I’m looking at a contemporary marvel of design engineering. A form that anyone can recognize, but would be just as familiar to the ancient Greeks. A form ideal for its purpose, based on the principal of the helix. I could endlessly admire its perfection, but mostly, I take it for granted. I’m talking about a plastic toothpaste cap.
In today’s vernacular, a toothpaste cap is an awesome design. When opening toothpaste, a manual counter-clockwise twist easily disengages the threads inside the cap from those on the tube. The opposite action to close. The motion requires minimal thought, and it doesn’t matter whether a person favors his left hand or right, has wet hands, dry hands, tiny hands or big hands. It works flawlessly in heat or cold. Indoors or out. Tapered and serrated for grip, a toothpaste cap embodies a simple, elegant, pragmatic form. Best of all, the cap’s design transfers to millions of other products. People understand how it works. The epitome of user-friendly.
Engineers and developers should think more about toothpaste caps. They should do this before they adulterate their own products with embedded software, add-ons, enhancements, buttons, bells, whistles, dashboards, displays, graphics, pop-up windows, drop-down menus, dials, switches, reports, interfaces, features, functions, and leading-edge capabilities. They should do this before they create hideous outgrowths for things that are good enough. Take forks, which have been commonplace for about 1,000 years. Today, HapiFork produces one with a Micro USB connector, Lithium Polymer Battery, ARM® Cortex®-M0 Processor, capacitive detection, vibrating feedback, two LED’s, and two plastic shell components. This technological slumgullion can be yours for about $65.
That’s not the only price for progress.
“You tell Hapifork how you eat in one of three ways: piercing food with the fork at nearly a 90-degree angle (the Picker), scooping food onto the fork (the Scooper), or a mix of the two (the Data Lover). In a perfect world, the Data Lover setting would be the best for someone like me who has no idea how they eat, but it falls dramatically short. It only works with a non-conductive knife, which won’t interfere with the fork’s sensitive prongs — they use capacitive sensors to detect when the fork touches your mouth. Data Lover was way too sensitive, vibrating incessantly as I used it, mistaking accidental knife and plate taps for my next bite. Sometimes I would just shift the fork in my hand and it would vibrate angrily at me. It’s a weird feeling, being angry at a fork.”
Weird, indeed. That was Valentina Palladino’s opinion in her HapiFork product review. The Internet of Things is a paragon of technology convergence, but I question whether people want it to subsume their eating utensils.
Doug Englebart, a pioneer in human-computer interaction, might have loved the HapiFork. “Even though he was a prescient theorist, [Englebart] was not truly a successful innovator: he kept adding functions and instructions and buttons and complexities to his system,” Walter Isaacson wrote in The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Computer Revolution. “[Alan] Kay made things easier, and in so doing showed why the idea of simplicity – making products that humans find convivial and easy to use – was central to the innovations that made computers personal.”
Good design spurs demand and revenue growth by making products attractive, easy-to-learn, and easy-to-use. Good design also contributes to supply by reducing production costs, waste and inefficiency. Good design supports prospects in adopting a new solution, and facilitates repeat purchases. No matter what the business objective – launching a company, disrupting an industry, or protecting a market – good design reduces revenue risk. “True competitive advantage requires non-obvious solutions executed in elegant ways,” Tim Brown wrote in an Harvard Business Review article, When Everyone Is Doing Design Thinking, Is It Still a Competitive Advantage? (August 27, 2015)
Thanks to Alan Kay, Steve Jobs, and many others, good design spawned the personal computing industry, and several offshoots. Unfortunately, many developers today don’t follow their visionary ideals. “Valuation and accounting methods often give low priority to design quality as a generator of value for business, and the case for good design has to be made over and over again,” wrote Dr. Richard Simmons in an article, The Cost of Bad Design.
“Weniger, aber besser.” “Less, but better.”
Pick up a Braun appliance, and you will experience what designer Dieter Rams meant by this summation. Rams designed many Braun products, and began his career when household stereos and TV’s were so ugly, they were concealed inside furniture and cabinetry. Trappings that Rams eschewed as superfluous. In 1956, his SK4 PhonoSuper combined a radio and record player, and it was the first stereo appliance to have a clear Plexiglas cover – a fascinating fact to share at your next company gathering or family reunion. “The company became the epitome for honest, functional products and the principles set then are still foundational to helping us fathom what good design truly is,” according to the website Minimallyminimal.com.
Rams preached 10 principles of good design:
1. Good design is innovative. All innovation has lineage to current design, but offers new ways to solve problems and delight customers.
2. Good design makes a product useful. “Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.”
3. Good design is aesthetic. “Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.”
4. Good design makes a product understandable. Good design is self-explanatory, and it clarifies a product’s form and function. “Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition.”
5. Good design is unobtrusive. “Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.”
6. Good design is honest. It does not spoof customers by trying to appear more innovative, powerful, or valuable than it really is. “We’d make wrinkles, advertise them as creases.”
7. Good design is long-lasting. “It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated.”
8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail. “Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.”
9. Good design is environmentally friendly. “Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.”
10. Good design is as little design as possible. Products should not be encumbered unessential parts.
“Make it simple, but no simpler.” – Albert Einstein
I wouldn’t curse at my computer if software designers subscribed to Rams’ ideals. Some do, though in a roundabout way. “We realised that we were spending a huge amount of time on the creation of [documentation], which could have been better spent refining the design and gaining actual user feedback,” Matt Pollitt wrote recently in an article, The Death of the Wireframe Document. “Burn it — it’s useless. What’s more, it’s a massive waste of your client’s money.”
Pollitt’s conclusion came after reviewing his company’s project billings between 2013 and 2015, discovering that User-experience (UX) design hours increased from 32% of project time to 45%. Over the same period, project hours for documentation decreased from 26% to 6%.
He makes a good point. Why plow time and money into documenting a cruddy design? The HapiFork user manual is 32 pages long, and includes a helpful section on how to compete with friends. Just a reminder – this is an eating utensil.
The golden rule of design: “don’t do to others what others have done to you.”
Good design does more than fulfill a quality rating. Good design delights. It tells customers that they are in good hands. That they are understood and respected. Embedding those properties in a product or software application isn’t easy. It requires empathy, creativity, and good processes. “Whenever I’m faced with a tough business challenge, rather than trying to use some prescribed CEO logic, I tackle it as a design problem,” Brown wrote in Harvard Business Review. “That’s not an inborn ability, it’s a skill — OK, a mastery — learned over many years of doing.”
Will the simple, elegant toothpaste cap go the way of HapiFork – gorped up with electronics, silicon chips and digital displays? Will common tasks eventually require installing desktop software, charging batteries, creating an online user profile, and setting preferences on a web dashboard? Has the low cost and ubiquity of technology made it more important to supply it than to worry about how it looks or how it works?
Twenty-eight hundred years from now, if more people recognize a HapiFork than a helix, we’ll know the answers.