Sunday, March 27, 2005


design significance of the iPod

The iPod is one of the few examples of good usability being a motivator, instead of simply being means to avoid user dissatisfaction. Martin Maguire at Loughborough University once did a study on what factors contributed to users' satisfaction or dissatisfaction with electronic gadgets. He found that users are most turned off by poor usability, and limited functionality (compared with other products.) Bad styling, he found, is not a major turn-off. Martin found that users were most keen about a product having good styling and good functionality. He found good usability is not so strong a factor in creating a positive user connection with a product.

Martin's analysis makes a good deal of sense to me. Users rarely notice good usability, though they do recognize it when it is bad. Since most products look similar anyway, they tend to notice style when it stands out favorably, rather than when it is mundane. But the iPod seems to challenge this hierarchy of motives. If you are looking for a basic MP3-type player, the functionality is roughly the same among models from different vendors. Styling is variable: some vendors make clunky models, though some like Creative Labs make models arguably more hip looking than Apple's. (I find the white rubber iPod looks like it belongs in my bathroom, dispensing soap.) What does differ is the interface and usability. No one else has successfully emulated the iPod's ease of use, the lack of buttons and the smooth navigation via the click wheel. It is "delightful" because it exceeds are conventional expectations. What is amazing is that it continues to delight long after first encountering it, instead of being a momentary pleasure. The iPod shows good usability does have the ability to motivate us, and get us attached to a product. The concept was inspired, though the interface needed a bit of tweaking to become the hit it is today. Our professional challenge is to develop inspired usable interfaces: to generate delightful concepts that have staying power.

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