Saturday, June 06, 2009

Formless function; dysfunctional form

One of the Great Truths of usable design is that form should not only follow function, but it should also somehow suggest and support or enable it. This stems from the Principle of Affordance first propounded by the psychologist J J Gibson and then extended and applied to the field of interaction design by Don Norman. Paradoxically, that paragon of good design -- so good that their products feature regularly in Museums of Modern Art -- Apple Computer, especially under the dictatorial direction of co-founded Steve Jobs, routinely designs products that are beautiful to look at and feel, but less than satisfactory when it comes to actually physically interacting with them. A New York Times article titled, The Demise of Form Follows Function points to an especially egregious example, the third generation Apple iPod Shuffle that is mostly smooth and featureless, all its controls having been moved to the headphones that plug into the device.

Steve Jobs has always championed minimalist design, ruthlessly eliminating features that competitors would shudder to mess with. Jobs likes to reduce Apple products to the barest minimum function so that there is no confusion at all in the minds of the user as to what they are about; especially if a particular feature somehow mars the aesthetics of the object in the eyes of Jobs. This is certainly achieved, but often at the cost of even the barest minimum of usability. The mouse for the first iMac was circular in shape and awkward to handle, for both experts as well as novices. This instantly created an opportunity for third party mice that were more conventionally (and conveniently) shaped.

Steve Jobs doesn't particularly like things that stick out awkwardly or create a break in the visual lines of a product. The MacBook Air eliminates all external ports except for one USB port, one video port and a headphone jack, in addition to the essential power port. The iPhone and iPod Touch have only one physical button on the front.

Unfortunately, the New York Times article takes all this to be an industry trend and predicts that form and function are on divergent paths. I doubt it -- human cognitive and physical abilities have not radically evolved in the past few decades and are unlikely to, in a long, long time. Aesthetics does dominate design these days, led from the front by companies like Apple -- Apple has demonstrated through their success that even for high-technology products when the device in question is of a highly personal nature it acquires the aura of an objet d'art and any attention to aesthetics on the part of the vendor is greatly appreciated by the consumer. Apple understands this as well as the makers of Porsche and other makers of premier, quality products. Soon, I believe, designers will find ways of incorporating function into form without marring the aesthetics of the form in any significant way.

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