Good Design. Great Design. What’s the difference?

This week — my first in UX Academy’s UX Design program — I have spent a lot of time reading, thinking, and attempting to make great design. Here at the end of the week is, perhaps, a good time to pause to reflect on what I think makes design great. As I mentioned in my previous post, Mike Monteiro’s video — How Designers Destroyed the World — has been weighing on my mind since I watched it at the beginning of the week, and as he points out, when one forgets about one’s responsibility as a designer, that is when designs are compromised.

I think there is a straightforward way to talk about what makes design good. At the most basic level, design is about filling needs or solving problems. This graphic presented to us in the first learning unit attempts to establish criteria for evaluating good design based on a hierarchy of needs.

Good design needs to solve the problem. Whatever the solution it, it just needs to work. Hard to argue with that. The design solution should work reliably and be easy to use.

A hammer is a simple, reliable tool that is purpose-built to do one thing well: drive nails…well, two things if you count pulling out nails, too.

Beyond those minimum requirements, designers start reaching for the stars: allowing users of the solution to do more with less and improve their situation in a measurable way.

Here is where I start to think back to the Mike Monteiro video. In the slide show that kicked off this learning unit, one comment and image about smart phones caught my attention:

Good products can create habits

I assume it was intentional that creating habits was associated with “good” products. Intentionally creating habits gets into murky territory, in my opinion, without a responsible designer. Ethical considerations seem to me to be part of the baseline minimum for good design. Or maybe the difference between good and great design is the problems they attempt to solve. Some designs might solve easy problems really well. Other designs might just create a desire.

Manipulating habits can be used in service of great design…or it can go the other way.

My thoughts about what makes design good or great are formed in large part by my experience designing high-end custom single family homes. I was fortunate to be a part of many architecturally interesting projects, and particpated in the design and construction of award-winning houses that appeared in magazines, design websites, and home tours. I helped make REALLY nice houses…for $2 million dollars. My experiences made me wonder if I was really solving a problem if the solution was inaccessible to the vast majority. In a sense, the architectural elegance of the built object belied the extreme amount of resources and energy that went into its creation. All of this is to say that I think quality of design should be evaluated in part on the magnitude of the challenges it attempts to address.

Innovation is another aspect of great design: the degree to which a design creates new possibilities that did not exist before. I have to admit that I did not understand the iPad when Apple first introduced it. A tablet wasn’t a smart phone, nor was it a computer. It appeared to me to be a compromise design that would do nothing well. I failed to appreciate how mobile technology would affect almost every aspect of daily life for people like me, but certainly for people around the world who had all sorts of problems that could be addressed by lightweight, flexible, portable computing tools.

In another lesson this week, someone said that great design instills delight in the user, and I really liked this description. Great design creates an emotional — not just rational — reaction. Maybe this is the hardest aspect of great design to achieve because it depends on everything else below it on the pyramid being perfect, but then adds that je ne sais quois. Every aspect of the interaction with a design solution has to be perfect but must also appeal to the user’s humanity. Examples I can think of from my own experience: the way a knife feels perfectly balanced instills confidence; an uncommonly slow-action fly rod that makes me feel like I’m doing something calm and serene rather than serving a tennis ball; and a brightly colored desk lamp on my desk in during a dreary Vancouver winter. I always liked this picture of the handrail inset at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The architect created an inset in the wall that seems like such a gentle gesture to the visitor inviting them to place their hand.

handrail “cut out” at the National Gallery

What do I know about good and great design? I think I have solved problems before; sometimes even with elegance. Innovation I believe must come from uncommonly keen observation. I suspect that delight can only come from real empathy for the user.