01 November 2005

No Excuse for Bad Design

World Usability Day is on the horizon and no doubt new technology will get the pasting it rightly deserves. But it isn't just new stuff that's rubbish. Lots of old stuff is rubbish as well.

Being the son of an architect and trained as an engineer and thusly, a designer at heart, I am forever frustrated by the instances of bad design in the world that should never have made it into production. I'm relaxed most of the time, but go ballistic when things don't do what the're meant to do.

Part of this is down to me using things in a manner other than directed, I accept that. However, I expect a toothbrush to brush my teeth, not bend itself double in an attempt to get away. The time I have laughed the hardest was during an episode of Hardware, a comedy series on TV, in which a character attempts to iron. On an ironing board, which then does the toothbrush thing and collapses everytime weight is applied, as required by the act of ironing. The character than proceeds to viciously beat the ironing board off the sofa. I was on the floor at this point. I have done similiar things so many times.

And we all have. How many times have you jabbed your finger at your computer monitor and cursed its metal innards and the stupidity of Mr Gates' minions. To defend the computer monitor, it isn't its fault. It's just the messenger. The processor, the source of the problem sits smugly on the desk, knowing full well it can screw up at its leisure and it won't get smacked because the irate user knows that all their data will fall out the back if they so much as look at it wrong.

Truth be told, boringly, it comes down to economics. If you want to sell ironing boards, or toothbrushes, you make them sound great, make them offer something no other ironing board or toothbrush does and you make them out of the cheapest, most pliant material in the most engineeringly unsound fashion possible, because if you don't, someone else will and they'll get all the cash.

No doubt some bad design is down to pure laziness. Some is definately down to people trying to use the Swiss Army Knife "thing-for-getting-stones-out-of-horses-hooves" for something else and getting it through their hand. But most "bad design" is down to buying on the cheap and inflated expectation. I could buy a Reliant Robin but I wouldn't win the Indy 500 in it.

So really it's all marketing's fault. They make you think that if you spray yourself and your entire home with deoderant, flocks of migrating supermodels on their way South to the Med will land in your house and proceed to rub themselves suggestively over your Ikea sofa-bed and completely ignore the six-inch layer of beer cans and pizza boxes you're using in place of a carpet.

So the appearance of poor usability and design are inflated by the ravenous demands of marketing and economics, the bane of designers and engineers everywhere. We should pull a Douglas Adams and put all the Marketing types and Economists on a spaceship with all the lawyers and hairdressers and tell them a meteor is coming. When they ask "Aren't you coming?", we'll say "We're right behind you. Just got to get this stone out of my spaceship's hoof".

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