What is Good Design?

Kelly Zhang
Jul 22, 2019 · 9 min read

Before we start the discussion on good design, we need to figure out the idea of what is design? The design is not just the art stuff nowadays; besides, the idea and methodology for construct the whole thing are also the central part of the design. Based on the definition from Wikipedia, “A design is a plan or specification for the construction of an object or system or the implementation of an activity or process, or the result of that plan or specification in the form of a prototype, product or process.” We have the design everywhere now in our lives. The design could be small as an accessory design and could be significant as urban design. The design could be natural as an art graphic design and could be unconventional as software design.

Design starts from the innovation on requirements and ends with fulfilling what people want and become a good design in our lives. There is an excellent example of the difference in Invention, Design, and Good Design. People need to drink water, so the water cup came out. The design of the water cup is what we called innovation. After a while, people realized that they want hot water all the time without using the boiling machine; the thermos came in as a design. After that, some people start to complain that there is always someone in the household want hot water, and some other people want the cold one. Water dispenser came out to help people with what they want.

A good design could give soul to things. People will be willing to pay for the thing and could intuitively have the memory on the thing. Before we start to value what is the excellent design, we need to figure out what are the evaluation standard. Empathy is the main thing for most of the things that need design. It is imperative to make users feel useful and valuable for having the thing. Dieter Rams’ idea on the ten principals for evaluating good designs: Innovative, makes a product useful, aesthetic, make a product understandable, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, is thorough down to the last detail, environmentally friendly and is as little design as possible. Dieter Rams gave a clear idea of how we should evaluate the things that came across in our lives. When we started on looking around, we could find that tons of excellent designs exist around.

The first product I would like to introduce is AirPods. It is the product that was born with doubt. When Apple first release it in 2016, people had lots of negative comments on the product. Consumers felt confused about why Apple thought we are going to pay $160 (plus tax) to buy this kind of wired thing, which is just a line-cut EarPods. People said that they swear users will drop the AirPods when they use it on the road, in the subway or the gym, etc. However, after these several years, what we can see is that more and more people started to use the AirPods effectively. People had them on all the occasions that they used to question for usability.

From the outside design perspective, when we look at the AirPods, the external design style of it is minimalism. The all-white color gives users the feeling of clean and tidy. All the manufacturer-related words were printed in the light grey color and hid in the unimpressive places, which is suitable for the integrality of the design. The spindle, connecting the head of the box and the body of the box, is a consistent design to MacBook, giving users a deep feeling on the Apple Ecosystem. The groove helps people find where to open the box without seeing it. Users could directly touch and feel the groove. The weight of the product is light enough for people to carry. The AirPods is approximately 40 grams, weighted as one and a half piece of bread. The size of the AirPods is also pretty user-friendly. It could be put directly into the small pocket inside the large right pocket of jeans. Additionally, the light (green as fully charged, orange as un-fully charged) in the middle of two AirPods also provides a signal to users for charging notification.

From the usability side, firstly, it is the real wireless, even got rid of the line between two EarPods. The wireless design helps people with many conveniences. Users could bring AirPods to anywhere without thinking about if the line is going to mess up at all. Secondly, the magnetic induction on open and close the AirPods box and drag in and out the AirPods itself provides a smooth and comfortable way for users to experience. The magnetic design could also help the safety of the AirPods for not dropping out even the box is upside down. A funny part is that people could even grip the AirPods on the top edge of the MacBook screen when taking it out. Thirdly, AirPods provide a hard emphasize on the Ecosystem of Apple products. Once the AirPods got connected with one Apple device, all the devices under the same Apple ID will automatically connect with the AirPods. Users could easily change from using iPhone to MacBook to iPad without plug out and plugin. In the meantime, the AirPods do not reject the probability for non-Apple user. If they want to use the AirPods to connect with their non-Apple devices, they could press the little round button on the back; which is a significant part to show the empathy of the design. Besides, the battery of the AirPods box and the AirPods itself could stand for full-day use, which provides even better portability for the AirPods itself. The AirPods also did a pretty good job of showing the quantitative value of the battery remaining. Users could either slightly open the AirPods box near the phone to see the battery remaining number on the screen or scroll down on the screen to see the battery widget.

