Yujie Tao

Let the adventure begin.

Good Design, Bad Design

March 2019

Design is everywhere in our life, from physical objects to user interface of digital products, design grants arts with utility, and brings technology to daily life.

Design can be as simple as a cup. In retrospect to the age when there was no container for water drinking, people used their hands to lift water from rivers and rains. There was a need for a container to store and transport water, and our first generation of “cup designers” made use of objects from nature. Leaves, shells, and even grouds were served as the containers.

“Cup design” continued to develop along with related advances in human technology. New materials such as clay, wood, stone, and metal provided human beings with more than just temporary storage of water. The need for hot beverage drinking drove the design of an extra handle to the cup, which we also called mug.

Today, from disposable plastic cups for Friday party to thermal bottles for wild camping, we can easily find a cup that fits our needs. Cup is so common in our life that we rarely regard it as a piece of design, which comes from the effort 100,000 years ago to address the need for water storage.

Design can be as sophisticated as medical equipment. Humphrey visual field analyzer is a tool used by eye care professionals for measuring the human visual field. The result of the perimeter can be used to identify glaucomatous damage, which is the second leading cause of blindness in the USA. To design a Humphrey perimeter, we need an optical system that projects stimuli of known size and brightness in a known location for a known amount of time, a computer system that controls instrument calibration, error checking, and data analysis. At last, we need a patient interface with ergonomic features that provide as much patient comfort as possible.

That is to say, design is about more than “looking good” but taking care of both humans and artificial systems. It establishes itself based on use cases and existing technology.

What’s good design?

Two of the essential characteristics of good design, according to cognitive scientist Don Norman, are discoverability and understanding. Discoverability determines whether users can figure out what actions are possible and the current state of the device; understanding means that users can identify how is the product supposed to do and what does it all means.

Norman’s principles of good design perfectly align with how the brain forms thoughts. Israeli-American psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes two different systems of thinking: system 1 offers quick, automatic, and unconscious decisions while system 2 is deliberate, effortful, and orderly mental work. When we look at a design, we first use our intuition, which is system 1 (discoverability), to interpret it; if the design is too complicated, or out of our knowledge scope, we use system 2 (understanding) to conceptualize how does it work.

While people today emphasize the simplicity of design, some scenarios are innately sophisticated, such as a perimeter design. The core value of good design is not just quick, easy, and intuitive, but also understandable and logical.

Discoverability and understanding altogether empower users to achieve the mental state flow: a state of effortless concentration so deep that people lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems. The magic of good design is that it fits our needs so well; it is invisible and serves us without drawing attention to itself. Good design enables you to ride a motorcycle at 150 miles an hour or playing a competitive game of chess without worrying about how to operate the object. You understand their usages and be able to reason out how every piece of components works with each other without creating conflicts or redundancies.

How about bad design?

On the other hand, bad design is usually obtrusive and causes confusion. A typical example of bad design is disobeying our intuitive thinking.

This sanitizer was located at Westlake Center in Seattle, and I came across it during one of my trips last year. Naturally, I put my hand under where the person was pointing while the sanitizer came down through the center of the machine.

A design that takes us too much time to understand is also not good enough.

A couple of days ago, I was trying to operate a facility in the school gym. Without any prior knowledge, I knew I need to sit down first, but then I was confused about whether it is for my arms or my legs. I leaned down and tried to figure out how every section connects. There were no labels that indicated how to use the machine or what is it for. A couple of minutes later, I gave up and turned to other equipment.

Poor design is a lot easier to notice than good design, in part because poor design only takes care of functionality without thinking about user habits. It’s okay for a design to be sophisticated, so long as there are right amounts of signifiers such as signs and perceptible signals to guide users to understand design.