In reading the Steve Jobs biography, I was reminded of the history of modern industrial design as it applies to computer systems. I’m not going to offer my opinion on the man. There are plenty of people online spouting-off about their likes and dislikes. Instead, I will focus on a key contribution he made that has resonated through computer design and usability over the last thirty years.
He didn’t believe in focus group testing because he professed that people didn’t know what they wanted until they saw it. He stuck religiously to design principles from the likes of Dieter Rams and coveted his Braun kitchen appliances. One of the chapters in the book entitled, “Real artists simplify” really sums it up. He didn’t believe in market research and focus group testing – much less usability testing. I can’t say that I disagree with Steve’s point of view. Those who religiously advocate better design through user testing are usually those who make a very good living at just doing user testing. I have never been one to rely solely on user testing. To do it properly, takes about three months before you produce the final report and by that time, your users have evolved or have been influenced by something new in the market. That’s how fast the industry changes.
User testing can be a great guideline and can help render answers to very specific questions but to get an overall sense of what users will like, it really comes down to beta testing with your real users and gauging the response to a new system or prototype. As a rule, most people hate change. Even if you’re giving them a better way of doing something, they will adapt so well to a poorly designed system that they feel offended when you want to all of a sudden make things easier for them. The reaction could be, “No! You’re not going to take that away are you? I just learned how to use the damn thing!”
The general public does not have an education in industrial design but all can appreciate simplicity when it makes choices easier. What I most appreciate about Job’s philosophy is that even things that we don’t see should be designed well. It’s something that the auto-industry has used for many years as they rattle off the feature list of a new engine design or suspension. You’ll never really look at it most of the time but you know if it was made well you’ll be getting better value as a result.
The same goes for the code that underlies every digital system we use. It should be efficient, minimal and well-designed (formed). Say what you will about Steve Jobs, everyone has an opinion. When I look at how much better we’re doing when we approach system design as a result (directly or indirectly) of his legacy – he ported good design into the tech world. Invariably, good design will equal good usability if it is applied from the data design, right up to the user interface. In the usability world, we often just focus on the layer you see and pay little or no attention to the data system that influences the end result.
Test when you absolutely need to but more importantly, apply solid design principles to everything: The ten principles of good design by Dieter Rams is a good place to start