The importance of good design

Recently read a book by Don Norman called “The Design of Everyday Things”. A pretty cool book on product design. At the time I was reading this, I was encountering some epic frustrations in the lab and it also provided some key insights I found useful in my situation. You know that feeling when everybody else reports successful outcomes with their experiments but when you try it, it fails and you don’t know why?

According to the book, when something you are using fails to work, it is usually not your fault. I found this thought rather reassuring 🙂 Most of the time it is due to poor design of whatever machine/tool you are using. This in stark contrast to what most people think. People are often quick to place the blame on others or themselves when things go wrong. In reality, there is a whole field assigned to human-machine interaction that focuses on psychology and cognitive science. People are not machines. We are a creative, random mess of emotions, thoughts and sometimes inexplicable actions. Engineers or scientist typically do not understand this. They thrive on logic and revel in mechanical design, and when a machine fails to work, they blame the user for not reading the instruction manual properly. Nobody reads an instruction manual in full detail. We have the habit of skimming through all the information, picking out things we think are important, and creating a concept of how something works.

So a good design has to accommodate this habit. It has to communicate its use simply and efficiently with what the author calls “signifiers” – something like a push/pull sign on a door. And it has to be shaped for its purpose, a concept termed an “affordance” – like how a teapot spout affords for water to be poured out of it. Feedback is also key. How many times have we pressed a button repeatedly not knowing if the machine has registered this? A simple light that turns on once a button is pressed would serve as good feedback (though still you have those annoying people that continue to push lighted buttons repeatedly.. recall waiting for traffic lights in Singapore). Often designers have a conceptual map of how something should be used, and users have to recreate this conceptual map gained only by interacting with the product. As such, communication via the product is key.

However, good functional design is often not enough. Psychology and emotion play a huge role in how we interact with objects. Its what makes us big fans of Apple, go crazy about Hello Kitty, and choose acai berries over strawberries at every opportunity. The author classifies user experience into three levels – visceral, behavioral and reflective. Visceral responses are natural attractions or repulsions to objects based on our senses. The attraction to clean, sleek contours and bright colours is something Apple often makes use of to capture audiences. Behavioral responses are shaped by previous experience and are also subconscious – the reason we choose Eppendorf or Qiagen over other lesser known brands for example, because we associate them with positive experiences. Lastly, the reflective level is the conscious assessment of the user experience which is often a combination of visceral and behavioural responses.

The book also had a good segment on failures, classified into slips and mistakes. Slips are unintentional mishaps usually due to memory lapses or task interruptions while mistakes were less benign, being the result of planned actions based on incorrect assumptions.

So why was I failing? To be honest its hard for a scientist to blame his/her machines, a PCR machine is pretty robust and reliable. Though some PCR machines have funny interfaces that can prove pretty frustrating. And often there are silly things that one does that can have an impact on your results, running your gel too fast because one is impatient for results for example can lead to fuzzy faint bands. It turns out it was poor reagent quality that may be leading to the failures. In the end, it is about finding out what went wrong. The reagents did not come with a disclaimer saying “there may be errors associated with our use”. It took quite a few experiments to find out what was going on. So design of not only products, but experiments is key to ensuring positive experiences. And certainly, it never helps to blame yourself!


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