Critic to creator: recognizing good design

Someone always asks the question, and I am never ready for it.

"So, what products out there are well-designed?"

As an interaction designer, I learn about users and design a product that helps them meet their goals—one that is tailored to the way they work. Yet this question can still stump me. I am not alone: all too often, people in our field focus so much on pointing out the egregious interaction design mistakes that make it to market, we forget to pay attention to the good design that exists. Not only does it make our profession look bad if we are always complaining, but it also makes us less effective. How can we create good products if we can only articulate what “bad” is?

Once we learn good ways to design and build products, all the flaws and frustrations that exist in the products we use—even ones we used to think were good—are all we can see. I have one colleague who is rendered useless by poor interface behavior. He'll yell at the computer, finally understand the actual interaction behavior instead of what he thinks it should be, and then call others in to point out the inane solution. By this time, he could have completed his task a dozen times.

So how do we as product design professionals combat this malaise? First, gain some emotional distance. Learn that good design can occur in the presence of compromise. In fact, it has to; without the reality of business goals and realistic development timelines, nothing would ever make it to market. In the meantime, try building up a catalog of interactions and behaviors that you like and an understanding of why you like them. When you run into a design problem for a specific product you are designing, see if any of the information you learned can apply to the problem at hand. You must be careful to keep your personal tastes and idiosyncrasies from influencing the design, but if you can start from an arsenal of solutions that work, it will make the creative part of design happen more quickly. This will also help you to better articulate “good design” and keep from looking like a cretin when someone pops The Question.

Tips for evaluating good design

Look at the big picture

Don't judge an entire design solely on its failure to execute on a small interaction, but don't underestimate the emotional response that comes from “small” interactions that frustrate you. For example, I hear people condemn Microsoft PowerPoint because its drawing tools make it nearly impossible to align objects well in a complex drawing. While this is a frustrating feature that should be fixed, PowerPoint does so many things right that it is shortsighted to condemn the entire product.

Be conscious of design patterns

As you use a product, take some time to understand its underlying structure. Does it use multiple screens? Multiple tabs? How do groups of information and controls relate to each other? How are objects presented in the interface, and how are they selected, viewed, and manipulated? There are not many industry resources for identifying design patterns, so you'll have to catalog your own structures and see what successful patterns emerge that you can use later. When designing a product, it is vital to get the structure right before focusing on interaction details; otherwise, the interface becomes a house of cards that is easy to knock over.

Critique with reason, not emotion

When you do find a product or feature that has no discernibly redeeming qualities, try to understand why you hate it so much. Is it the clumsiness of the interaction? The use of inappropriate controls? The interface's failure to inform you of the consequences of an action? Or is it simply worthless and in the way? Try to articulate what bothers you so much and add it to a lexicon of principles that you want your designs to follow; this will make it easier to spot similar flaws in your own work, too.

Okay, so I really do have an answer to The Question

What are some products I find to be well designed? Here's a list based on some products I used just today:

Polyvision's Whiteboard Photo

Whiteboard Photo is a great single-purpose tool. I draw a sketch and some text on the whiteboard. I take a digital photo of my work. I press the magic “Clean” button in Whiteboard Photo, and my dark, splotchy, disproportional photo is given a pure white background, flash bulb reflection is eliminated, and the picture's proportions are reconciled so I have a nice, straight rectangle. The tool doesn't promise anything more and delivers exactly on what I want it to do.

IPhoto for the Macintosh

I attach my digital camera to the Mac, and iPhoto slurps in my photos. The product doesn't overwhelm me with advanced photo manipulation tools but gives me what I need: a slick way to organize and retrieve my photos using attributes instead of location-based filenames. The zoom tool that lets me adjust the size of thumbnails is a wonderful piece of interaction design.

The MS Word spelling checker

I type a word that the software's dictionary doesn't know, and a simple red, squiggly line appears beneath it. I can ignore it or fix it, but I never have to stop typing. It also provides a pedagogic vector: you can stop believing that you know how to spell “fluorescence.” Simple and elegant. The grammar checker, though, I can do without until I'm reviewing a final draft.

The power adapter in my car

It's actually mounted inside the cup-holder depression, so I can plug in my cell phone without having the cable exposed on the console, where it would invariably get wrapped around the gearshift or dangle messily on the seat or floor. Someone actually thought about what people use the power source for (cell phones, not cigarette lighters) and designed an appropriate solution.

Once you identify one or two good designs, it is easier to see others. Don't stop being vigilant about looking for bad design, but don't forget that understanding what works can be just as important as what doesn't.