Double the design

Last week, two lectures had the same bottom line: Design matters. Wednesday, in Newell-Simon Hall, the Human-Computer Interaction Institute hosted Jared M. Spool, a founder at the research and consulting design firm User Interface Engineering. Spool used examples from the Internet on how (and how not) to design a website.

Spool’s lecture, titled “The Dawning of the Age of Experience,” cited airline fare-restriction agreements as examples of poor usability. Such agreements are written in a language difficult for even a lawyer to understand. In the case of Southwest Airlines’ policy, Spool noted, the entire document is condensed into three confusing paragraphs. Using Netflix as an example, Spool noted how good design is essentially invisible: “If we succeed, no one notices,” he explained. Following user recommendations, the company has increased its website’s usability by implementing a system featuring user preferences and movie taste correlations.
Spool concluded his lecture with some lessons he has learned from experience. He recommended a multidisciplinary approach, where multiple talents collaborate during the production process. Communication is key, said Spool; it’s important to have an immediate customer feedback loop, which can be used to review incremental design decisions.

Lira Nikolovska spoke Thursday in a lecture hosted by the School of Design. Nikolovska, who holds a Ph.D. from the design and computation program at MIT’s School of Architecture, focused on the importance of furniture design in her talk, “Augmenting Furniture With Technologies.” Stressing the significance of her field, Nikolovska noted a 1969 negotiation between Vietnam and the United States that was deadlocked for 10 weeks over the shape of the table.

Like Spool, Nikolovska spoke about culture-specific elements of her field. She told of an English factory owner in India who had tables installed on the workshop floor after watching his employees work on the ground. The next day his employees were simply sitting cross-legged on the tables.

When new technology appears on the market, said Nikolovska, it is initially made to look like a piece of existing furniture. As consumers become accustomed to its existence, the technology evolves into its own form. According to Nikolovska, electronics have contributed to clutter in the home. She predicted that in the future electronics will be better integrated to their environments, causing less clutter.

Though speaking to a different audience, Nikolovska’s lecture echoed that of Spool’s. Whether on the Web or in the home, a product’s design is a significant determinant of its success.