Engineers love to tinker. This tinkering spills over into their work by the explosion of options that engineers put in almost all products they build. Options are great for engineers but for most people, options hinder the functionality of the device. That is where good design and engineering clash.
Too Many Options Vs The Right Options
Options are always challenging to get right. Too many and the user is saturated with what they all mean. Too few and the device is too specific. The engineer wants all the options because they know how to use them while your customer may not even care. Designing a product that meets the users requirements means making the tough choices on what options are important. Consider the following criteria when determining what options should go into a product:
- 80/20 Rule: Figure out what options 80% of your users will actually use. Eliminate the reset. Making this decision can significantly reduce the number of options to support.
- Have A “Super User” Mode: It’s true that maybe 5% of your users will be super users. Put all of those less frequently used options in a super user mode. Hide this mode from the normal user. They don’t even need to know it exists. Better yet, create a standard interface to your device so super users can modify to their hearts content.
- Keep It Simple: Understand the core function of your device so that it works great out of the box. Once the core is solid, then you can add options. Each option should enhance the core not confuse it. Poorly defined products are overly complicated because the marketeer does not understand what the customer really wants.
- Make Out Of The Box Useful: The user should become useful from second one they touch your gadget. Nothing frustrates users more than having to configure or setup their brand new toy. Any kind of setup should be so simple a two year old could do it.
- Have No More Than 7 +/- 1 Base Options: Making products infinitely configurable just confuses a normal user. Make the base options manageable by making the touch decisions for the customer. They will tell you if they want more.
Engineers love options while everyone else just wants the gadget to work. If your main market is engineers, then option away. If it’s Joe 6-pack, then give him what he needs. No more, no less.
Too Broad Vs Just Narrow Enough
Along the same lines as options is too broadly defining your product. Always keep in mind the pain you are trying to eliminate. That pain or need should be defined narrowly enough that its manageable but broadly enough to be useful for the majority of your customers. Good design always keeps the pain to solve in mind while engineering may stray away from the main pain because smaller aches are easier to fix or add. This comes down to the target market definition and a discipline to cut out useless “cool” features. Cool features are those nice to haves not required features that tend to slip in when you are not looking. Try these ideas to get just narrow enough:
- Define your Audience: Get the details of your target audience. Figure out what they like, dislike, use now or don’t use. Draw a picture. Make lists. Seek them out. These users will guild you down the path to better product design.
- Recruit Early Adopters: Once your audience has been defined, go find some. Make them part of your development team so you nail the features and options right. Give them early versions, warts and all. Let them guild you and challenge your assumptions about what they want.
- See The Bigger Picture: Products tend to work in concert with other products. Understand what other products your product will interact with or have to interface to. Internalize the whole product ecosystem. Figure out
Doing A Job Vs User Experience
Form, fit and function are what most designers strive for. Engineers tend to only focus on function. For them, it’s about doing the job not about the experience. That is not to say that engineers don’t like or appreciate well designed products. Most do but that’s not the priority. For an engineer, it tends to be function, form and fit. So, that is what they naturally design not thinking that most users will not be engineers. Overcoming this requires a keen sense of the problem you are solving and the realization that engineers will always regress back to function ahead of form or fit.
Strike A Balance
To be fair, products can also be over designed to the point where making the gadget is impossible. There are practical limitations on what can be done and designers need to listen to engineers for guidance. In some cases, the design can get in the way of the function. Make sure that form, fit and function are equally considered.
Check out this post on Managing UI Complexity by Brandon Walkin. He nails the Design Vs Engineering attitude with his comment about the UI in Windows Calendar.
Here’s another post comparing Desktop Publishing Software. It has some of the same themes in terms of usability.