Historically, humans have designed tools to interact with the world around them. By designing tools, whether a hammer or a computer, we have interacted with the environment and we have modified it. However, we are not always aware that the design, in its turn, has its impact on people, changing our behavior and our thinking.
The computer keyboard allows us to write, but this forces us to adopt a particular position and move our fingers like in a piano. The shoes allow us to walk without harm us, but over the years, they alter the natural shape of our feet.
To imagine, therefore, a tool that does not have any impact on the user is a utopia.
All tools require learning in order to be used. No tool is intuitive. What we call intuition is but imitation of inherited procedures from previously used tools. Everything that seems normal now, at one time was new and it required learning. We are doomed, then, to learn new languages all the time.
The purpose of a design that aims to be simple and intuitive cannot be to imitate previous tools.
An example of this is the well-known video “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work”, in which a child tries to manipulate a magazine as if it were an iPad. For this child, the iPad is simpler and more intuitive than the design of the magazine.
Then, where does simplicity lie? What makes a simple and intuitive design? Here are two examples:
First example. Jar of Joney
In the images above we see two jars of honey, belonging to the same brand. To use the first jar, we must open the cap, remove the plastic seal (that sometimes breaks) and refit the cap. After completing this process, we tilt the jar and pour the honey. Honey drips, staining our hand and any surface where we place the jar.
To use the second jar, we must open the cap and press the jar. Once the honey is poured, we stop pressing the jar and close the cap.
Second example. Laptop
Recently, I had to configure two newly purchased laptops, a HP and a MacBook. This allowed me to see the difference between the two procedures.
To begin using the MacBook, it was necessary to get it out of the box, plug it in, and switch it on. To begin using the HP, it was necessary to get it out of the box, to install the battery … Wow! How the … do I have to install this battery? On this side it doesn’t fit. On the other side … No, the figure shows clearly that it is on the other side. 5 minutes later … Eureka! I Plug it in and switch it on.
The two jars of honey make it possible to pour the honey and the two laptops, once configured, will work equally well. However, in both cases, the first tool is simple and intuitive and the second one complex. The difference lies in the fact that the first has been designed to operate, while the second one is designed to be used by a person.
The adoption of an object-centered perspective or a user-centered perspective conditions the design and, consequently, the interaction between the user and the tool. Let’s see how.
For the relationship between humans and their environment to be efficient, it requires a process of mediation. Intermediaries are those procedures that are between the user and their purpose. The role of the intermediary is to translate the language, thought or movement of the user in a language that the tool we use to interact with the environment can understand.
Thus, for the artist to sculpt in wood, the tools must translate accurately his movements on soft or deep cuts. For the writer to create his work, he needs a keyboard to translate his thoughts into words.
Intermediaries are required, but depending on the design, they can generate efficient or inefficient tools and they can make the use of tools easy or difficult.
When the design of a tool is object-centered, the intermediaries are abundant, they are often redundant and inefficient in their work of translating human language. In these cases, much of the work of translation devolves upon the user. This is how to use the jar of honey or the HP laptop the user has to carry out a series of complex actions.
When the design of a tool is user-centered, the number of intermediaries is limited and they are intended to be as efficient as possible in translating human language. Thus, the translation work falls almost completely upon the intermediary and not the user. This is how I only have to press the jar of honey or I only have to switch the MacBook on.
Therefore, a design that aims to be simple and intuitive should have the following three objectives:
1. To create smarter intermediaries, more efficient translating human language into a language that the tool can understand.
2. To reduce the number of intermediaries to a minimum.
3. To integrate the intermediaries in the tool itself, doing its work invisible to the user.
This is, in fact, the current trend we are seeing in the world of design. That is why, for example, computer mice or keyboards are gradually disappearing from most devices. We’ll see how far we can go.