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Making ease of use the default for new product design

Do designers of new products seriously consider ease of use?  As the December buying frenzy fizzles, we are often reminded that 70% of the US economy is driven by consumer spending. We are not reminded too often about the Longevity Economy -- that 90+ million people are 50+, have most of the money, own most of the homes and cars, and thus buy the most of everything, including technology. And even the growth of social media shifts older - the fastest growing segment of Facebook users are aged 65+, Facebook has apparently saturated and/or bored teenager segments who have moved on, at least for now, to other stuff. So as some of you head off to CES exhibit halls this coming week, please consider the product user interface of what you see. Look at the TV, 'white hot' wearables, fitness devices, car tech, the ironically-titled not-so-smart phones, tablets, the health apps that apparently will eclipse the TVs.  Count the demos you see of products you could characterize as simple, elegant, easy-to-use designs for all ages, including those who need to put on their reading glasses to read the manual or the 70% of adults who suffer eye strain peering at their devices.  

Can a manual of option settings be reduced to one button? Rant on. It’s a simple thing – silence the 5 beeps that signal brewing completion of a Cuisinart coffee maker, along with the 3 beeps that signal its automatic shutoff.  Perhaps you want to make coffee near a room in which someone is sleeping. No dice. The coffee maker is programmable, but beep silencing is not a programmable option.  A call to customer service confirmed this, and after years of beeping, the coffee maker was banished in favor of a new Bella coffee maker with only ONE button -- BREW.   It’s crazy, but when I am done drinking coffee, I personally must shut it off. How radical.  Just like when I am done listening to a Tivoli radio, I turn the knob and shut it off. I don’t swipe it, log into it or puzzle over its menu (see the well-named Panasonic Genius microwave ovens).  

The design gap exists because product designers are enchanted by features.  Product designers can’t seem to help themselves – because new capabilities appeal to them and can feasibly be designed, so it is that they are designed. Consider the need to be distracted by a large menu screen in a newer car before selecting a radio station, puzzle over a new computer interface searching for the Start button, and muddle through self-overriding setting choices, like volume, that are on a smart phone/tablet.  Apparently the pace of new product introduction dictates that we must download a separate piece of software to have a start button, select a configurable keyboard style or force a silent startup of a phone? It is instructive that the Samsung Galaxy S3 hit the market in July, 2012, burdening users with its obnoxious startup/shutdown sound and that by June, 2013, the problem was solved with the free add-on, Silent Boot.

The online complaint forum fuels app gap designers, complainers and the call center industry. Thus is born the business value of online complaint forums -- they serve as documentation of missing features that the manufacturer is unwilling or unable to rectify.  Developers observe this and so an app opportunity is born. The call center customer service business grows – a $16 billion industry growing by 15% between 2010 and 2020 – opening up more than 330,000 jobs, responding to concerns, complaints, and confusion about a product’s lack of ease of use. While it is great to see this thriving job market, as you stroll through the CES TechZones websites, consider the 2014 CES Innovation Awards, or tramp up and down the CES Exhibit Hall aisles, ask not what features the product has – consider designed-in ease of use, look for setup without the manual – how close or impossibly far is the product from the one-button standard for coffee brewing? Rant off.


I absolutely endorse the idea of "ease of use" as a primary design criterion. The only current tech products I know of that seem to have made that a priority are the NEST thermostat and its companion, the NEST smoke detector. I have not actually tried out either one, but all the company's materials stress that it's designed to be easy to use.

Even when a company tries to make things easier with pictures -- think IKEA, Dyson, and many computer companies' set-up directions -- I find I often end up calling the help line. That made me realize that boomers (like me) and elders are used to reading written directions, and that including that redundancy in one's packing materials would make a lot of phone calls unnecessary. Dyson actually does that.

Smart phones are indeed the worst offenders. It took me two days to figure out that I was supposed to swipe an image -- instead of pressing it -- to answer the phone. Whatever happened to a basic manual?

I'm think I've moved from comment to rant, so I'll stop now...but I heartily endorse your position that ease of use is often woefully neglected as tech products are "improved."


Lively is easier than the Nest Thermostat or Nest Protect (proud owner of both), but don't take my word for it...


As a co-founder of an "Aging in Place" product/service (Lively, shameless plug), I was the lucky beneficiary of Laurie's sage advice in the first few weeks of my/our journey. She emphasized four simple, but critical points to solve for:

1. Price (keep is very low and blow away the competition)
2. Design (Just because you're older, it doesn't mean you cannot appreciate beautiful things)
3. Ease of Use (see post)
4. Social (The Isolation Epidemic is real)

Thanks Laurie, invaluable advice

We agree wholeheartedly.

When we went about designing our unique software products, the design specifications literally included the term "grandma friendly" so that the design team understood that we were not building a piece of software, but rather a solution that happened to be software based. There were other products that I'd seen that could be made to do the job with a bit of work, but they were complicated! We have no drop down menus, no cryptic terms, no complicated commands. It's intuitive. Simple things like making hints pop up when hovering the mouse over items, making buttons only light up if they are applicable, explaining things in simple terms. We don't even need a user's manual! We don't use the internet, don't require "installation", require no other software to be available and the user can use any computer; their own or a shared one.

Our testing included giving the MyLifeBridge product to elderly neighbors and asking them to jump in and use it without any assistance. We passed with flying colors and incorporated their suggestions to make it and the successor, ICEarchive, even friendlier.

Great topic and we hope it leads to greater ease of use of many of the useful but complicated products that are on the market today, especially electronics.

Laurie, Spot on, as always. As you know, Independa was launched on the shoulders and great counsel of none other than IDEO, perhaps *the* design firm in the US, if not worldwide. The "design" emphasis from Day One was more critical and central to us -- how fun and engaging will we be for the care recipient, and how simple, convenient and empowering will we be for the care giver? How about the enterprise? How scalable, secure and flexible is the solution for the enterprise deployment? For us, "design" starts with usability, and the terrific thing about the care recipient demographic we serve is that poor design will easily be spotted through poor usability. At the end of the day, HOW you do what you do is as equally important as what you do. In other words, design matters, big time! Kian.