Tag Archives: Design

Design of Everyday Things: Drinking Water Fountain

9 Dec

Drinking water fountains are visible everywhere – airports, restrooms, parks. It’s a great way to let thirsty people, adults and children alike, to drink water when they are not in the comfort of their homes. It’s also a great way to waste water. More water goes down the drain than a person’s mouth. In absence of a cup or a glass, there is no better design available that minimizes loss of water.

A few months ago, I got off a flight at the Atlanta airport. I was thirsty and went straight to the first water fountain I saw.
Drinking water fountain - sensor activated

I first looked for a button to press or a knob to turn that would get me the water, just the way I’ve always done. When I couldn’t find it, the next second, I noticed a label that showed how to waive my hand under the fountain to activate the faucet. Oh, that’s helpful, I thought and was immediately impressed by the use of sensors in a water fountain. I waived my hand. Nothing happened. Waived again. And again. Nothing. A feeling of embarrassment clouded me, and I felt people looking at the idiot who couldn’t figure out how to waive a hand to activate the fountain. I quickly left and didn’t stop at the next fountain.

Two days later, while returning, I was again at the same airport. I decided to try waving my hand at a different fountain. It worked, and I felt smart again.

Drinking water fountain - mechanicalDesign issues

  1. Use of sensors is a good idea. Nobody touches the button. No more passing of germs from one hand to another, at least through a water fountain. This might be the reason the designers decided to use sensors.
  2. The designers ignored a fundamental design principle and the scenario when the sensors are not working: feedback.
  3. There is no way someone would know if the sensors are not working. A mechanical fountain has a button that people have to press. If they press the button and water doesn’t come out, that’s feedback enough indicating that the fountain is not working.
  4. What if my hands are not free, if I’m carrying something or a baby that I can’t put down? I can use, and have used, my body to press the button to drink water from a mechanical fountain but I can’t do it with this one.

Finally, if you need to use an illustration to show how to use an item as simple as a water fountain, that is, in my book, a bad design.

Related readings
Design of Everyday Things


Design Of Everyday Things: Faucets

16 Jan

Bad design
A few years ago, at Cincinnati/Norther Kentucky airport restroom, I saw a sign above the wash basins that read something like this – “The faucet may not operate if your clothes are dark colored”. This was a classic example of a designer hellbent on incorporating the sensor technology into a product without thinking about the end user. If you wore dark clothes and wanted to wash your hands, you were out of luck! Fortunately, those faucets are gone now.

Another bad design
In my office, the faucets in the restroom dispense water if you place your hands below them, which is fine if you want the water to flow for about 10 seconds after which the faucet shuts off. It intelligently assumes that nobody needs water flowing for more than 10 seconds. You have to wave your hands again to get the water flowing again. Or, as someone told me, you can tap the top of the faucets to get water. There is absolutely no way for anyone to figure out that tapping the faucet can get you water! An absence of signifiers.
faucetThe faucets look elegant; however, there is no way to control the temperature of water. If you want cold water or hot water, you are out of luck! The same faucets on the first floor restroom dispense almost hot water. And there is no way to reduce the flow of hot water or control the temperature of water.

Good design
I see a great design of faucets in my gym. The faucets look beautiful with the sensor clearly visible at the front so I know where I should place my hands. There is small lever to control the flow of hot water. The water keeps flowing as long as you need it. Simple, obvious, and elegant. Presence of signifiers.

Design Of Everyday Things: Doors

3 Jul

Doors. We use them multiple times every day, everywhere. Home, office, shop, airport. Doors are so integral to our lives that we never pause to think about their design.

Wait. What? Doors are beautiful or ugly, they open and shut. What is there to think about?

Stupid people or stupid design?

This is the front door in my office. It’s beautiful. It’s pulled from inside or pushed from outside to open it. Even after using it for five years, I sometimes make a mistake and do the opposite. I have seen many people make the same mistake. Why can’t we open a simple door? Are we stupid? Or the designer of the door had other ideas?

What do the smaller handles on the inside and longer handles on the outside convey? That the smaller handle means it should be pulled and the longer handle means it should be pushed? This seems to be the thinking behind the design of this door. Unfortunately, no such convention exists.

Don’t make me think
Below is the restroom door in my office. There is only one way to open it from outside – by pushing it. A simple plate on the door, no thinking required. A handle on the inside indicates that it needs to be pulled.

Here is the emergency exit. Again, there is only one way to open it. By restricting the things we can do with a door to only one, it’s a simple and powerful design that can save lives during a fire.

