Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Simplicty Engages

In our prior post, we mentioned that simple objects are more engaging, but how exactly does simplicity do this? A better understanding of the specifics behind simplicity for engagement will allow designers to not just deliver less to reduce confusion or provide a seamless facade to hide complexity. Instead, a focus on how simplicity works will perhaps create objects that beckon, communicate, and ultimately engage more successfully.

So why exactly might simplicity engage?

A Core Purpose is Beautiful - objects that communicate their core message well tempt us to stare and hold. A core purpose communicated well is strong in its identity, increasing our desire to affiliate and see beauty in its essence.

Options paralyze - McDonalds got this right with order-by-picture. Point and shoot decision-making keeps us from having to think, which we hate to do.

Complexity is intimidating - While we love to learn, we hate to look stupid doing it.

Familiarity is our default - Creatures of habit return to the same brands. Familiarity is safe and comfortable. Object features and concepts that leverage recognizable elements break down initial acceptance barriers.

What we don't understand is initially rejected - New ideas and opinions are perceived wrong until proven right. New things can be dismissed offhand even by the most open-minded.

Noise begs a pattern - Too much noise and it's, well, noise. Instinctually, we want to understand a pattern if we see one. Like a basic but inscrutable widget from yesteryear, our curiosity is immediately stimulated and we yearn to understand what this thing does.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Compelled to Complicate

There is a bit of a paradox in the successful design of engaging objects. Make them simple, and they are easy to understand and approach: graspable (quite literally). But put a simple object in the hands of a creative person and bang! - the object yearns to become complex. Our heads fill with thoughts like "how else could I use this?", "What more can I do with this?", "What seems to be missing that will make this whole?" We often seem compelled to accessorize the simple.

Take software (no really, take it). Somewhere along the line between initial concept and version 7.0, most software becomes impossibly feature rich and unwieldy. Creators appear almost required to add endless (and mostly unused) features. The paradox lies in the fact that in their aim to please, developers add "missing" bits that somehow make the software less engaging, not more. Perhaps we should take Nicholas Negroponte's suggestion and " programmers to remove code from sofware instead of writing new code. Then software might be a whole lot better."

For an object to engage us, it must be simple enough to hook us with its core message. The primary colors of Play Doh say "sculpt me" while the familiarity of a paperback says "read me." The problem may lie in what we then do in our desire to discover. Perhaps we should realize that these explorations in morphing Play Doh and critiquing books is but the first stage of constructive play – it’s place is to interact with the world, self-educate, engage, and lead us to a new place where we eventually (perhaps) then feel compelled to simplify.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Serious Play

"Business executives as well as kids like hands-on interfaces, immediate feedback on their actions, and the ability to work together in groups to solve problems. There's very little difference in the technology for serious work and serious play."
-- Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms

In an attempt to educate MIT research engineers on the use of hi-tech fabrication equipment, a course was created and curiously named "How to Make (Almost) Anything." On the first fall day in 1998 a hundred or so MIT students showed up for a class that could hold only ten. The surprises didn't stop there. There were as many artists and architects as engineers, and prospective students claimed things like "All my life I've been waiting to take a class like this," and "I'll do anything to get into this class." Hardly the typical student attitude.

What was happening here? There seemed to be a demand for the practical ability to make things. Students saw endless possibility in the cutting, printing, and assembling tools made available to the class. Perhaps it wasn't the necessity-driven needs of research that drove students to participate, but the potential of the tools that inspired them.

Professor Neil Gershenfeld, in his book FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication commented of the students "They were motivated by the desire to make things they'd always wanted but that didn't exist." And, he adds, "they routinely and single-handedly managed to design and build complete functioning systems."

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Power of Toolkits

A toolkit for innovation and design is a set of helpful devices, modular materials, examples and guidelines for the purpose of facilitating the creative process.
If you've ever seen a child discover LEGOs, you've witnessed the power of toolkits in action. A child will voraciously construct, fashion, destroy and attempt everything she can imagine. She will also bend, throw, taste, and try to break - this is the nature of exploration. What is unique about toolkits over other toys is the initial level of excitement and desire to create that occurs when a child is exposed to the potential of a toolkit. For example, when a child first encounters a simple construction toolkit (like duplo blocks) and is shown an easy to understand construction, there is a realization followed by an unstoppable need to make what was just modeled. Older children working with more complex construction sets or artistic projects need only initial displays of toolkit potential and are then devising unique ideas and expressive solutions. Scale this innovative potential to more complex environments or pressing problems and you can see the possibilities for toolkit use across all areas of 'adult' learning, expression, and creative problem solving.

Toolkits are particularly powerful because:

  • They stimulate the making of real things
  • They provide a safe method of testing ideas, allowing for trial and error with minimal risk
  • They provide an outlet for exploration and self-expression
  • They teach us about ourselves and how we interact with our environment
  • They can be a self-rewarding method for getting stuff done, including solving problems, creating "new" things, and teaching valuable insights
  • They can help foster an encouraging can-do belief system

While all toolkits facilitate creation, they vary widely in form and complexity. For example, some toolkits involve physical manipulation (like LEGOs) while others are virtual (like software development kits). Some produce objects (like clay) and others help express ideas (like language). Some are unrestrained and expansive (like painting) and others are highly focused (like skinning an .mp3 player). Some are designed for innovative expression (like creating art) while others concentrate on re-fabricating existing models (like jigsaw puzzles).