New Thinking

Designing the devices users fall in love with (or not)

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Don Norman has a bone to pick. “This is an old Apple charger,” he says, holding up a USB power adapter on a recent Skype call. “So I was wondering the other day how much power it put out because I’m trying to find more powerful chargers nowadays. See, can you read it?” he asks, raising the adapter up to the camera to display the fine grey specifications printed on its surface. “Of course you can’t. I can’t read it.”

He feels similarly frustrated with his MacBook Pro. “It makes noise!” he says, exasperated. “I’m typing in a quiet room or in a meeting, and it’s ‘click click click click click click click’—it clicks!” He notes that this is a bad kind of clicking, not the reassuring kind. Then there’s the vexing process of adjusting the volume with the computer’s touchbar, which he begins to act out animatedly before cutting himself off: “Oh, don’t get me going.”

Norman is a legend of the design world, author of the canonical book The Design of Everyday Things, and currently the director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego. I called him to talk about the design of devices people love: the phones, tablets, watches, and other products that we feel genuine affection for, that we experience feelings of addiction to, that we feel anxiety when we’re separated from. And for a moment, it seems we’re at an impasse. A former VP at Apple, Norman has written extensively about his frustration with that company’s products; most famously, he and Bruce Tognazzini penned a lengthy screed in Fast Company arguing that Apple was compromising the usability of its products in favor of streamlining its design. Credited with coining the term user experience design, Norman has become a sort of champion of the people when it comes to the way products provide pleasurable experiences and facilitate our ability to connect and communicate with one another—or don’t. The devices in the crosshairs of his recrimination are the ones that impede those experiences.

By contrast, when it comes to making devices that consumers can fall in love with, designers can make choices that facilitate feelings of emotional connection from a person towards a product. Below, Norman and other prominent designers help explain the ways in which thoughtful design elicits feelings of affection in its users. As it turns out, falling in love with a device is a little like falling in love with another person. “You want to know what makes somebody love a device?” Norman asked. “The real answer is that you have to have some personal attachment to it.” Design, he argues, plays only a minor role.

Attraction and Seduction

For better or worse, clean lines and simple interfaces do appeal to people buying consumer devices. As Norman argues in his 2004 book Emotional Design­, people who are relaxed and happy are not only more creative and open to learning, but they’re also more likely to overlook flaws in a device. On his website, Tognazzini credits Apple with creating precisely the winsome products that people are hungry for: “Buyers want to buy Ferraris, not tractors, and that’s exactly what Apple is selling.”

But, Tognazzini notes, precisely those appealing features can be a product’s undoing:

The same person who was attracted to that bright and shiny computer in the showroom, as opposed to those dull-looking things in the Microsoft look-alike store, may not be so happy when denial breaks down, and he admits to himself that it’s so bright and shiny that the reflection of his office is blocking out the image on his screen.

That Special Something

Streamlined products appeal to users, but even on a purely aesthetic level, streamlined design can go too far. “One thing that happens often when you go to the extreme with this idea of clarity, simplicity, is that you may end up with things that are boring,” says Markus Wierzoch, an industrial designer at Seattle design studio Artefact. “You don’t want your designs to be forgettable. You want them to be memorable.” Wierzoch explains that the designers at Artefact make a conscious effort to add “a little twist” to their work. “Something that makes users smile when they first see it, and that makes them fall in love with this object that they will own at some point, or over the course of the time that they own the product,” he says.

Those twists can also be functional. Wierzoch uses the Illum, a camera Artefact designed with cutting-edge camera company Lytro, as an example: The camera, which captures 3D image data so that photographers can refocus and manipulate their photos after shooting, has the feel and heft of a regular old SLR—but no optical viewfinder. Wierzoch and his colleagues researched the habits of working photographers to determine where and how they hold light-field cameras, and then outfitted the Illum with a tilted screen that was optimized for their needs.

“You know me better than I know myself!”

A user’s familiarity with the gestures and commands that make a device work can help speed up the getting-to-know-you phase of owning a new product. But the notion of “intuitive design,” Norman argues, is something of a fallacy. “What we call ‘intuitive’ is something that you have done for so many years that it’s done automatically and it’s subconscious,” Norman says. “I always complain when people say it should be intuitive… ‘Oh,’ I say, ‘You mean you should spend several years knowing how to use it.’” Things like using two fingers to scroll on a trackpad or pinching an object to zoom in may be intuitive to us now, Norman argues, but only inasmuch as driving is intuitive: “You might remember it took a year or two to master it.”

It’s when a device or its software understands the user—rather than the other way around—that something special happens. Norman notes that not having to reach for your wallet at the end of an Uber ride, or the ability to select from a few automated responses to reply to a short email, gives someone the feeling that their needs have been anticipated in advance. “In a good hotel, if a guest needs something, all they have to do is ask; in a great hotel, the guest doesn’t even have to ask,” Norman says. “It’s these small little things that you remember that make you return.”

Beautiful Inside and Out

Vlad Savov, a tech reviewer for The Verge, argued this spring that appealing physical products—not just enjoyable software—are key to getting consumers to fall in love with the companies that produce them. A new emphasis on attractive, quality design allowed Samsung to begin to compete with Apple and has garnered the company a loyal following, Savov writes, whereas software-only companies may amass users in large number, few can rightfully claim to be beloved. “Physical things anchor our gadget lust in the real world and ultimately soak up whatever goodwill the software on those gadgets engenders,” he argues.

Yet Wierzoch suggests that simple, streamlined design reflects designers’ willingness to recognize that it’s the experiences technology enables—rather than their packaging—that charm the user. “I’m an industrial designer… so I create physical things,” Wierzoch concedes. “But at the same time, I understand that I do not want the TV that hangs in my living room. I want to watch the movie. So the movie is what matters—if I could get rid of the TV, I would.” That’s why consumers expect to see thinner and thinner bezels around their screens, for example. “Content is king,” he adds, “so that should be emphasized.”

Over Skype, Norman softens when he holds up his phone and displays a picture of his shih tzu—an image that will carry over to his next phone, whenever this current technological relationship comes to an end—and talks about how easy it is to connect with people, to pull up a local map, to find a restaurant in the area. “What is powerful about the phone is not the aesthetics,” Norman says. After all, he explains, “It’s not about technology. [It’s about] the experience that you have—and therefore the technology can be a vehicle and medium of giving you that experience—but it’s not about the technology.”

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