The three oracles of good design - simplicity, usability and quality

I don't claim to be an expert on all things cooking, but I know when a kitchen utensil is crap. I like simple, usable tools. If I am making a cup of coffee, I don't want to use a complex coffee maker. I just want to push one button and get the good stuff in my cup as quickly as possible. The same applies to just about everything I encounter. Simplicity, usability, quality.

Human factors and kitchen tools

It’s all possible only if those things are designed into the product. If you have never heard of OXO kitchen products, let me tell you about them. They are a company that has kept human factors in mind when they designed their award winning kitchen products. And if ever there was a place for good product design, it is in the kitchen.

Sam Farber who founded OXO, an American manufacturer, develops kitchen utensils with out-sized and comfortable knobs and handles. Mr. Farber noticed that manufacturers seemed to only considered cost and not usability. He realized most of the products available were cheap, poorly manufactured junk and rightly so because people expected the junk they bought to last only a few months. Then customers would replace them a year or so later. In the long run, people came to expect junk and so lived with it.

But not Sam Farber. He thought people wanted better than this

Thinking of the users first

Who hasn’t hurt their hands trying to open a can using those clunky steel can openers? Well, actually today few of those clunkers are still made because Farber changed the marketplace for good. Farber believed people deserved better - and this is what he came up with.

OXO Can OpenerOXO Can Opener

The OXO description of this product:

“The design incorporated plump, resilient handles for twist and push-pull tools like knives and peelers, while squeeze tools like can openers had hard handles. All handles were oval in cross section, to better distribute forces on the hand and enhance grip, even for wet hands. The measuring cups and spoons featured large, high-contrast markings for visibility.”

The cost of this product was a bit more than that for the usual can openers people bought, but good design, quality, usability and value always costs a bit more. For cheap kitchen utensils, the cost for the user was typically injured hands and continually replacing the old devices with a new ones.

Documentation is read!

For documentation, the cost of junk is usually frustrated customers, or worse, lost customers. Documentation reflects on the reputation of a company. For companies whose only products are APIs, success depends almost entirely on the quality of the documentation.

Documentation, therefore, is not an add-on, something that is thrown together at the last minute to ensure all the boxes are checked in the packing list. Some companies treat documentation like that.

They say to themselves, and even to technical writers, “well, people never read the documentation anyway.”

In fact, product users will read the documentation. If a user has a problem with the product, they will reach out for the manual and expect an answer to the problem they are having with the product. And if they don’t find it, they will toss aside the manual and call technical support. And when the company gets this call, product managers will see this call as a confirmation of their belief that “people never read the documentation anyway”, so why bother producing good documentation. Just get it done and be done with it.

Documentation has an effect on a company’s profitability

Unfortunately, the product user’s poor experience with the documentation has some negative consequences for the company. How so? The product user will think the company didn’t bother to produce good documentation (which they didn’t bother to do) and next time they might choose another product.

And why did they not bother? Because product managers were caught in a self-fulfilling problem. If product managers expect users not to read the docs, then that’s what will happen.

If the product managers expect users to actually read and use the documentation, they will make their docs a high priority. They will expect usability and completeness in the manuals. Documentation will not be just a last minute task but an integral part of the product. And they will expect quality and usability to be built into the end results.

Like the OXO can opener, it takes time to develop good documentation. A few hours or days at the end of the current development cycle to throw something together doesn’t amount to good product development.

So make good documentation a high priority

The moral of the story? First, usability is not about keeping costs down and matching specs based on a general idea of customer requirements, although that is important. It is based on an insight, an idea that it can be done better - and doing it.

Sam Farber saw a clear need to improve on the usability of an existing product and was not satisfied until it was designed and executed properly. It wasn’t just done well. It was done exceedingly well. And that means taking the time to do it right and placing quality as a high priority.

We can be satisfied with junk and many people are because they do not expect quality. As Sam Farber demonstrated, Usability Matters and he changed the way we think about kitchen utensils. The same can be said about documentation but only if product managers start seeing documentation as an integral part of the product and not a last minute item to ensure all the boxes are checked.