From design principles to product design: the role of technical codes

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During my Kitetail blogging days, I explored the key principles of design. Today, I realize it is important to revisit these principles from the perspective of the critical theory of technology. Andrew Feenberg reminds us that “the choice between alternatives ultimately depends neither on technical nor economic efficiency, but only the ‘fit’ between devices and the interests and beliefs of the various social groups that influence the design process.” Feenberg further emphasizes the concept of technical codes that guide technology design. The goal of this article is to explore this connection from good design principles to product design, and gain an understanding of the influence of technical codes on this process.

Exploring principles of good design

Note, this is a summary of my original article published September 22, 2008.

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.” — Steve Jobs

When I previously explored design principles, I indicated that unforgettable designs are multi-dimensional. The best designs influence and enhance many aspects of our lives through interaction with those products/services — from our buying experience, to the packaging and delivery, to installation and use, to other products/services that complement it, to customer support and maintenance, all the way through end-of-life and disposal.

Design is the trendsetter. It is the translation of an idea to the final product. “You can have any color you want as long as it’s black,” was Henry Ford’s manufacturing design revolution that triggered mass production. Today, design is yet again at center stage with the green revolution: good design is sustainable design. Good design delivers maximum impact to the customer with minimum impact on the resources of our planet. Good design contributes to the triple bottom line: economic, social and environmental.

Design connects, bridges creativity and innovation. As a verb, design is a problem solving approach. It enumerates possible options and enables a process to explore and experiment for that optimal solution. As a noun, good design delivers a quantifiable benefit and value that can be measured economically, socially and environmentally. What makes a good design will differ depending on the designer and its user. However, the principles of good design should not change. Here is my list of what makes Good Design. What do you think?

  • Useful and Useable — The foundation of good design starts with the needs of the user. Many firms failed because they missed the mark in their attempt to identify the real customer need (or even the real customer). The functionality, utility and usefulness of a product is important, yet not enough. It can be useful, but if it is not useable, again it won’t be successful. Yes, universal remote controls are definitely needed, and the concept is useful. However, how many are actually useable?
  • Focused — Good design is purposeful and potent. In delivery of its functions, it has the right scale and simplicity. It is perfectly balanced. It is self-explanatory. You don’t need to spend your time and effort on user documentation or training programs that are long and tedious. It has a clear and compelling message that doesn’t require a translation. It is just understood.
  • Impactful – Whatever the design methodology is used (human-centered design, social design, interface design, …), good design touches as many facets of human experience as possible during the product’s life cycle. And, good design is desirable. We need aesthetically pleasing products and services that we can relate to, emotionally connect with, and perhaps even find inspirational.
  • Resilient — Good design is durable and thorough. It is designed to forgive common and uncommon human errors and variations in use. It adapts to differing user abilities to provide the right experience for any user. The best designs are timeless: Frank Lloyd Wright, Mont Blanc, Swiss Army, Harley-Davidson, Moleskine, Martin guitars… Their brands embody quality, style, dependability and distinction — building a loyal following and an iconic status.
  • Unique — This is not to say the product or the design concept never existed before. However, as good design bridges creativity and innovation, it brings a new perspective and in the process becomes the de-facto definition. Perhaps the new perspective is through a common sense solution that wasn’t observed before, or a counter-intuitive way of looking at the problem, or maybe a reduction in complexity that fits the application better, and at times a new invention that smooths rough edges. No matter which, good design lends itself to innovative products and services.
  • Holistic — The world is interconnected. We use products/services within the context and constraints of the system we live in. Good design recognizes and incorporates these elements into the overall process, ensuring solutions that are doable and workable. Good design encourages an ecosystem of complementary products, literally building a life of its own.
  • Conscientious — Good design is conscientious. As it has a holistic view, it recognizes that it is part of the environment, respects where it comes from and aims to protect. It keeps focus on conserving energy, carefully manages material usage and makes sustainable material choices to minimize environmental impact, encourages reuse and plans for long term use by designing for adaptability and durability.

Shopping carts: choices, design decisions and technical code

Technology, product development and adoption is a complex process. Anyone familiar with product development knows the process is full of choices and tradeoffs. Cultural and economic ideals and social necessities drive science and technology advances. From design, development, production and diffusion, our values, biases, constrains and belief systems affect our creations and the environments where they are adopted and embedded.

