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An Earnest Exposition for Design in Our Lives

It's been a while since I've taken a train journey. The last time was just before the lockdown. Despite the potential stress of traveling right before the lockdown, there's one thing inside a train compartment that still grabs my attention, much like it did when I was five. Back then, trains were a blast, not because of the scenery, but because of the upper berth. Climbing to the top and collapsing on it, almost expecting applause for managing four steps in a moving train, was and continues to remain exciting. But along with the thrill of climbing, our five-year-old selves were warned about The Chain – which looked like a small grenade at the end of a wire. Parents made it clear that pulling it could land you in jail. The same caution, boldly emphasised with a substantial fine as an additional deterrent, proved effective. It made me wonder, how would anyone know it's you? And who collects the fine if I accidentally pull it? Honestly, a lot of these questions remain unanswered. In my presence, that switch has never been pulled, and the mystery of what happens after pulling it is still very much alive. What intrigues me now is the newfound appreciation for it, triggered by an entirely unrelated incident. 

Many years later, I found myself traveling to the beautiful Amalfi coast of southern Italy with a few friends. We boarded the train in Naples and planned to stop at one end of the coast, gradually making our way to the other end. Our plan was meticulous. Excitement filled the air as we were reminded by the maps inside the train and the display that our stop was just 2 minutes away. Looking around, there was a gentleman seated at the far end of the carriage, which was arranged much like a chair car commonly found in India. The train came to a stop, and what transpired next was both amusing and agonising. Standing in front of the door, we eagerly waited for it to open, only to find it stubbornly sealed shut. To our dismay, there was no visible button anywhere and the man on the other end was no longer on the train. Consequently, we must have looked like jumping monkeys, compelled to continue to the next stop and figure it all out in due time.

In the initial scenario, the pull chain with a bold message to halt the train in an emergency was the foremost feature one would encounter in a booth. However, in a different scenario, the button to open the train door for station exit was not clearly indicated. It was during my reading of Don Norman's, "The Design of Everyday Things,” that I came to realise we frequently encounter such situations and often attribute them to human error as the cause of poor design. In reality, it is the natural mappings learned throughout our lifetimes, in this case, that are often culturally unique. The control for opening remote-controlled train doors is unheard of by passengers in Indian metros but is natural in European settings where not all doors open upon arrival at a station. 

Photo Credits: Google

So, is labeling everything in bright red sufficient? If only. Allow me to illustrate with an example. If I inquire which is the last T-shirt or shorts you purchased from Decathlon, chances are you would begin by describing quite generically the colour, material, and perhaps the purpose for which you acquired them. Did you meticulously read the bible-sized tags that provide extensive details about the product? Probably not. Similar to me, you likely wore it for the first time and then sat with a pair of scissors, slicing through what felt like volumes of tags on a single item. It's a tedious process, and even in a world where information is sought, it can become overwhelming.

In this context, the book poses the question of whether we know the functions of all the buttons on a remote control. Or do we understand the purposes of all the buttons on our dishwashers or washing machines? The answer is often no, despite the presence of a hefty manual that accompanies the plastic-wrapped appliance on day one. On the day we manage to dedicate 15 minutes to reading it, we typically select one function to repeatedly use, never revisiting it until it malfunctions, if at all. Haha! Memory and knowledge stored in the mind play a pivotal role in shaping our interactions with the world around us. I find the emphasis on task analysis before designing products particularly compelling. It underscores the importance of understanding how we engage with products, enabling the removal of redundancies. This, in turn, leads to a design that is error-free and utilises natural signifiers, ensuring our intended goals are achieved.

The concepts of good and bad design remain constant, and this book effectively illustrates how, as users of design, we can either have a positive or negative experience. While these design constructs are apparent, they are often overlooked. As a designer, I am committed to pointing out instances where these principles, including affordances, signifiers, conventions, and constraints, are disregarded. Don briefly touches on something we've all encountered. Every so often, we're faced with a faucet that lacks any signifiers, prompting us to engage in some martial art action in front of a sink, hoping to activate the water flow. Sometimes our efforts succeed, and other times they prove futile. 

I personally experienced a variation of this issue at the Goa airport, where there's a rather ostentatious Kohler advertisement. The airport bathrooms, designed by the brand to showcase the design and aesthetics of their bathroom ware, introduce the challenge of a faucet that requires one to approach its neck closely to dispense water. And if successful, a new issue arises. Now, in most public restrooms, we encounter paper towel dispensers requiring us to pull the paper out or the new Dyson air dryers that necessitate placing our hands inside the dryer to use. The Kohler dispenser resembled the paper towel variety, which I've always found problematic. When you wash your hands and attempt to pull down a tissue, only a few pieces come off initially, resulting in your thumbs drying enough to pull the entire sheet. In Goa, I confronted a machine with a small peephole displaying the role of paper towels inside, but no apparent access point. Almost instinctively, and based on recent learning, I positioned my hands under the machine in a quasi-begging manner, but nothing happened.

Realising a lady was waiting behind me, I tried to decipher the machine by inspecting all sides. In a place like Goa, evaporation comes into play, which is not what Kohler is marketing at those price points, one would hope. Seeing two frustrated visitors, the cleaning lady approached and explained, "Ma'am, it works by placing your hands on both sides of the machine." Subsequently, an auto-cut piece of paper was released, akin to a printer. While it was amusing and brought awareness to this type of dispenser, it introduced a new issue, making that one sacrificed paper seem worth it as we pulled it with freshly washed hands.

The significance of signifiers, guiding us on actions that elicit a response, stands as the cornerstone of both good and bad design. While automation resolved the issue of distress caused by wasted paper, it introduced the expectation that users should possess information not learned either in the mind or from the world around them. Overall, this book proves to be a delightful read, offering numerous "ah-ha" moments for both designers and users. I strongly recommend that everyone give it a try, as Don Norman presents a compelling case for how humans learn and behave in various contexts. The book sheds light on relevant examples we have all witnessed repeatedly. Personally, I found his perspective on why widespread issues persist to be particularly insightful with larger constraints pushing even the biggest industries to continue with bad design. I could draw parallels from my own experiences to understand why my persistence to change bad design was more than complex than my identification of the problem.

Additionally, the book delves into design thinking before it became business jargon, with Norman addressing the impact of technology and innovation in a world where even the simplest interactions need clarification. Admit it! Despite the abundance of technology, attempting to press play on a touchscreen when your hands are occupied or trying to press a remote control button seemingly designed for chipmunks can be quite a challenge. While discussions revolve around how ChatGPT or AI learning more about us, and the hope that it doesn't turn into Ultron, it's crucial to recognise that we are also learning about AI and how to integrate it into our daily lives.

I highly recommend Don Norman's 'The Design of Everyday Things' to both designers and non-designers. As a designer, I have found myself observing from time to time, and yet, as a user, I constantly seek solutions. This book brilliantly caters to both perspectives, offering valuable insights for all of us interacting with design in our everyday lives.


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