Design a Good Listener

Go to your laundry room and look at your washing machine’s dashboard. You should either see some knobs or buttons. Maybe there is an LCD screen. Now, without overthinking, try to retrace the steps you would take to wash a pair of socks. Can you do it in less than a minute?

My washing machine Temperature knob has options that include “hot”, “warm”, “colors”, “coldest.” When did “colors” became a temperature? And why do clothes care if the water is “warm” or the “coldest”? Something simple highlights a growing problem with communication between us and the machines.

Useful tools communicate their current state. They don’t frustrate you. I don’t know what happens when I set the temperature to color. The lid locks when the washer starts, so it isn’t like I can open it to touch the water’s temperature. There is no thermometer either, I looked. Let’s think about the other side of the spectrum. Have you used a door lately? Did you think about using it? I never do. I turn a knob and feel accomplished. Even after years of dealing with dozens of different knobs, I’ve been going in and out of rooms with no problem. Why are not all interfaces like my front door?

The door knows what to say. The knob tells me that I need to turn it to use it. The door gives me one possible action: turn the knob. The washing machine has a billion possible steps to wash clothes. If I move and I get a new washing, there is no guarantee that the interface is the same. At least doors keep it consistent.

I started distancing myself from the washer. It is exhausting to wash clothes. Why? I have to keep guessing what the washing machine is doing. It expects a lot from me. The lousy labeling keeps me guessing the real meaning behind these buttons. The lack of simplicity makes me fear for my clothes since you’d need an expert to figure out how to click in a cycle for white t-shirts. I end up leaving settings as is and hoping that they are a catch-all for all garments.

And we design it this way. Not us, specifically but people. People who saw this interface and thought the average user would be able to pick this up. But we aren’t the users. We are the designers and we need to do better. We can enable our interfaces to be better listeners. We need to design it that way.

Let’s keep in mind that our users shouldn’t need a tutorial video or documentation. A good relationship feels almost natural. A relationship requires constant feedback. Interfaces can say what they mean. Why build for frustration when we can create simplicity.

So pick up some reading. There are plenty of books out there, but I would recommend Don Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things." Let’s break up the chain of bad relationships once and for all.