form vs. function — a stupid false dichotomy.

Core77’s design blog led me to this article about form vs. function in mobile phone design. The title of the article says it all: Is the ‘dumb blonde’ phone here to stay?

In this context, a ‘dumb blonde’ phone is one which looks pretty but lacks functionality. I can understand why someone thought that was a good gag, but it completely misses the point. It assumes that people actually want all the added functionality of web-browsing, email, multimegapixel cameras, Bluetooth, music playback and God knows what else; that they’ve sacrificed something by choosing a stylish phone instead. But perhaps they haven’t. Perhaps they just want to make phone calls and send texts. Here’s a paragraph whose stupidity makes it worth quoting in full:

Andrew Brown, IDC’s European mobile devices programme manager, said the operators and manufacturers have played their part in the dumbing down. “Everyone gets very excited about aesthetics. It’s easier to sell design than it is to sell feature functionality – it’s laziness.” Good looks are immediately apparent to the average buyer – the benefits of having 3G connectivity or a smart operating system are not.

Which inevitably reminds me of the equally stupid quote from Sim Wong Hoo I blogged about earlier. Sim, as the CEO of Creative, was completely failing to learn the obvious lesson about iPod thrashing his products in the marketplace. The same lessons apply to mobile phones.

Here’s the first point: to choose a simple, attractive phone over an ugly but hi-tech one is not an irrational choice. It seems like such an obvious point that I can’t quite believe I have to explicitly say it, but I suspect I do. There’s a bizarre prejudice against aesthetics in the tech community, as though the pleasure in using an object you actually like is somehow an illusion, a deceit, and something of no value. Now if that’s how you feel, then fair enough. Good luck to you. Go and buy the most function-filled gadget, or the one which gives you most oomph per dollar, and ignore design issues completely. But if you want to sell gadgets to the non-geek community, you have to learn that people like to own nice things.

We’re not talking about a once-in-a-lifetime purchase: a mobile phone costs about as much as a handbag. Why on earth shouldn’t it be a fashion item?

Here’s the second bizarre prejudice: that added functionality adds value. This is the mentality that produced the much-mocked ballpoint pen with clock that used to be a staple of Innovations catalogues. Functionality you don’t want doesn’t add value, it reduces it. Even if it doesn’t interfere with the main function of an object, it makes it more complicated, which is a Bad Thing. I only use my mobile for phone calls and texting; so for me, all the other menu options are just unnecessary rubbish I have to scroll past to find what I want. By all means make a Swiss Army Knife phone with a tool for getting the stones out of horses hooves; just don’t expect me to buy one.

But the real problem, the one that underlies the others, is a belief that design is something you put on at the end, a lick of paint to pull in the stupid, style-obsessed consumer who somehow doesn’t appreciate the wonderful functionality you’re giving them. But design, properly, is not superficial. It deals with every aspect of the user’s experience of the product, down to the number of button-presses to perform an action and the obviousness or otherwise of how to do it. If a product is badly designed (or just as likely, not really designed at all), if it doesn’t try to make it easy for the user, then it’s a bad product, however many features it has.

My father has a PVR/DVD recorder that makes the perfect case study. When he got it a couple of years ago, it was the bleeding edge of the technology. And to be fair, it has proved itself to be a brilliant step forward from the VCR – no more scrabbling around for blank tapes, no difficulty trying to find what you recorded earlier. The basic concept of recording TV on a hard drive is superb. But despite that, I’ve come to actively dislike it. Because it was obviously put together by people who put all their effort into providing a certain set of features none of it into the user experience.

First example: pretty much everything you would need to do with the machine can be done, as you’d expect, by pressing buttons on the remote and using onscreen menus. But if you want to stop a timer recording, you have to press the stop button on the front of the machine twice. That’s completely unguessable, and easily improved upon; when someone presses ‘stop’ on the remote, just give them an ‘are you sure?’ message. Second example: despite the fact that even slightly complicated functions are managed through onscreen interfaces, the remote has 76 buttons. I don’t know what the right number is, but I’m damn sure it’s less than that. It also came with three separate manuals — an outline of the basic functions, a hideously complicated full manual that explained every possible function badly, and something in-between because, presumably, they realised the other two were both crap.

I’m conflating two meanings of ‘design’ here, attractiveness and usability, and of course they aren’t the same thing. Indeed, products often sacrifice usability for aesthetic appeal. What they have in common, though, is that they both make the product more likeable. They give pleasure. But pleasure is intangible and unmeasurable, so it’s all too easy for people to undervalue it, or just to pay lip-service to it. Because the thing is – good design is hard. It takes a lot of time, effort and commitment, an endless appetite for details and a deeply stubborn perfectionism. A company is never going to get it right if, deep down, they think of design as superficial.


  1. 12 August 2006 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    Hear, hear.

    Here’s why I use Macs. Not only do they look good, they’re fun to use, too — something I never experienced on the osobloodyefficient PC.

    (I switched in 1996 — it’s been 10 years!)

  2. Ravi
    14 November 2006 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    You should read a forthcoming article in the Journal of Marketing Research. It comprehensively explains the role of emotions in resolving tradeoffs between form and function. The title of the paper is,


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