Engineering and (Bad) Design: The Day I Couldn’t Open a Door




I’m reading a book called The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. It’s an interesting book about why some designs are total failures and also how we can improve the design of everything things. A good design has two important characteristics, discoverability i.e. What functions are possible, where and how to perform them and understanding i.e. what does it all mean, how is the product supposed to be used.

The book reminded me of one of my old lecturers who liked talking about the time he spent at Cambridge. He said things were so different in the UK, and so advanced that he found himself unable to open water faucets in one of the University’s restrooms.

I was in a similar situation once a few years ago when I accompanied a friend to his girlfriend’s flat. When it was time to leave I got to the door first and embarrassingly discovered that I couldn’t open the bloody door. Seriously the door had the most elaborate locking system I’d ever encountered. It was like nothing I’d ever seen and I had no idea how to open it. After an awkward moment the girl opened the door and we left.

At that time I attributed the failure to open the door to my own shortcomings. The problem, I thought, was the village which didn’t have doors like that.

Imagine my joy then when I started reading Norman’s work. Apparently Norman, himself an engineer turned psychologist, has had door troubles in the past. There are actually doors called “Norman Doors” which are design disasters. Doors where you have no idea whether to push, pull, turn, twist or punch. Doors like that door in the Avenues. I should have taken a picture of that door and sent it to Norman.

It also turns out that my lecturer’s amazement and his inability to open water taps in Cambridge was not a sign of advancement. It’s actually a design failure.

Good designs should be intuitive and simple. The problem with modern gadgets is that they try to do so many things. We have microwaves with so many dials and buttons that you never use nor have any idea of what they do and cars with dashboards looking like the interior of spaceships.

Design extends to things like websites as well. There are some websites that are truly atrocious. Websites where you don’t know where to click, what a button will do and also websites with so many colors and links that your head will spin. I won’t mention any names but the local websites here leave a lot to be desired.

Traditionally new devices were poorly designed. After all Engineers are most concerned with utility than form. The first question is always “Does it work?”. If it works then we consider the cost, how economic is it, how many can we make? Even then other factors such as size and ease of manufacture are considered before the aesthetic aspect is looked at.

Nowadays though it’s becoming more and more important to not only have things which work, but things which work well, are intuitive and satisfy a whole lot of requirements such as environmental impact and even trivial ones like how well a device fits into jean pockets. Design is becoming increasingly important and products with better designs outperform products of similar utility but poorer design.

A good example of this is Apple with its iPhone, iPads and MacBook. Though both cost about double the price of similar devices they usually outsell their competitors. Apple products are better made, with designs easily better than other comparable products.

For companies to get ahead of their competitors it’s no longer enough just to have products that work. I mean there’s practically nothing differentiating any of the flagship mobile phones in terms of functionality. The main difference is the design (and sometimes cost). The reason I prefer Windows phone is not because it works better than Android.

Design is an important field which is only getting prominence now. It’s also being helped by the minimalist movement with its “less is more” mantra. It’s a good creed, in an ever increasingly complex world, we risk coming up with gadgets and cars no one understands. Simplicity, as has been said, is sometimes the ultimate sophistication.

Though it was not considered very important until now, design has been around for as long as mankind has lived. From the moment man picked stones as tools and weapons he was into design.

The Roman architect Vitruvius wrote about the 3 qualities of a good structure in the first century BC :
1.Firmitas: The strength and durability of the design;
2. Utilitas: A design’s usefulness and suitability for the needs of its intended users and,
3. Venustas: The beauty of the design
(Vitruvius’s works were lost for about 1500 years until they were rediscovered in the 15th century)

For two thousand years we have mainly focused on the first and second (Except in the case of painters, sculptors and architects). To design products of the future we need to consider all three.

If we do so, I’ll never find myself in the awkward situation of failing to open a door.

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Tawanda Moyo

Author: Tawanda Moyo

Villager, Itinerant, Engineer, Reader

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