What is good design?

What is good design? What are some examples of good design? How do we do good design? We dive deep into these questions in this blog post

Daniel Bulut

March 4, 2021

What is good design?

Here’s a super loaded question… what is good design? Or what makes design good?

After considering a lot of different views, good design is really determined whether it fits users’ needs, desires and capabilities. In a nutshell, good design, when properly done, is human-centred.


Good design is human-centred

Why do we make products, systems or services? We make them for people to use. Good design is human-centred – it’s designed for people, it’s made for people, it’s used by people.

Human-centred design is the process of ensuring people’s needs are met, the resulting product is understandable and usable, it accomplishes the desired tasks, and the experience of use is positive and enjoyable.


Examples of good design

I’m going to go through two really interesting examples, which demonstrate what good design really is:

1. Vegetable peeler

In the past vegetable peelers used to be inexpensive, uncomfortable, awkward and painful to use. Everyone assumed this is how they had to be.

Along came the revolutionary OXO peeler. It was designed to help someone with arthritis be able to peel their vegetables effectively. Even though the peeler was designed for someone with arthritis, it was advertised as a better peeler for everyone.

Even though the peeler was more expensive, the design was so good that it was a success. As the design was so good, it reached everyone, especially people with arthritis who it was originally designed for.

Today the OXO style peeler and other variations are so common that you probably don’t know or don’t remember what an old inexpensive peeler was like to use.

2. Modern touchscreen

In the early 2000s, human-computer interaction was a mess. For example, zooming in meant going in a menu, selecting the percentage of zoom and then zooming in. Today, that is very different, all we need to do is pinch our screen to zoom in.

Touch screens existed in the early 2000s, but they were predominately Resistive Touch – the super hard to press touch screens that bank ATMs use. They require a lot of force to action. On smaller screens, this technology was not user-friendly, and it was difficult and frustrating for users.

FingerWorks was a company that changed our world with their “Capacitive Multi-Touch Technology”. This is the same fast, accurate and responsive technology you now enjoy on your phone today.

In the early 2000s, FingerWorks released a trackpad that helped people with wrist injuries easily use a computer without aggravating their injury further.

Apple was working on their first-ever phone and acquired FingerWorks in the process. They used this technology to create the first iPhone and the rest is history.

The touchscreen technology that revolutionised our world in the last 2 decades came from an intention to help people suffering from injuries to be able to work easier.

Characteristics of Good Design

What do these examples have in common? They’re all accessible, usable and desirable.

Accessible

Accessibility makes design accessible to all people, regardless of capability. The vegetable peeler example specifically considered people with arthritis. The touch screen technology that changed the world was originally designed for people with wrist injuries. Good design is accessible.

Usable

Usability refers to how easy to use a design is. The vegetable peeler example is so easy to use that it became far superior to its inexpensive competition. The iPhone was designed so intuitively that actions like scrolling down the page was so easy and natural.

Desirable

All these examples are desirable as well. Who wouldn’t want a vegetable peeler that is comfortable and peels vegetables really effectively? Who wouldn’t want a phone that you can touch and perform so many more functions on? It meets people’s wants and needs.

Ethical

Good design doesn’t discriminate or have any sort of prejudice or opinion. Good design doesn’t create new problems from solving old ones. Good design doesn’t take away value from how we live our lives.

How do we do good design?

There are 4 traditional stages to good design:

  1. Understand: Watch and observe how people do their activities, what’s important to them and understand how people behave
  2. Ideate: Generate a lot of ideas about what the issues really, work with people to really understand what the fundamental underlying issues are and about the whole system and every aspect of it
  3. Prototype: Develop a concept that resembles a hypothesised and practical solution based on the observation and ideation
  4. Test: Test the prototype and refine the design

But there’s a problem with this traditional method to design. It’s not really feasible in our fast-moving environment. It’s far too linear – meaning there’s a supposed beginning, middle and end, but things change all the time.

Good design is iterative

That’s why good design is iterative. It’s constantly being iterated and changed based on people changing, our environment changing, our technology changing and everything changing. It’s continuous iteration. The process is circular.

To go back to Apple’s example with the iPhone. You might think that the iPhone hasn’t changed much in the last few years or they’ve lost their edge with innovation. But if you compare the first iPhone to the newest iPhone it is in a completely different league. Apple’s secret is continuous improvement to its design through iteration.

It remains the most popular phone for a reason. In Australia alone Apple’s iPhones take up 54%+ of market share.

Last thoughts

It is really difficult to do good design. It would be amazing if there were something as simple as a checklist that determines if design is good or not, but unfortunately, it’s not the case.

We can do good design if we follow a human-centred approach and design for people of today and tomorrow.

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