Sometimes it is easy to loose sight of the simplest fundamental issues. Those of us in the human factors profession are probably as guilty as any other group of overcomplicating things. We believe that we are the voice of the ultimate users of products and systems. We have developed many tools, both formal and ad hoc, that allow us to evaluate the “usability” of products.

In the end, however, what we are really trying to do is to make sure the product’s “user interface” (UI) does not get in the way of users trying to do something the product is supposed to help them do.

This basic fact was brought home to me in a recent encounter with some banking software, but I think it applies to product design universally. Every product, whether it is a mobile phone, a television remote control or a garage door opener is supposed to help us, as consumers, DO something.

Why would we buy it if it is not going to help us do something? Many, probably most, products have a primary functional use. For example, TV remote controls are primarily intended to let us control the TV remotely. Mobile phones are supposed to let us use telephone functions like calling people and answering incoming calls.

But, that’s what it’s supposed to do–

We human factors types often use the term “affordances” to describe those things that products let us do obviously and easily. Using the term in this way is not exactly a precise fit for its definition, but it serves to let us describe this aspect of product design. It seems to me the biggest problem with products is when their affordances do not match what we expect and need them to do.

A colleague, who is also a fairly well known graphic and interaction designer, told me about being hired to critique a software based telephone. His first question to the engineering team was “How do I dial a phone number?” His description of what ensued was hilarious, and I will not do it justice.

Suffice it to say the engineers demonstrated how to drill down through four levels of menus to get to a display that allowed users to have access to an on-screen keypad so they could dial a phone number. The really bad thing about this episode is that the engineers had no inkling their design might be problematic until my colleague started laughing out loud. Things only got worse from there.

Stupidity Prevention 101
How do such really stupid designs get as far as they do? And how far do they get? Well, way too often they get onto retail store shelves or into corporate computer systems. As to the “how”, well the reasons for that are not what you might think. We should all disabuse ourselves of the notion that stupid people create stupid designs. It’s just not true. Well, it’s mostly not true. Instead, stupid designs come about because smart and motivated people lack the training, process and tools to produce something better.

The human factors profession, as a defined entity, has been around since the late ’50s. It actually started in earnest during World War II. In that intervening 50-60 years, we have devised some principles and techniques that can prevent really silly designs from making it all the way through the product design process. I have boiled these comprehensive tools and principles into three easy-to-chew activities that need to be done in the correct order:

1. Figure out who is going to be using the product and what they are going to be doing with it.

2. Try to rank order, by frequency, the things people are going to be doing with the product. That is, figure out which 2 or 3 things they are going to be doing 90% of the time.

3. Make very sure that the UI design makes it very easy to do those top-ranked tasks.

The Smell Test
As difficult as it is sometimes to properly design a product, it is usually pretty easy to spot the bad designs that somehow escaped and are running amok. Just ask yourself this question “Does it seem awfully difficult to do something with this product that I think should be easy?” For example, does it take you five or ten minutes (or a half-hour) to figure out how to switch between your TV cable (or satellite) and your DVD player? Have you been able to figure out how to edit contact information in your flashy new PDA that you got for Christmas — year before last? If the answer is “yes”, then the product has failed the “smell test”. That is, the design stinks.

The Bottom Line
The unfortunate aspect of having poorly-designed products is that people tend to blame themselves for their inability to use them. If a software program is difficult to use, then I, as the user, must be too stupid to figure it out. Not so. Just because stupid people do not design stupid products does not mean that companies who sell those products are not culpable.

I say it’s time to turn the tables and make manufacturers design and sell products that conform to users rather then the other way around.

That’s my stand and I’m sticking with it.

Michael Maddox is a senior scientist for HumanCentric Technologies ( He can be reached at 919-481-0565 or