6 Rules of Good Device Design

How Great Design Leads to Industrial Product Success

It used to be that success in electronics and technology was about features and price points. Design – including industrial design, aesthetics, and user experience design – was an afterthought at best. As a result, we are all familiar with electronic devices – such as industrial controllers, thermostats, audio/visual systems, and many others – that are difficult to learn and hard to use. Until recently, that was O.K.

The Apple Effect
Then a few years ago, a struggling company called Apple started making personal computers that were not only easier to use, but which people were proud to display in their living rooms. It changed expectations of what a computer should be. A few years later, that company launched an MP3 player with a revolutionary approach to design: it was easy to find, buy, and put music on. Imagine that! In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone. Suddenly, the world changed because our expectations of electronic devices changed.

Although Apple didn’t focus on industrial products or home electronics, they have managed to change absolutely everyone’s expectations of design. In business settings, workers are abandoning the clunky communication devices in favor of iPhones, and they are demanding that their IT departments support these devices. People are also starting to take note of – and comment on – the usability of the other devices they interact with frequently. They are noticing that their thermostats are ugly and difficult to program. They are wondering what “genius” designed a backup UPS box with virtually inscrutable warning lights and beeps.

People are also becoming more attuned to appreciating successful industrial designs. The industry is abuzz over the Nest thermostat – a simple dial that learns your habits and preferences and programs itself. Small business owners are flocking to Square – a credit card reader that attaches to your iPhone and takes all the annoyance out of setting up and managing a merchant account.

While neither of these examples is particularly revolutionary in its technology, they have this in common: each one takes a common problem and reinvents an industry by making a radically simpler and more elegant solution. What do they know that too many other industrial manufacturers don’t?!

Here’s what I think they know: good design isn’t rocket science, yet it is also difficult to do. It’s difficult to fight old habits, to see outside of the box, to “think different”. That’s why good device design follows some relatively simple rules that cause use to look at our product designs with new eyes. These rules are:

1) Understand context
The first step in great design is understanding user context. Having a product marketing manager create User Personas for a new product is merely a first step. Effective user research goes beyond answering, “Who are my users and what are they like” and digs in to uncover information such as:

  • What are the users are actually doing when they are using the product?
  • What are they trying to achieve by using the product?
  • What mindset are they in? How do they FEEL about using the product?
  • Where are they physically? Are they using the product while sitting comfortably or are they in a vehicle or a hazardous area? Are they in a warm environment or in a cold warehouse? Are they required to wear sterile gloves or safety mitts? Do they have both hands free? Etc.

This understanding, more than anything, will make or break great design. Go out and visit your customers. Watch how they work. You’ll be surprised at the insights you’ll gain.

2) Aim for the minimum viable feature set
Feature bloat is the enemy of great design. Resist the urge to impose every one of your team’s brilliant feature ideas on the end user. No matter how smart, educated, and trained your customer is, they cannot process dozens of buttons, or remember complex sequences, particularly if they may be away from the device for days or weeks at a time.

More importantly, they don’t care. Your device is not the center of their life. Surface the most important tasks and ruthlessly eliminate any features that don’t help the end user complete those tasks. Your resulting product will be simpler and easier to use – and your customers will thank you for it.

3) Look at the whole experience chain
The genius of the iPod has nothing to do with playing MP3s – oodles of MP3 players already did that when iPod was introduced. Rather, it is the ease with which one can discover, purchase, and store music that differentiates the iPod. If you understand the connection points beyond your product (that is, the other elements that customers need to use to make your product work, what they need to interface to, and other products they use) you will uncover a number of opportunities for innovation that your competitors have missed. Apple is dominating not by making radically innovative phones, computers, or MP3 players, but by making them easier to buy, use, maintain, and service.

4) Hire professionals
Design is a craft and a lifelong pursuit. Unfortunately, it’s not something you can learn in a weeklong training course. Thankfully there are dozens of excellent industrial design, human-computer interaction, and user experience design schools around the world graduating hundreds of students a year. There are also hundreds of design-services firms in every industry, large and small. Particularly if you are getting serious about design for the first time, work with a known agency and learn from them. Get involved in the process of user research, design and testing.

If you want design to be truly strategic, then you’ll need design thinking at the executive level. The best, most innovative companies have Vice Presidents of Industrial Design and of User Experience design.

5) Test with real people
The only way to consistently create usable products is to test them with real, live, representative users.

It’s a myth that if you hire good designers they’ll create a usable product. The odd time, a good designer will nail a design on the first shot. More often than not, if they are not given access to real users, they will make incorrect assumptions about how a user will behave. I have seen such perfectly logical assumptions have a critical negative impact on the usability of the design.

Here’s an example: we were recently asked to run some usability tests on a tablet application for making VoIP calls. The app did a lot of cool things, and it looked stunning. It was designed by a very smart and talented group of designers and the product strategy was well thought through. Nevertheless, usability testing uncovered this: users often mistook the hang-up button for the mute button and inadvertently ended their calls. This was a critical, oft-used feature that created frustration and ill-will among test users. Fortunately, that mistake never reached the customer base because it was fixed before the app was launched into its highly competitive market segment.

While an argument can be made to test with internal “surrogate” users from time to time, this should never replace putting your product in the hands of actual representative users. Internal users don’t have the same mindset, and they quickly become used to a product’s quirks and find workarounds. That’s not something you can expect paying customers to do. While many product groups skip usability testing thinking that it’s too time consuming or too expensive, neither of those things has to be true – especially if you test early in the product development lifecycle when it’s cheaper to fix issues.

6) Iterate, iterate, iterate!
One of the most common arguments given for not paying attention to design is a perceived cost – i.e. that it is too expensive and takes too long up front. In reality, when it’s done well, design is the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to test new product ideas and to refine products at the lowest risk phase of development – before products are committed to detailed design or to manufacturing.

Quick models can be built (even out of household materials) to test form factors. User interfaces can be sketched by hand and tested with representative users to see how they react and think about the interface. Iterative design in software can save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Preliminary electronics designs can be reviewed for manufacturability and prototyped to assess actual production cost before committing to volume production.
Here’s an example: in a recent project, both we and the customer were convinced that a certain feature – in this case viewing high-fidelity x-rays in an iPad application for oncologists – would be loved by end customers. After some quick testing, we discovered that, in fact, it would never be used because oncologists make clinical decisions as teams, and need fidelity far beyond what an iPad can produce. That one discovery saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, and months of engineering time – and it simplified the final product considerably.

For the Win: Design Your Product Out of Old Habits
Most of the time, we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to product design. Old habits, like stuffing products full of features because our competitors do, or because the CEO thinks it’s important, or because engineering thinks it’s cool. But features don’t sell products anymore because your product’s end users are more sophisticated – and picky – about product design than ever before. They are buying iPads and iPhones and using them at home, and are starting to wonder why the tools they rely on in the workplace are so difficult to use.

The next product wars will be won and lost on the field of design. Which side of the battle will you be on?

Macadamian is a global UI design and software innovation studio providing a complete range of product strategy, user experience design, and software engineering services to clients around the world. Headquartered in the National Capital Region, Macadamian’s client list includes industry leaders like HP, Cisco, Genband, Avaya, and Adobe. www.macadamian.com