved, and never with the solution as the focus. In other words: “People don’t want to buy drills, they just want holes in the wall.”

What do you think? Was this drill bought because of how it looks? (Photo: Depositphotos)

At the core of the design process, we have to keep the principle “design is simple” in mind. If we mix all the mentioned principles and distill them, the result can’t be anything different. At the same time, sticking to this principle is quite sturdy. There are a bunch of reasons as to why that’s the case.

Once we’ve managed to realize the principle we just mentioned, “design is contemporary” applies. This sounds like you’d only have to design a product correctly once, and then become unemployed. And on the highest level, this is true.

Fortunately, technological advances frequently put us in the situation where we have to create innovations that just weren’t possible up to that point. For example, seven millimeter thick smartphones would have been a superior design concept for mobile phones in the nineties, but we didn’t have the means to do that. Thus, I can confidently say that designers will keep their jobs for a long time to come.

Additionally, “design is in the details” and “design is a result of observation” both apply. We often notice that good design can be perfected by working on individual details. This realization is gained by observation.

It’s not rare for us to overlook one or more aspects, or even some unexpectable elements when thinking about how the user will work with the design. It’s up to us to make the necessary changes. Here, I define “necessary” as known optimization potential, rather than already known functional deficits.

What Design Shouldn’t be, But Often is Like

Now, let’s get to the misdevelopments that you can easily find all around the world if you want to.

Narcissism: Design as a Solution in Itself

Of course, design is supposed to offer a solution. However, the underlying problem has to exist. These days, we often see companies developing products and services that offer fantastic solutions. However, they won’t do well when there’s no need for them.

Design needs to solve an actual problem that preys on their minds. A design for its own sake is not even good if it’s pretty.

When the own reflection is the most beautiful thing… (Photo: Depositphotos)

Designs that only set themselves apart from other designs by being designed by someone else go in the same direction. When I look at the myriads of me-too apps in the world’s app stores, this problem becomes apparent time and time again. It makes no sense to offer a solution to a problem that was solved multiple times before if the solution approach is not fundamentally different from and better than the existing ones.

Generally, one can say that creative workers tend to be a bit egocentric. This shouldn’t lead to narcissism on a level where the designers consider themselves to be all and end all. Design always has to remain modest. The most effective solutions are usually the simplest. There’s no room for narcissism.

Fear: Design as Everybody’s Darling

I can understand it to some extent. Companies want to sell products. That’s hard enough. As we know, there’s nothing harder than getting other people’s money. So, every product comes with a bit of fear. Will the potential clients like it? Will it sell? Should we make this or that version, in case someone doesn’t like version A?

Fear is a bad consultant. (Photo: Depositphotos)

This is what Apple was like before 1997. Tons of products, some of which could only be configured with a doctorate, blocked the clear view at the unique selling point. Everybody’s darling quickly turns into everybody’s idiot. Apple was on the verge of failure. Today, with a radically reduced, clearly focused portfolio, those days are long gone.

About two years ago, the Californians made another radical design decision by forgoing the headphone jack for the new iPhone. That’s nothing you do when you’re afraid. And this is how Phil Schiller sold it on the according Apple congress in San Francisco. He said the decision required grit, and Apple had grit. Of course, not everyone agreed with that, but this wasn’t any different ten years ago, when Apple presented the iPhone, a mobile phone without a keyboard (!). Two years later, we see more and more smartphones forgoing the headphone jack. (I’m not trying to say that I agree with this specific design decision.) And there was not enough demand for smartphones with a keyboard to make a comeback, either.

Design requires clear decisions to be made and stuck with. Fear is a bad consultant, but also one of the reasons for many bad designs.

Greed: Design for the Quick Cash

Shortly after the introduction of the first iPhone, there were imitators on the cheapest segment. The devices looked good, so one could say they were designed well. Due to price reasons, however, they made too many compromises, resulting in them being a mere shadow of the original design. Why were they made, then? Because of greed, the wish for some quick revenue, and the abuse of bandwagon effects.

Greed is just as bad of a consultant. (Photo: Depositphotos)

The big companies aren’t free of this form of greed either. My favorite example for greed-driven design is Nintendo, for many reasons. Take a look at the moneymakers, like Pokémon. About every two years, a new game for the handheld consoles is released. The changes made are very minor. The principle remains the same, with only the “world” the games take place in being slightly (very slightly) different.

Or let’s take the company’s handheld, the Nintendo 3DS, and its successors. Several times, Nintendo tried to initiate exclusive developments for the newest model with minor changes. This has never worked, as both the customers and the game developers could quickly tell that the “new” model was not more than old wine in new wineskins.

Another kind of greed, even if it might sound a bit harsh, is the goal to achieve or undercut a particular market price. In this case, compromises are made, affecting the design. Up to a certain degree, this is fine, as it’s somewhat inevitable. After all, this is not utopia. The abidance of reasonable limits is a calculated design decision.

Greed-driven product development can only succeed in the short-run, if at all. Nonetheless, it is frequently tried, and never remains unnoticed, being another reason for bad design.

Embrace: Design to Design

Once designers have fallen in love with their design, anything can happen. They’ll add a function here, and another one there. Just because they can. The designer has created something that they don’t want to let go of. You might remember this from your grandpa’s allotment garden. They’d add a tree here, a rose there, and another paved area here. And if you look around after two years, the garden looks like Sanssouci, but on a hundred square meters.

While this is completely fine in the case of your grandpa, this is a disaster for designs in general. This aspect is another explanation for many, overloaded designs.

Conclusion: the Human is the Problem

The design itself is mostly objectifiable. When setting up and executing the process cleanly, the best approaches come up on their own. Though, you have to stick to some basic rules, of course.

Only when the human factor gets out of hand, bad design happens. Or if you let someone design something, even though they simply can’t do it. ;-)

(Article Image Source: The likable hipster was taken from the portfolio of Depositphotos)

Dieter Petereit

Dieter Petereit is a veteran of the web with over 25 years of experience in the world of IT. As soon as Netscape became available he started to do what already at that time was called web design and has carried on ever since. Two decades ago he started writing for several online publications, some well, some lesser known. You can meet him over on Google+.

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