Hawk or peacock? – The relationship between product aesthetics and usefulness

17 12 2008

Having some leisure time of my own, err, I am kidding myself again, let us start over again… Having more time to spend on reading, analyzing and pondering over anything related to my line of work and passion -product development-, I’ve found myself meditating around several situations I had been in while performing my duty, trying to understand what was going behind the mind of the people on scene and whether this circumstances are common events on the product development arena.

My apple by .p a n e.

My apple by .p a n e.

One of such situations is when your product receives the unexpected “I do not like it” statement. Whether it comes from a manager, costumer or a peer, it is still an infamous phrase to hear. Yet again, in the age of the iPod and the value of aesthetics it is something you will surely face on a frequent basis. If you haven’t heard it, don’t over joy; you will my friend, sooner than what you expect. The need of classifying something on sight is embedded in the human being, a natural reaction to encountering something new. It is the mechanism that has helped us survive: is that hairy multi-eyed spider something I would want to touch?

I am digressing here, back to the subject at hand. Is it so terrible to produce something someone else doesn’t found compelling? I really don’t think so; a negative commentary might be an opportunity to better your product. Before committing into a discussion, asses the person who is delivering the critic. Is she someone who recurrently plays the devil advocate or says whatever comes to her mind first? Or is she someone who delivers new insights and adds value to your work? Done? Ok now you know what you are in for. Let us assume the person stating her no appreciation of your work is someone who adds value, we will deal with the other kind of people in a future post.

Prior to doing a defensive stance let she state her motives but, give hand her a helping hand: reintroduce what are the business and user goals your product is trying to attain, what are the users’ expected mindsets when using your product, the different scenarios it might be used, etc. Hmm, we should have done this before, don’t we? Yes we should have. A way of working around the “I don’t like it” lance is to prepare the terrain earlier; we are not delivering work of arts here where interpretation is left to the eyes of the beholder. We are talking about delivering products of use to our costumers, people; hence we need to clearly understand, and be able to put in plain words, not only the business motivations but also who these poor souls are and what are they trying to conquer by using our product.

If you all of the aboveis cleared and you have done a correct introduction prior to exhibit your prototype or final product you will then have more chances of understanding what the “I don’t like it” meant. Try to understand if what your critic is rejecting is the way your product solves the needs of your costumers or is it the way it presents itself. It might be something in between: the way it presents itself works against what the users are trying to achieve.

All this doesn’t mean you have to completely left aesthetics to rot aside. Emotion has come to be known as an important and valuable factor to take into account when people evaluate the possibility of purchasing or using something; and, aesthetics recall emotions that in turn trigger actions. A cluttered page, an appliance with button labels with an ugly typeface, might pose as unreliable to your users. While, a clear interface, a page with well placed elements and the just quantity of attention attraction on the correct objects, would prove even inviting and delicious to be used.

Aesthetics are a matter of balance and of understanding the context your products will be used in and what your users are reaching for. An over decoration might prove a futile addition to the end of an emergency door. While an over boxed item page or a results page with lack of critical information might scare costumers off. Hawk or peackock indeed.

Words are very unnecessary... by lepiaf.geo

Words are very unnecessary... by lepiaf.geo

To wrap things up, I support and rally the idea that products and services should be designed to go as unnoticed as possible by the people who use them. In other words, you should design your products with one goal in mind: be useful to your costumers. How can your product be not useful? Run the functionality race: products that overwhelm their users with either a myriad of functions just because the competition has them, put too much effort on the looks that costumers instead of pursuing their objectives sat back and watch your work of art. Or simply stab yourself and play the vanity queen, stubbornly shut yourself from the outside world and decide by yourself (or within the organization) who the users are, what they are trying to reach and what is the best for them without ever contacting those weird people we call costumers. As in the aesthetics and usefulness pulse, the need of innovating within in contrast with innovating with the help of the outside world is a matter of balance.

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