Although there are lots of right part of the AirPods design, there are some ideas on having AirPods better. The crack near the edges could easily be dirty after using for several times. It will be great if the material of this part could be changed, or maybe there could be some clean knit for users to purchase. The other thing is the quality of the sound. People have many complaints at this point. However, I consider the part as a secondary part to fix. Since it is hard to require portable earphone have the same sound quality provided by the professional overhead earphone. What I expect for AirPods is just trying to make some of the noise-canceling at this point.

The second thing I would like to introduce is a service, or we can call it a business model, Costco. Costco opened its first warehouse in Seattle 36 years ago in 1983. Through mergers, Costco’s corporate history dates back to 1976, when its former competitor Price Club was founded in San Diego, California. As of March 7, 2019, Costco had a total of 770 warehouses worldwide. When we talked about Costco, the first several words jump into my mind are Membership Only, Low Price, High Quality, Large Quantity, and Easy Return. The design of the Costco system broke out the traditional merchandizer model and broke out the new way of targeting their consumers with their “magic source.”

The design of the membership system is one of the most highlights. There are two levels of membership plan offered by Costco: Gold Star ($60) and Gold Star Executive ($120). When customer started their membership card, the Costco staff will tell them that if you use the Executive one, you will get 2% cashback on all your orders, by the end of the year, if your cashback amount does not reach to $60, we will still give you back $60. What a deal. Most of the people will choose the $120 card as a result. Costco did a great job on how to promote and operating their membership system. People who are not their member are willing to become part of their membership system. Costco makes the membership system as a way to earn money from the membership fee. The design shows the innovation for sure. It was the innovation of the age and the godfather of the membership-only warehouse club.

The design of always having a low-price & high-quality guarantee gave people the reason to always come to Costco first. Costco has a policy for customers to price match any not-on-sale product from any retailers if they have a lower price than Costco. The policy gave the customers the idea that Costco always has the lowest price. However, does the low-price mode affect quality? The answer is a solid no. What Costco did is to lower their average profit margin to around 7%. At this moment, the large quantity is here to help the design become better. Selling more quantity with lower profit is still an excellent plan for Costco to operate. Also, in the United States, it is reasonable and typical for a large amount of demand for the whole household; so, the customers will not have too many complaints on the quantity. Besides the regular low-price setting, Costco also has some of its exclusive products that never changed price since they founded. The hot dog is always $1.5, and it tastes terrific. Costco roasted chicken for just $4.99 is also an unbeatable price. Does Costco earn money with this price for selling these goods? The answer is no. People will never have a trip to Costco for buying a hot dog or just a roasted chicken. Whatever customers bought besides these cheapest pieces of stuff will give the profit to Costco for balancing the low-price design.

The design of the easy return system helps the consumer to buy products without too much extra consideration and debating. It is also the way that Costco could build up its reputation for being a great retailer with the best after-sale service. There are lots of funny Costco return facts on social media to show that Costco is doing return for no reason. Costco does not lose too much on having the policy; since not everyone will return an already-eaten watermelon because of not sweet enough. What Costco earned is the reputation that they could give customers the best services. Besides, when customers are shopping in the store, they might have the concern for buying it or not; with the easy return policy, customers will have the impulsion to buy and see. Then it is the smart design to have the empathy to users and also encourage them to make the profit for Costco.

The design of low SKU (stock keeping unit) helps consumers to choose the right product in a short amount of time. Costco has about just 2.5% of Walmart’s SKU, which help them to sell one single product shortly and have fresh new products up in the short period of the time. Costco helps the consumers to filter before having the products listed on the shelves. For the same kinds of product, Costco will have 2–3 brands for customers to choose. It is easy for customers to make the right decision quickly. The design of low SKU raises the user experience.

Costco is a fascinating design for worldwide users and customers to choose and follow. The design shows its empathy, innovative, usability, and understandable details and rules; which make Costco becomes an un-replaceable warehouse club.

In a nutshell, we, as users, are always benefited by the good designs in the world. The great designers in all the industries are still innovative and creative in having more and more good designs come out. Good design is also part of the pipeline for society to make progress.

Kelly Zhang

Data Science | Tech Consulting | Information Technology |…

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