“It’s the wild colour scheme that freaks me,” said Zaphod whose love affair with this ship had lasted almost three minutes into the flight, “Every time you try to operate on of these weird black controls that are labelled in black on a black background, a little black light lights up black to let you know you’ve done it. ”
― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
We’ve been here before. “Restaurant” was released in 1980 and is almost 40 years old.
I was helping someone remotely ‘learn’ how to use their upgraded phone today. It was someone older that hasn’t used a smartphone before. They were finally making the transition from a much more ‘phone-like’ mobile to something a little more up to date. They couldn’t find the buttons.
Black buttons on a black phone are hard to see. Don’t get me wrong, for someone the right age and in good lighting and with some attention, they can be found. But eliminate just one or two of those variables and it’s not as obvious.
Do you know what else they call all that black on black? Stylish. F’n stylish. See Item 2 below.
Computers used to be fast, efficient and responsive. We built more power into them so they ran commands faster and were quicker to return to that welcoming blinking cursor at the command prompt. Do you remember the “Ready” prompt? The computer raced off to do your bidding and return as quickly as possible to do more. The faster the “Ready” returned, the more progress we were making.
Today computers and phones (being the most likely computer humans will own going forward) are not designed that way.
They are designed for a population that largely wants a box they can learn to push the buttons on. “I push this, it does this. Why isn’t really important as long as it’s consistent and I can learn over time.”
So what passes for modern design criteria?
1. Functions should meet ‘mass expectations.’ If your device avoids a basic level of not-working and you can convince a large enough group that it works ‘acceptably’, then it is ‘good design.’ Most functional design goals can be brushed away with ‘good enough’ design. Maybe we can thank the MBAs for that. See 3.
2. It must look pretty. It must have style. While holding the product, other people must think you are a “good human”. “Better than” the observer is optional but we must certainly avoid “less than” the observer. If a celebrity will hold your device, all the better. People frequently think celebrities are ‘better humans’ and will seek to emulate them through product acquisition. See 4.
3. Try not to make the users feel dumb unless you can convince them to blame themselves. See point 1.
4. Owning the product should also make a person feel better about themselves personally. In a post-Nietzsche world self-esteem is harder than many predicted. That’s where ‘feel good’ products come in. If you feel better about yourself by owning the specific clothing, car, phone, jewelry, etc. that is an acceptable esteem foundation. It has a high decay rate and requires additional purchases to maintain, but that works for the producers so all is well. See 1 and 3.
There’s a corollary to 4, that involves ‘selling NEWness’ otherwise people could locate and acquire truly excellent products with low decay rates and hold them for extended periods while enjoying them. Some still try. Silly humans.
It’s also somewhat necessary to drive society toward more and more ephemeral forms of meaning like Hollywood, television, the formula driven music industry as well as scripted and well story-arc’d pseudo-news. All of this helps sell repeated consumption.
All of this erodes good engineering, but then again I am completely biased. People originally looked at what engineers came up with and said, “It’s too complex and I don’t understand it. I feel dumb and it’s the engineer’s fault (see 3).” Your product makes me feel bad about myself and I don’t think it’s my fault. That is quite bad for sales, so we avoid that.
That’s in some way where Steve Jobs came in. He’s not the start of this particular story, but is one of it’s most celebrated Cardinals in the Church of Design. Hell, maybe he was pope?