Some doors open on both sides. If possible, this would be the best design. It would work for everyone. A door should not make us think how we should open it. That would be stupid design.

Related readings
Design Of Everyday Things

Designing Videos For Learning

22 Jun

Thomas Edison, in 1913, had predicted:

“Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.”

It never happened. Books are still in widespread use though the format is slowly and gradually moving from print to digital. The “motion picture” or videos are being used for at least a decade for education, but no significant impact has been reported thereby preventing their mainstream adoption. The Khan Academy, thanks to Bill Gates, has achieved an unprecedented fame for its video-based learning platform. Many startups (Kno, Inkling) and established companies are using videos to enrich their eBooks, but are the videos really having an impact on students’ learning?

It’s said that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a thousand pictures (or a million words). Is it true? Not always. Why not? Because a video has to be designed in such a way as to convey the meaning of the words in an efficient and effective manner, and it has to engage the viewer. There are some guidelines that can be followed to design videos for educational settings.

  1. The first few seconds of the video are the most important moments to gain students’ attention. An AdAge research on YouTube showed that about 20% viewers abandon the video in the first 10 seconds, 33% in 30 seconds, and as much as 60% within 2 minutes.
  2. The video should not be more than 2 minutes long.
  3. The video must engage students by generating curiosity and gaining attention and motivating them to watch other videos or read the chapter to learn more. The video should raise questions that are answered in the chapter.
  4. A video at the beginning of a chapter doesn’t have to directly deal with the contents of the chapter. However, it should be relevant to the chapter at a high level.
  5. The content of the video should focus on the learning outcome.
  6. What are the topics that engage students? Relevance to their lives is very important, something that they feel strongly about.
  7. Smartphone, iPad, sports, student loan, music, movies, and Facebook are some of the topics that engage students.
  8. Politics, laptops, books, economy, and workplace are some of the topics that do not engage students.
  9. The video should show something interesting, unusual, surprising, or shocking things, people, or events.
  10. The best option is to show something that evokes emotions such as excitement, happiness, optimism, inspiration, or sadness.
  11. The audio voice over in the video should sound enthusiastic and conversational.
  12. The video should also raise questions that directly or indirectly relate to the contents of the chapter – Why did a particular team win or lose? How did your favorite music band come up with a great song? How many friends can you have in the real world? Which is the happiest country in the world and why? Why do gas prices go up in summer? What are the new high-growth careers?
  13. If the video doesn’t answer these questions, the students will feel compelled to read the chapter to find the answers.
  14. The video may be followed by a few questions to make sure the students watched and understood the video.

Suggested Readings
The Evolution of Classroom Technology
It is not television anymore: Designing digital video for learning and assessment

Why Motivation Works … And When

15 May

There are two types of motivations:

Intrinsic motivation: comes from within oneself and leads to a person doing more of something for the joy of it, without being much influenced by the outcome. As they say – The journey is the reward. Intrinsic motivation always leads to engagement. When people are intrinsically motivated, their engagement with an activity increases, which leads to further and prolonged engagement that requires sustaining. In the absence of sustained engagement, motivation would go down quickly. In a typical classroom, the students start losing interest after about ten minutes. Extrapolating the same theory to online courses, I’d say people need to be re-engaged every ten minutes or so. When people are motivated, they want to do more of that activity because they find it challenging, interesting, funny, prestigious, intellectual, or it satisfies some other visceral need.

Extrinsic motivation: is triggered by external factors (both positive and negative), usually called rewards and punishment by education professionals; for example, promising a new laptop or a vacation to a kid if she gets an A in a test, or threatening to lock down the video game if she doesn’t get an A. Both approaches might work in the short term. The kid will try her best to get an A, but not try her best to learn the subject matter. The end result is now more important than the effort and learning. This approach doesn’t work in the long term. And in the absence of a reward or punishment, she might not try to get an A. This pretty much explains the current state of our education system.

So why does every school and organization dangle a carrot or show a stick to motivate people? Because it has been the conventional wisdom for hundreds of years. A century ago, during the industrial revolution, the assembly line production became very popular. People didn’t need to think much. They just needed to do the same thing again and again. When they were paid more money, their productivity increased. And thus was born the convention that incentives increase productivity, which is true in cases where people don’t need to use their brain.

However, in today’s knowledge economy, creativity and innovation are the key to being competitive. In tasks that require cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and reasoning, incentives work in a way exactly the opposite of what’s expected. Thinking and creativity go down as has been proved in numerous research studies. So what works in today’s world? In short – meaning and purpose. Employees are engaged when they believe that they are doing meaningful work, that they have a purpose. Students are engaged when they believe that what they are learning is relevant to their lives or at least makes sense to them.

