Under the lens : #1

As industrial designers, we are taught and trained to develop a critical eye – to “see” a product or design beyond its outer appearance. This is a “read between the lines” version for design. Looking at a design with a critical eye means analyzing the design as a whole, and individually, its components that are conducive to a pleasing interaction.

Developing an ability to critique a design is of paramount importance for two reasons:

  • Helps you become your own critique
  • Helps you avoid design mistakes made by fellow designers

As an exercise to developing this capability, I usually critique products and designs I find interesting and appealing, and sometimes, products which have won awards, to understand what aspect of that product could have won it an award.

At this point, I’d like to mention that not all products which win an award are highly usable and quite often, several products which are highly usable do not end up winning awards.

In this article, I’d like to share one of my critiques with you, to give you an idea on what I look at were I to critique a design. I usually talk about the negatives first, so that they are noted by people when they are at the peak of their attentiveness, and keep the positives for the end, to finish off on a positive note haha!

So, the product we’ll be looking at today is a medical device to read carotenoid levels directly from the skin, without any pricking and poking! Pretty interesting, right?! Take a good look at the product (below); what are the first few thoughts that popped up in your mind?

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“This looks good”, “wow”, “nice shape”, “awesome design”, “elegant”, “simple”. These phrases were some of what you thought right? Me too. Most people stop here, but as designers, we are only getting started with our analysis.

Here goes my critique!

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The display

Quite a few things caught my eye first, one of them is the display orientation. From the pictures above, I don’t know who is supposed to read stuff off the screen. It sure is not for the patient, from the way the text is oriented. Also, I doubt it is for the practitioner, as it is not oriented toward him either. In short it is cumbersome to read, as you’d have to tilt your head to read the numbers/letters.

Granted, if the practitioner sat in a different place, he can read it but still I, the patient, want to read it too; without extra effort.

Imagine doing this on a weighing scale; the numbers get displayed perpendicular to your head forcing you to tilt your head and read. Not very pleasant, eh? It is the same case here.

If you do orient the device to face you, then your wrist and hand would be tilted at an uncomfortably awkward angle trying to grip the device. This issue might not seem that important, and it is not, but it is good practice to consider such scenarios when designing products.

The grip contrast

Next is the palm grip. If this device were newly presented to you, you’d find it difficult to understand where to hold it or what to do with it. That is because the contrast between the silver grip (which has to held onto, by the way) and the white body is too low, so much so that it looks like a design feature rather than an actionable area.

DeWalt addresses this problem brilliantly. All actionable areas on their products are colored black, against the yellow body (lot of contrast!). This includes grips, handles, knobs and switches. You now know that something has to be done with these black objects. I’d say that’s a very clever design solution! The same technique is used to good effect in Nerf guns too!

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Location and tilt

Apart from the grip’s color, the location and angle aren’t that intuitive either. Why? Consider this: how do we usually grip objects? Horizontally of course, if were just holding on, which is the case here. But the device’s grip is tilted down.

We intuitively push down and front when we try to move things. Say you’re moving your desk, a cart or even pushing your car. Your applied force is forward and downward, right?! The grip on the device now confuses the user, who has to decide whether he/she has to push down on the device or to just hold it. This results in a very cautious approach to gripping the product, which some expectation that it’ll move forward when gripped.

Grips are usually tilted down at an angle if they have to be pushed, horizontal/vertical if they are to he held onto and tilted upward if they have to be pulled on.

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Tilted downward

5Vertical

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Tilted upward

A beautiful and simple example for this is a gun’s trigger. Even little kids, when given a toy gun, figure out that the trigger has to be pulled by the finger. Have you ever noticed anyone push a trigger? It can’t happen due to its design. It is curved forward and upwards on which when a finger is placed we intuitively know that it has to be pulled.

Sensor design

The last thing which got me scratching my head was that protruding sensor in the grip. Why did it have to protrude out when the hand was anyway going to be placed over it, even if it was flush with the surface? The protrusion further confuses the user. Do we have to fit the hand above the protrusion? Do we have to cover it with the hand? Do we have to spread our fingers apart to not cover it?

Well sure, the practitioner can tell you what to do, but that is not the point of designing something right? A well designed object speaks for itself, guides the user to use it properly, by itself.

I don’t know what factors/constraints forced them not to make the sensor sit flush with the grip, but that’s what I would have done were I designing it: make it flush.

Enough with the negatives of the device! I’d also like to share what I liked about it.

First is the simple shape and clean lines. I’m a huge fan of geometric angular shapes, especially triangular, and I absolutely love this device for it. The minimal design and color selected for the body make it look elegant. Nothing in the design is annoyingly intrusive, screaming for our attention.

I also love the way the grip is designed to fit into the shape (though, as I mentioned earlier, not the angle).

Another design feature I would like to point out and appreciate, is the use of chamfers all along the edges. This makes it more interesting and beautiful.

Final words: Given a chance to have one of these on my table, I would gladly do so! None of the negatives I talked about earlier affect the performance or use of the device adversely. They are just good points to keep in mind, to design more user-friendly products.

After all, we design to make this world a better, easier place to live in don’t we?

– Cheers!

P.S.: If you want to read more about the product, click this.

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