The core purpose of design is to construct a product that will assist the user in achieving a goal with as little friction as possible.
Good design is often mistaken for the appealing coordination of colors or the pristine arrangement of components. On a basic level, this distinction reflects two fields involved in designing applications — UX and UI design; which can also be applied to the process of designing physical products.
UX stands for User Experience, it is concerned with the product’s ability to allow the user to achieve their goal with little friction. Whereas UI design stands for User Interface, which is responsible for the visual appeal of the product.
Considering the purpose of design is to ensure a product’s ease of use, good design is often hidden; it isn’t apparent and it’s more-so felt when using the product. You would think that over time, products would evolve into something well designed and easy to use; unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Poorly designed products leave users feeling frustrated and sometimes incompetent.
This is why good design is incredibly important to a product’s success, when a product has allowed their users to achieve a goal with ease, word-of-mouth will spread like wildfire.
Let’s take a look at 6 elements that make a good design
A product’s affordance is the relationship between the product and the user, it’s derived from the product’s features and the abilities of the user.
The concept of affordance came originally from perception psychologist James Gibson in 1979, and the idea was later modified and made more popular by Don Norman in his book “The Design of Everyday Things” from 1988. But of course, not everyone has heard of it.
Look at the faucet below for example its form kind of invites you to rotate the knob, but no water comes out if you do so. And because of this false affordance, they had to add a help text to show how to open the faucet: by tilting it sideways! Rotating does do something: it changes the temperature of the water. But that doesn’t help much if you can’t get the water running in the first place.
Signifiers determine where action should take place with the product. It should communicate the purpose and operation of the product to the person using it.
In design, signifiers are more important than affordances. They communicate how to use the design. A signifier can be words, illustrations, sounds, anything that communicates its function effectively to the user.
There can be times where an affordance isn’t clear, in these cases a signifier should be used. A door’s ability to open and close wouldn’t be apparent if it wasn’t for the handle. Without a handle, a door could appear to be a wall or window at first glance; in this case, the handle is a signifier. Signifiers are great tools to help improve user interfaces, for example, hover states are a great indicator that a component on the screen is actionable. As a rule of thumb, an affordance defines what the product can do whereas a signifier indicates where the action should be made.
A clear indicator of a bad design is when an external signifier is required, such as a “push, don’t pull” sign on a door or “click here” text on a website. If a product was designed well, an external signifier wouldn’t be needed.
Constraints are used to limit the possible actions the user can make. The use of constraints is particularly important when certain operations could steer the user further away from their goal or cause an error on a website/application.
For instance, a paper shredder like the one pictured here. It might not look very dangerous, but it obviously has very sharp, powerful blades to cut through the paper quickly and effectively. There are constraints that these types of shredders have in place to make sure you put everything together safely before using it. For instance, if you open the shredder off of the bottom trash can, the power will be automatically cut off and the shredder will not work.
Well-designed products map their features based on the knowledge a user would already have. In doing so, the designer is able to utilize the user’s prior insight to minimize the amount of additional information required to operate the product.
For example, if you were to walk into a room with four downlights — one in each corner of the ceiling, you would be able to conclude which switch operated which light if the switches were mapped to reflect the position of the lights; the switch on the top right corner of the switchboard would control the switch on the far right corner of the room.
Stovetops tend to be the worst culprit of bad mapping, switches on a stovetop are usually placed vertically along the side or horizontally along the bottom; because of this, labels are required.
There are several examples of well-mapped features in the digital world, such as address inputs that mirror the layout of a label on a parcel and timelines that order elements chronologically.
It’s important to let the user know the state of the product, which is the purpose of feedback. Feedback doesn’t need to be blatant, in fact, subtle feedback tends to work best as long as it’s immediate and informative. Such as elevator buttons that light up or a simple shake of the screen coupled with a buzzing sound for an incorrect password.
Although it’s important to have feedback, it’s even more important to do it right; poorly executed feedback tends to be worse than having no feedback at all.
Uninformative feedback can be incredibly frustrating for a user — such as cryptic error messages on an application, whereas too much feedback causes the user to ignore them entirely.
A conceptual model is a simplified understanding of how a product or aspects of a product works. Users build conceptual models overtime using the affordances, signifiers, constraints, and mappings of products they come across. The best-designed products utilize the conceptual models their users have, this is because the design ‘piggybacks’ off of previously well-designed products that the user is already familiar with.
For example, a user can conclude the purpose of a teapot and the steps required to operate the product from its affordances, signifiers, constraints, and mappings. Once a user has constructed a conceptual model of a teapot, they will quickly understand the what and how of all teapots they come across in the future as long as they are designed in a similar way.
User interfaces tend to utilize conceptual models we‘ve constructed from the physical world; for example, we know that dragging an item to a trash icon would delete the item. Conceptual models are used to predict the outcome of an action, which is why products that counter existing conceptual models lead to confusion and errors; for example, it can be problematic if the icon for a ‘send’ button resembles a trash can.
For this reason, it is important for designers to understand the conceptual models their users hold, not only to ensure their design utilizes these conceptual models but also to guarantee that they don’t contradict them.
You may have noticed that ‘good’ design does not necessarily translate to an aesthetically appealing product, this is because the two have the tendency to contradict each other in certain scenarios.
A truly well-designed button on a user interface would appear to be 3-dimensional to signify its click-ability; although, such design is what you would expect in a 1990’s website whereas modern-day applications would cohere to the visually-pleasing flat-design trend.
Designers are occasionally faced with the challenge of sacrificing good UX for a visually-appealing UI and vice versa, where they draw the line is dependent on the context in which the product is used.
For example, by nature a hazard sign must be immediately prominent and so a rather unattractive combination of bright colors is used; the visual appeal is completely sacrificed for its good design. Items used in highly risky situations such as hospitals and ambulances tend to be heavily color-coded, regardless of its unappealing look.
I hope that this article has not only amplified your knowledge of good design but also heightened your appreciation for intuitive products and applications. The next time you come away from a product with your goals effortlessly met, take the time to appreciate the effort the designers have put into ensuring your pleasant experience.