I got my bachelor’s degree in engineering without feeling, even for a moment, that it serves a meaning in my life. I switched careers. Then I got a master’s degree in education, and got very passionate about educating our kids the right way … by engaging them.

Related readings

Motivational Design
How to Stay Motivated
Grading: The Issue Is Not How But Why

What is Design?

4 May

I love design. My definition: Design is how something looks and functions. I did an Internet search and found lots of definitions of design, some are good and some are terrible.

What is design?

  • Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.- Steve Jobs
  • Design: to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan
  • Good design is about looking at everyday things with new eyes and working out how they can be made better. It is about challenging existing technology. – James Dyson, Inventor
  • Design is the conscious decision-making process by which information (an idea) is transformed into an outcome, be it tangible (product) or intangible (service).
  • Design is that area of human experience, skill and knowledge which is concerned with man’s ability to mould his environment to suit his material and spiritual needs. – Leonard Bruce Archer, Royal College of Art
  • Design is the process of finding the most elegant answer to the question of ‘how do I…? – Paul ‘Scrivs’ Scrivens
  • Design is what links creativity and innovation. It shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers. Design may be described as creativity deployed to a specific end. – Sir George Cox
  • Designing is the process of converting information that characterizes the needs and requirements for a product into knowledge about a product.
  • A plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose. – Charles Eames, Architect
  • Design is concerned with the question “will this work for people?
  • Design is the application of creativity to planning the optimum solution of a given problem and the communication of that plan to others.
  • Design is the conscious, deliberate process by which elements, components, potentials, tendencies, etc. are intentionally arranged in the space‐time continuum in order to achieve a desired result. – E. Christopher Mare, Village Design Institute
  • Design is coupling knowledge and technology with creativity, in activities that predict and control an outcome.
  • Design is the process of creating some new version of something as well as something new. -Bill Moggridge Director, Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
  • Design is a process especially suited to divergent thinking—the exploration of new choices and alternative solutions. – Tim Brown, IDEO
  • Design = creative problem-solving
  • Design is directed toward human beings. To design is to solve human problems by identifying them and executing the best solution. – Ivan Cermayeff

The worst article on design is on Wikipedia.

50+ Excellent Posters about Design
Do you Know “What is Design?” 41 Answers to One Simple Question

Suggested readings
Dieter Rams: Ten Principles for good design

Innovation is the Key

27 Apr

IDEO is world’s largest design firm. Originally named David Kelley Design (named after the founder and Stanford University professor, David Kelley) and founded in 1978, it was later rechristened IDEO, which came from the word ‘ideology’. The company has some of Fortune 100 clients and is primarily involved with the design of consumer products. Some of the most popular and innovative products designed by IDEO are the Apple mouse, Steelcase chairs, and Palm V PDA. Professor Kelley teaches a very popular course at Stanford University that helps students learn the basics of design and rapid prototype development.

The book The Art of Innovation was written by David Kelley’s brother Tom Kelley (with journalist and Pulitzer prize winner Jonathan Littman), who is also the General Manager at IDEO. The book is intended to share the best practices for developing a culture of innovation within a company, which is practiced at IDEO after years of using and refining. A person at the company is the official ‘Story Teller’ to outside visitors who tour the company to see and learn what makes the company the leader in design innovation.

The book has been divided into fifteen chapters. Each chapter covers a specific topic in the design process or in building a company focused on innovation. Tom Kelley talks about building a company-wide culture that promotes thinking and innovation and what the stages are in developing an innovative product.

Here’s is the summary of chapter 1.

Innovation is the key
In the last 15 years, innovation has become a buzzword widely used in big corporations to tiny startup companies. The CEOs and the executive team members always talk about innovation, be it product innovation, process innovation, services innovation, or innovation in other areas. It has become a top priority for many companies. The methodology developed by IDEO comprises five stages:

  • a. Understand the potential market, users, available technology, and constraints.
  • b. Observe the potential users in real-world situations doing their normal activities instead of setting up focus groups and laboratory research.
  • c. Visualize how and what the products will be in future and how, where, and when they will be used.
  • d. Build a prototype and continuously test with real users and refine it.
  • e. Commercialize the concept by launching the product in the market.

Innovation is a mindset, a complex, time-consuming, and difficult process, but it is the only key to future growth. It is the only way to remain relevant in today’s hyper-competitive market.

Suggested Readings
You Call That Innovation?
Innovation Is a Discipline, Not a Cliché