Smart Design Connects the Dots

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A week or so ago, I got into an elevator. There were the usual rows of numbers and buttons, so I pressed "5" and stood ready to ascend. Nothing happened. I pressed the button again, this time a little harder. Still nothing happened. Finally, my friend reached over my shoulder and pushed the square to the right of the number 5.

It lighted up and the elevator started moving. "Dumb me," I said aloud. My friend shook his head and smiled. "I think it’s more like dumb design,” he said. And he was right. The elevator had been designed so that it wasn't immediately clear which button to press. It took me out of my natural frame of reference and made me alter my behavior. And that’s the hallmark of dumb design.

Yet dumb design doesn't result from a paucity of consideration. The opposite is true. Sometimes it's overthought and overcomplicated. Smart design, on the other hand, leads with instinct. It draws on something that's more physical than intellectual, more reflex than thought process. Smart design isn’t just what the consumer wants but also how they want it. Good design lets a consumer coexist with a product or service in a seamless fashion, whether that means engagement by following clear yet subtle cues or leveraging an existing mental model from one task to complete another.

Related: Need a New Design? 5 Reasons to Crowdsource It.

Don Norman, cognitive scientist and usability expert, describes design as acting as the communication between object and user. In his bookThe Design of Everyday Things, Norman acknowledges the tendency of people to fault themselves for misusing an object. His classic example concerns how the dials on a stovetop reference the quadrant of burners. Sometimes “left front” seems like it should be labeled “left right” again and again and again. If a design element makes people repeatedly stumble, it’s dumb design and likely hasn’t been tested in the real world for intuitiveness and efficacy. 

So why has so little smart design filtered into everyday, mainstream experiences? Why are there still door handles that look as if they should be pulled, when in fact the user needs to push? The notion of design as a communicator is a big shift from the way it's long been marketed in the United States as a decorative application, a way to make something pretty.

Design’s role is not to make something pretty. It’s to make something useful. And when done very well, design also makes a thing delightful. Beauty can be a nice by-product of usability but should never be the goal.

As German designer Dieter Rams said in his 10 Principles of Design, “Only well-executed objects can be beautiful."

Designers and business builders who are smart will design in such a way that lets people do what they already want to do. Narrow the meaning of design to one of better serving people. Design should clarify, delight, reassure and enable. Heck, it should even empower, in terms of allowing people to do what they want and enjoy what they’re doing.

Here are three elements involved in creating smart design and an organization that supports it:

Related: Editor's Note: Design Intelligence

1. Consider good design a commitment.

Design doesn’t begin with a sketch. It begins with an intention. I built my company Doorsteps alongside designers from the moment it was a complete sentence in my mind, knowing that the idea was only as good as the execution.

Make design usable to make it successful, especially if it's online but helps people live offline. Think of good design as pervasive and definitive, present from the first moment users discover a company to when they bring an object with them to the sidewalk or into the life of their partner or family.

2. Designers need to be at the table.

Have designers involved early and ongoing in the decision-making process. As the deep thinkers in the area of how things work and look, designers bring a holistic perspective to problem solving and empathy for a range of scenarios and roles.

A design team will question, connect, prove, improve, lead and learn all in the same meeting. A designer's ability to see things from the micro to macro, to stand in other peoples’ shoes and clearly articulate a way of reasoning enables a company to make tangible progress at every step.

3. Stand for something.

When an entrepreneur builds a product or a company, he or she makes a promise to the world about how that thing will function and make a contribution. Rarely is this promise turned into a literal translation of the concept. The execution of the idea becomes a story of usability, a depiction of life made better by design.

The entrepreneur has an instinct about the larger implications of how this could all work out and how the product could fit into peoples’ lives. Then the designer can take this impulse to champion not only the finer tactical points of a design but also what it represents emotionally, behaviorally and collectively.

Related: When Your Product Design Makes Your Customers Feel Smart