“Why do I always choose the shopping cart with the squeaky wheel? Is it my bad luck, or are all the carts dysfunctional?” — Rachel Nichols

In 1936, Sylvan Goldman, a grocery store owner from Oklahoma, envisioned the idea of a basket carrier on wheels. After all, carrying fully loaded baskets were challenging for customers, and certainly a limiting factor for business. Yet, when Goldman launched the new basket carrier, it flopped… Customers hated the shopping cart: men worried they would look weak, women saw carts as unfashionable, and older people didn’t want to give the impression of helplessness.  To change this view point, Goldman hired actors of all ages and sexes to push shopping carts around his store, and a friendly store greeter to offer carts to customers as they entered: ‘look, everyone is using them.’ [The (all American) history of shopping (carts)] Today, the shopping cart is fully embedded into our society from influencing the design of our supermarkets to our online buying experience. They have become synonymous with utility and convenience.

Good design principles maybe universal, but the attributes on how they are judged is certainly localized within the context of the society which the product is targeted for. Technologies and products are designed and incorporated within a larger framework of social, cultural and economic values. The push for design methodologies such as design thinking and human centered design aim to focus this larger context to in order to design and develop products that align technological possibilities with human needs and values.

“Critical theory of technology calls this background of values, assumptions, definitions, and roles that guides the technological design the ‘technical code‘. Technical codes define a framework of technical decision making within which certain choices appear rational.” — Hamilton & Feenberg

Though the shopping cart design hasn’t changed much since inception, its symbol of convenience and utility has been embedded into our society, even when we are shopping online from our comfy couch. The Internet was designed with the ideals of openness and accessibility. Today, with demands for security, privacy, relevancy and accuracy, internet technologies are being evaluated through a new set of value filters. Tomorrow, these values will  be embedded into the essence of everything we build.

“The differentiation of modern societies allows technical disciplines to exist alongside scientific disciplines, alongside artistic activities and so on; this differentiation is the principal characteristic of modern societies. But it is not complete. Orthodox functionalist sociology and systems theory are mistaken in thinking that this differentiation is total. Instead, there are many interpenetrating movements of thought, social pressures, political forces and economic exchanges going on between the differentiated spheres. I wanted to think about one of these, the relationship between public actions in the technical sphere – movements and politics and so on – and technical disciplines that realize their intentions in devices and systems. And we need a way of thinking about this: how, for example, does the demand of handicapped people for a way to get around the city in a wheelchair get represented in a technical specification for sidewalks. Translations between a public demand that is based on an interest or a human rights’ concept, and a technical specification occur frequently in modern societies. I developed the concept of technical code to talk about this process of translation. It is the model of the content realized on the one hand in the discourse of social movements and on the other hand in technical specifications.” — Feenberg

Awareness of technical codes in our design and development process is important. Through this recognition, we can start questioning our assumptions, challenge norms and rethink how to reconfigure existing political, economical and social structures.

Food for thought…

Our world population is aging, and our dependence on technology is increasing. Yet technology is about change: not just creation of new products, but also new user experiences and interactions for existing products. In addition, there is a value judgement problem: if product is not radically different, the product and its company is not seen as innovative. With that, to address problems brought about by rapid technological change, and to assist with our aging population, we build some products targeted for the elderly.

As my father would (and does) voice, our attempts to refresh technologies in an effort to gain new market share can alienate the less technologically savvy. Case in point: facelifts for web-based email services that move buttons around and change the appearance of the editing window. This brings up interesting questions:

  • What are our expectations on technology? Is it really given that technology == change?
  • How should we assess the goodness and value of technological change?
  • When will we start thinking of the elderly as empowered contributors of our society? How will that change in perspective and value system influence our technology and product design?

Frankly, I don’t have answers for this problem… Could we come up with a common baseline, similar to accessibility guidelines, to ensure support and compatibly among products to simplify technology adoption for the elderly? And, more importantly, can I actually guarantee a solution that my father would approve?! 🙂 However, even thinking about these questions, challenging our values and assumptions opens up possibilities of new ways to reconstruct our world, hopefully for the better.

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