Intelligent Design

A view of a computer map enhancement display aboard the amphibious assault ship USS PELELIU (LHA 5) during PACEX '89. Photo Credit: US Navy
A view of a computer map enhancement display aboard the amphibious assault ship USS PELELIU (LHA 5) during PACEX ’89. Photo Credit: US Navy

One of the rules of the industrial design can be summarized as follows: If you make a design that a stupid man can use, it will be used by stupid people only. Simple designs are not designs without functionality. They are designs that fit perfectly the user requirements and way of working. When people are working with a tool, they usually find the lack of functionality of the tool and they desire a tool with that additional functionality that would do their work easier.

While hardware imposes a lot of limitations to functionality, software can grow hugely in functionality in an easy way. A hammer is a hammer simply. It is a piece of iron with a wooden stick. However it can be improved to increase the comfort of the user and its way of working: better materials, a special shape of the handgrip, and so on. Functionality is not increased hugely but the experience of the user can be.

Software usually is written to provide orders to a machine. It is used to program actions for a machine as if a human were writing a list of task for it. In other words, software is substituting the capability of humans to decide how the device must be used. In the same way as the experience of the user of hammer is improved if the handgrip is design to fit the hand of a man, the experience of the user of a computer is improved if the software is design to fit its mind.

Computer speed has been increased a lot in the last years. I remember how hard was to use the first CAD systems. You could have the most modern (for that time) AutoCAD program, however with a high speed PC to get a 3D perspective of a very simple design could spend more than half an hour. Nowadays, we can move the perspective of the design with a finger on a touchscreen faster than how our brain processes what we are seeing.

This kind of improvement is not increasing the functionality of the system itself because the old system could show all the perspectives of the design however it is improving ours because we can be moving the picture on the screen while we are drinking coffee instead of spending our time in drinking coffee in front of the coffee machine while the computer is thinking for a lot of minutes the next perspective.

We like improvements that help us to work in a more natural way instead of improvements that increase or decrease the functionality of the tools. That is the reason why if software is designed for stupid people, we would never like it.

Configuration is a way to increase the functionality of the software (and its maximum complexity) without increasing the complexity of the use (and its current complexity).

The experience of the computer software can be very different for a common user and a computer programmer because the computer programmer can know how functionality could have been implemented, while a not expert user can think there are no other handgrips for a hammer.

Software developers usually like a lot of configurable options, while common users demand that most things be totally transparent from them. They demand a higher functionality with a limited complexity. Here is where innovation management has to make a decision. Software design is made by computing experts. They have (as everybody) a trend to think that anybody would like the same things they like, however, this may be false. An industrial design process would include the final user preferences through marketing techniques. Designs must be agreed between those who know what people like and those who know what technology can provide.

When we are talking about innovation there is an additional problem. A novel product based on a novel technology may not have information about the desired experience of the user. Nobody knows how the user will handle the product. Functionality must be decided by the expectations of the designer or by assumptions of the marketing experts. The former option can drive towards a complex product that can fail in the market and the latter one can drive towards an excessively simple product (for stupid people) that can fail equally.

Design management procedures would solve this situation through marketing techniques testing a prototype by a selected group of users that could provide information about their experiences as users of the new product.

The moral of this fable is that designers must have creativity to imagine themselves the possibilities of new technology when it is complex because marketing only can provide real information after the development of the first prototype. The creativity of the designing team for the definition of the first prototype is critical for the whole process of technological innovation. A process of trial and error in the market would drive the technology to the user needs but the cost could be hugely reduced if the organization has a good team of designers with truly market vision.


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