What makes people love or hate the products we design by Javier Bargas-Avila, User Experience researcher at Google Switzerland

A few weeks ago a great convention took place in St Gallen around the theme of entrepreneurship. During one week-end, the START Summit brought together professionals, entrepreneurs, startups, and students from all over Switzerland for exciting workshops, open talks, and different competitions.

In this occasion, we at the ETH Entrepreneur Club had the privilege of representing the students of ETH at our private booth. On both days, participants could come talk to us, play a VR game built specially for the occasion by our friend from VAY, and get to know the ETH and the Entrepreneur Club. There, we also attended different talks among which one that we enjoyed so much we wanted to share with you.

This particular talk had for topic product design and aimed at answering the question: “What makes a product great (or not so great)?”

This presentation, held by the captivating Javier Bargas-Avila, tried to make us realize that most of the time, if something doesn't work, it is not a human mistake but rather a design problem. Too often we have been blaming ourselves instead of the device. However, the well-functioning of things heavily depends on the designers and their ability to understand the psychology of everyday things. To familiarize us with this concept, Javier made use of 6 factors he illustrated with real-life examples.

Factor 1: Affordance, or when things tell you how they should be used

We all know intuitively obvious things such as a chair is to sit, a button is to press, a slot to insert something, etc. The point is: An efficient design should not require instructions to be operated properly!

How annoying is it to be pressing something which looks like a button but turns out to be something else? Very annoying. Besides looking stupid if anyone happens to be standing besides you, it is an unpleasant feeling to press something expected to be moving but turning out not to. Make sure that your design does not look like something it is not!

Where to press?

Factor 2: Restrictions, or when things tell you how they should not be used

When looking at an object, the defined set of possible ways this object can be used should be clear enough. Again, users should not stumble around trying to operate the object but make it work on the first attempt.

While this factor also focuses on the aspect of your design, it tells us more about how your object should not be used - it restricts the set of possible actions. There are multiple ways to operate a tap: Pull, turn, push. However, it is sometimes not obvious how one gets warm water from it. Avoid this type of fuzziness!

Pull? Push? Rotate? Clockwise? Counter-clockwise? Grrrrr!

Factor 3: Mapping, or when things tell you that they belong together

If different elements have a functional relationship with each other, it should be straightforward how they pair together. A label belongs with one button, a slot with one plug, and one only! The point is always the same: Great design works the first time the user interacts with it.

You will fully understand this factor if you have ever used this old electric cooker, whose switches' labels have been washed off by time. In such a situation, one would have to turn almost randomly one of the switches and wait for a sign of heat on one of the hotplates in order to determine which is which. This slightly extreme example illustrates very well the point here: If the design would use full mapping, it would work without requiring any labels and be more functional.

Factor 4: Causality, or when action leads to reaction

People and even animals interpret events in a similar way! They associate the reaction following a certain event with the action that caused the event. To facilitate this interpretation, the system's feedback must be timed properly to let people understand the action-reaction relationship.

Have you ever clicked on that link and nothing happened? Then you clicked again just to make sure you did in the first place, and again because you were getting impatient. Finally, you ended up with three times the same page opened, or worse, somewhere you did not intend to go because of delayed clicking effects! Well, insufficient feedback is to blame for these bad experiences... Deal with it!

Factor 5: Transfer effects, or when we apply what we learned to new situations

Users transfer what they have learned in past experiences to new situations they are facing. Positive transfer is when prior experiences can be reused in new situations. This way, the user does not have to relearn everything from scratch but can build on acquired knowledge and enjoy a steeper learning curve.

When switching from a tablet to your smartphone there is not much changing in the interface. Most of the functionalities you know how to use on your smartphone you will be capable of using on a tablet. The two interfaces have been designed almost identical in order to enable this knowledge transfer effect. How convenient! 

Factor 6: Stereotypes and habits, or when users know what they know and hate change

Changing stereotypes and habits is very difficult! We have all learned a common language anchored in our respective cultures. For example, we all agree that the color red means that you are in danger and that the color green means safety, and there is no way this could make sense the other way around.

People will always complain about change... But at least, designers should attempt to make their work as meaningful to their audience as possible and perhaps it would spare them some of the complaining. 

In conclusion, we realize that it is very difficult to design for everybody! You always have to compromise and you should absolutely avoid designing for yourself! Remember that you are not representative of the rest of the population; people do not think and behave the way you do or want them to do. So go out there and seek feedback from the users!

Good luck and much success to you!

Timothée Barattin, ETH Entrepreneur Club

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