Ben Gilman

Take more baths

I had a bath last week. Dousing in warm water is universally accepted to be the finest way to activate your brain. Sure enough, lying in the bath watching the taps running I had a chance to spot a design problem.

Here are the taps. I’ll give you a chance to spot it.

(If you said ‘the blackening grout in the corner of the tiles’ then you’re wrong)

The flaw in these taps is a manifestation of pitfalls into which any designer could fall.

Lying at the opposite end of the bath, with water running, the most convenient way to stop the water is for me to stretch out a foot and turn off the tap. Normally this is easily achieved. Imagine, though, how difficult it is to rotate the slick metal cylinders that control the flow and temperature with a wet foot.

So, enough with the watery tale - what’s this design lesson? It’s three-fold, around a theme.

Users will always surprise you

The designer of these taps possibly had an image of the bather turning on the bath with dry hands and going away to find rose petals, candles and a Cadbury’s Flake.

Assumption is dangerous and is best avoided:

  1. Envisage the different use cases for your product
  2. Never underestimate just what your user might consider the ‘best way’
  3. Consider a user that isn’t yourself or someone your age, gender, ability etc.

However clear and sensible you may think your product is, get a second opinion. Put it in front of a selection of different users, see how they do things. Just try not to get your notebook wet.

Design should be flexible

If the taps on my bath were regular cross-head tap handles or single lever taps would they have been anymore difficult to operate by hand? Not likely - they’d probably be easier. Design taps with simple foot, face or elbow operation and you’ve kept all (most of) your users happy.

When your product appears on the shelf (virtual or physical) among all the others your prospective customer must be able to envisage how their particularly way of living can be enhanced with your product. By all means cater primarily for the 90% of your users by suggesting a clear way of doing things - just don’t make it impossible for the other 10% to engage.

Form must follow function

The old ones are the best. What does your product have to do? What problem is it solving? How can your product’s design and visual appeal enhance the solution your product provides. Keep it simple, don’t overdesign.

Take more baths.

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