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Bad Designs

Mike Darnell takes his camera everywhere. After all, you never know when and where a bad design might appear.

By Mike Darnell

Darnell, a software usability expert with Netscape, administers www.baddesigns.com, a web site dedicated to spotlighting particularly poor examples of product and system design. "I put the site together in part because one of the things that was lacking in textbooks on human factors was examples," says Darnell.

In this car, the cup holder blocks access to the radio.

In this car, the cup holder blocks access to the radio.

Upwards of 100 cases are posted to the site, each with photos and explanations of what's wrong and suggestions for design improvement. For example, in a category called "Things That Don't Work Well Together," users see the center console in a car showing how the cup holder is blocking access to the radio and cassette player (see photo at left). "It's nice to have a cup holder," Darnell writes, "but this isn't a very good spot for it. Not only is it hard to use the radio, but if your drink spills, it's going into the cassette player!"

Darnell's suggestion? "When you design an object, you need to consider the environment that it is used in."

Two different kinds of insulin bottles should be distinguishable by more than 
simply one character and one small symbol.

Two different kinds of insulin bottles should be distinguishable by more than simply one character and one small symbol.

Other pages illustrate designs that have the potential for serious user harm. Too often, manufacturers package different products in nearly identical bottles. The photo at right shows two bottles containing different types of insulin taken by diabetics for specific conditions and at different times of the day.

"Choosing the wrong insulin could be a very serious and possibly deadly mistake," Darnell notes. "You would think that the manufacturers would make the two different kinds of insulin bottles a bit more distinguishable than simply differing by one character and one small symbol. This is particularly true for diabetics, since one of the common side effects of diabetes is vision problems."

Darnell says he began the web site in 1996, but had been collecting such examples of design disasters for years, presenting them to university classes with good reception. "I had originally intended for students in human factors to find it useful," he says. Although there is yet no mechanism in place to profile who accesses the site, he says feedback has indicated to him that most are engineers and designers, but that students account for a significant percentage, even some high school teachers and students. "And a lot of ordinary people email me saying they enjoy the site."

Given the competitive nature of most product marketing today, Darnell fears human factors will continue to be neglected in favor of designing and implementing new products quickly. He hopes, however, that his site educates current and future engineers and computer professionals about the need to test their designs before releasing them on an unwitting public. Frequently, technical professionals see themselves erroneously as understanding how John Q. Public sees things. "A lot of designers think they know what people want, that they are a representative user of the product," he says. "But it's always an eye-opener when we do usability tests with the public and engineers attend."

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