13 October 2011

The sympathetic design of Steve Jobs

Of all the obituaries on Steve Jobs, Slate published the one that I wished I wrote.
The money quote:
Jobs’ best talent was his ability to spot the pain points in every technology he touched. He could look at anything and tell you why it sucked.
Five years ago I had my first experience with an Apple portable device—the iPod Touch. It was, as Jobs often said onstage at MacWorld, a magical experience. But what fascinated me wasn’t the technology—the capacitive screens, the gesture designs, the low-power processors that I didn’t know was under the hood. My fascination laid in how the little black tablet seemed to understand my past and present frustrations-- the styluses I lost over the years, the street directory photocopies I carried to navigate unfamiliar areas, the concentration I expended to tap/write out letters on a tiny screen, while standing on a moving train.

What is it that makes Apple’s designs so good? To me, what stands out is the tremendous amount of sympathy for users that’s in Apple products.

A good design is sometimes said to anticipate users’ needs. It’s a metonymic expression, of course: that anticipation is really the designer’s, not the design’s. In iterating the content and the interface, the designer has already experienced users’ frustration, and eliminating these pain points in the design.

Jobs famous mantra was, “There must be be a better way.” News media's obituaries of Steve Jobs often included this quote as evidence of his unique genius. It’s not. It’s neither unique or complicated. It’s simply an echo of what any user would say, when forced to take a step more than he knows is necessary for his task.

The genius and triumph of Apple was to challenge the engineering mindset that giving users more “control” or “value” means giving them more features. Until Apple, the definition of a better product was one with more options, longer and deeper menus, and larger wordcount. Designers and consumers everywhere owe a debt to Steve Jobs for showing that there is a better way.

How poor design comes about

This leads me to the problem I really want to address: what happens when designers lack sympathy? The answer: many things. The list is endless, but I’ll just cite a few common bugbears in content development: FAQs that nobody asks. PDF application forms that omit fax numbers. Shipping and Handling information that appears only after you reach the online shopping cart.

Without sympathy for users, UX and content design is susceptible to two kinds of biases.

The first is the business bias—designs which primary objective is to minimise cost and effort for the business owner, not the user. This one doesn't require much explanation: product and campaign failures that result from underinvestment of time and resources are plenty enough.

The second is the presentation bias—the tendency to optimise design for making an impression, rather than for creating a positive experience. This is a situation I came across very often when I used to do public relations: business units often asked me to impress readers at the expense of clearly presenting the information readers actually sought. Without clarity of content or design, I needn’t even discuss issues like branding and authenticity.

The lack of sympathy for end-users and audiences is a problem to which there isn’t a good solution. Templates and checklists can only do so much. Before we blame users for perfunctorily completing our checklists, consider how it’s common to see perfunctorily designed checklists. No matter how many checks we put in place, we won’t solve the problem of the designer and the product manager who just wants to get the design out of the way.