Good Design Makes a Product Useful (Part 2)

The following is the second in a ten-part series exploring legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design as they relate to digital products.

Good design makes a product useful. A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

– Dieter Rams

We build products for the mind.

When it comes to digital design, the lines between functionality, aesthetics, and psychology are inseparably blurred. Without the constraints of the physical world, there’s no natural form to fall back on, and every bit of constraint and affordance must be introduced intentionally.

Even without the intervention of a designer, a physical product has an inherent form that describes its function. It’s immediately obvious what a hammer is good for. A wheel can’t help but broadcast its purpose. A button begs to be pressed.

With software, however, things are more abstract. Machine code has no inherent form, so without being intentionally designed, a digital product’s purpose is completely cryptic. The ones and zeroes behind QuickBooks look no different from the ones and zeroes behind Facebook. It’s our job to imbue these products with the constraints, affordance, and visual thought needed to make them useful.

Automatic

Automatic uses good design to make complex information understandable and raw data useful.

It’s always obvious when design is an afterthought. The hallmarks of the engineering-first approach are everywhere: inscrutable interfaces, convoluted workflows, user guides the size of The Iliad. This was the dominant approach for the first several decades of personal computing, and it’s left its mark in the form of software designed with its creators in mind, rather than its users.

So how do we make a digital product useful?

  1. Enable the desired task. Whether it’s delivering information efficiently through a website, or creating a mobile platform for interaction via an app, our products should make the user’s goals frictionless. Our work should be designed in such a way that its purpose is obvious, and interactions should be more than functional — they should be delightful.
  2. Reduce cognitive dissonance. When the product’s real capabilities differ from those the user perceives, we’ve created cognitive dissonance. Our products’ appearance should reinforce its function, making it obvious what the user can do with it.
  3. Create desired affordance and constraints. The product should guide the user towards the proper interactions through the use of good aesthetics. Buttons should look like they’re meant to be clicked, inputs should look like inputs, and as much information should be conveyed without text as possible. We can take advantage of our users’ psychological biases to convey information, also — negative interactions are better understood when they’re red, for instance, while positive interactions are better represented by green.
  4. Avoid unnecessary elements. It’s tempting to add vestigial elements into our designs just because we’ve seen them so many times before. Things like skeuomorphism, unnecessary settings toggles, and features that only 10% of your audience will use are all common examples. Digital design gives us a clean slate to work with; every element should be added thoughtfully.

Due to the abstract nature of digital products, usefulness is more directly tied to aesthetics and psychology than in any other medium. It’s our privilege to work in a medium that allows for iteration and experimentation, but it’s also a massive responsibility. Tiny design changes can affect the experience of millions of users, and the line between delight and frustration is uncommonly narrow.

We have the opportunity to craft products from scratch, unfettered by the constraints of the physical world. Let’s make things that are beautiful, functional, well-considered, and useful.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6 / Part 7 / Part 8 / Part 9 / Part 10

The ten principles of good design are published on the website of Vitsœ, a furniture manufacturer with whom Dieter Rams has had a long-standing partnership. The principles can be found here, and are licensed through Creative Commons.

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