Thursday, January 9, 2014

failure in design(er)

Yesterday evening, our recently purchased, lovely new couch arrived. Or, rather, the large boxes that contained our recently purchased, lovely new couch arrived. Suddenly, it was very clear what we gave up by not springing for "white glove delivery".

Not to fear, though. It came with instructions. My husband and I can both read and follow instructions.


Easier said than done, it turns out. These were certainly not the worst assembly instructions that I've ever seen, but they left a lot to be desired. Perhaps a very lucky or clever individual could get it right the first time (we were neither of those, as it turns out). But you'd have to know which details were important to pay attention to.

We had several false starts, turning the diagram round and round to say: Ah, now I get it! Wait, no, now the one frame piece is too long. Oh, now I see the problem. Oops, no, now the holes don't line up. After several such instances, we recognized that the bars in the frame are not equidistant apart (and it matters which two are closest together), we realized that two of the frame bars had four holes each and the third had two holes each and that the relative positioning of the bars with respect to one another is important, we learned that FX1 and GX1 are in fact not interchangeable (even though at the top they're shown with FX1 clearly on the left and GX1 on the right, but then below are less prominently switched).

Now that we've assembled the couch correctly (finally), we could do it again without breaking a sweat. We know exactly which are the important parts in the diagram to pay our attention. But why was it so difficult the first time around?

I'm in the middle of a book I'm enjoying, The Design of Everyday Things. In it, Donald Norman asserts that when you have trouble with things, you shouldn't blame yourself (even though that tends to be people's natural tendency). Rather, it's the fault of the design and you should blame the designer. While this book focuses mainly on product design, I think many of the insights are true in the data visualization space as well. In this case, the corollary is clear: if you are struggling to understand a visual representation of data, don't blame yourself; blame the designer. Odds are, they didn't adequately take your needs as the audience into account in their design process. For those designing visual displays of information, this is a reminder to always keep your audience in mind, for, as Donal Norman says, "well-designed objects are easy to interpret and understand."

I unabashedly blame the designer of the instruction diagram for our difficulty assembling something that could have easily been straightforward. If the designer had thought about the intended users and leveraged affordances to make it clear which details were important and should be paid attention to, my husband and I would have had a much less frustrating process assembling our (now truly lovely) couch.

What design issues cause you frustration? What can we learn from this to apply in the world of data viz?


  1. A good viz should not require any specialized knowledge to understand the message of what's important that's being communicated. Even if you don't understand the subject matter (for example it's in another language) you should still be able to point out how information relates and what's changing. I think it would be interesting to purposely take a viz and change all the language references (Icelandic?) to see if it's still understandable.

  2. Congratulations on successfully navigating the sofa assembly and staying married! ;-) I certainly agree that these instructions leave a lot to be desired and could be improved to help direct the users' focus. There's always a delicate balance between offering enough information for the user to be able to make meaning (whether it's a data visualization or sofa assembly instructions) and avoiding overcrowding the space (i.e. the computer screen, the one page direction sheet, etc.) allotted for it. Had the directions been entirely clear, leaving no detail out, you may have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of reading and given up. Absent some language though, to complement the pictures, you were confused and spent more time making a "meaningful" sofa (you can't sit comfortably on all those parts without a correct assembly) than you might have otherwise. Therein lies the rub. How much to offer the user, and how much to assume (or hope, or wish) the user will know/understand/be able to do without embellishment. :-)

  3. There is also now a MOOC with Don Norman - Introduction to the Design of Everyday Things

    I enjoyed the book and the course looks promising

  4. Thanks for this piece. Indeed, a viz should be like a sentence (or group there of) and should be understandable to the receiver (grammar, complexity, sequence etc) regardless of the receiver's knowledge or expertise.

  5. As a new homeowner, I've been doing a lot of shopping at IKEA lately, and I have to say that I really like their instructions. I never have any trouble following them, and they are always really careful to distinguish between similar pieces, by picturing them side by side in the instructions and drawing a big X through the piece you don't want to use.