Bad design is infuriating. It slows us down, annoys us, makes us late and irritated. But good design simply fits. It becomes part of life, so useful and everyday that we hardly notice it. And that’s how it should be.
As part of our Chartership celebrations, we asked some the most experienced members of the CIEHF to pick out what they considered to be the best examples of user centred design – design that fits people’s needs and does what it’s supposed to do. The rest of our members then voted for their favourite and the top three were:
1.UK Road Signs
UK road signs, created by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir in the 1950s and 60s have become design icons, recognised around the world as synonymous with Britain. The designs are to be honoured and showcased in a new exhibition. But they are not just beautifully designed, they also work beautifully, and they were voted for by CIEHF members as a shining example of user centred design. Asked why they work so well CIEHF fellow Corinne Parsons commented: “The legibility of road signs is critical as road users have a limited time to read and process the information. Key to the successful development of the signs was rigorous user testing during their development. This showed that to maximise legibility it was best to use Title Case with the use of capital letters at the start of words followed by lower case letters. The size and spacing of the font and the colours were chosen to provide maximum contrast and a distinction between different road types.”
Every aspect of the design was tested with real users and designs were tweaked and changed in response to criticisms both from their test subjects and government officials. Calvert recognised that there was no point in having beautiful signs if they didn’t do the job they were supposed to do. The reason her designs have endured is that she was able to marry form and function so effectively.
2. Prosthetic limbs
People have lost limbs through disease, accident and conflict for thousands of years – early examples of prosthetics have been found as early as 16th Century BC Egypt. At their most basic, they have ‘filled in the gap’ where limbs used to be, providing little or no functionality. Today, however, work is progressing to link prosthetics directly to the nervous system of their user, to provide central control. Researchers are focussing on developing a sense of ‘touch’ in a prosthetic as well as generating important feedback about where a limb is in space. These developments are driven by the desire to make people’s lives better; by listening to the users; focussing on the needs they articulate and harnessing all that technology can offer.
Nominated by Claire Williams, Registered Member
3. London underground map
“A good map tells a multitude of little white lies; it supresses truth to help the user see what really needs to be seen” (Mark Monmonier, 1996). In 1931 the London Underground map changed. Henry (Harry) Beck removed the visual noise of specific geographical locations of each station therefore enabling users to clearly identify individual lines, stations and connections in order to quickly, safely and efficiently arrive at their destination in and around Central London. To this day, millions of users navigate the capital city using an excellent example of information organisation.
Nominated by Stephanie Eaves, Student Member
Also in the running were:
Ceefax (derived from “see facts”) was, as with many good ideas, invented by accident. For over 30 years we had access to up to date news, sports results, weather reports and entertainment reviews through our television sets. Before the world wide web or Twitter it provided fast access to succinct (~80 words) summaries of information from a reputable source – the BBC. Expert users typed in numbers to access their favourite pages and the numbers would flick over at the top of the screen showing progress as you waited for your page to be displayed. Loyal viewers could even phone in comments for display on daily updates of forum pages. It was useful, efficient, interesting and fun.
Nominated by Sarah Sharples, Fellow
‘Which?’ – the Consumers’ Association publication
Which? offers a great model of how human factors and ergonomics principles can be applied to the design and use of products and services. Established in 1957, Which? reports user tests on household products from kettles and washing machines to computers and cars. They also test and run campaigns about financial services, holiday travel and energy suppliers. The reports enable us, the consumers, to make informed choices about which products and services to buy. By publishing the test process and results, Which? has been raising the expectations of consumers and influencing manufacturers about the principles of good ergonomic design for over 50 years.
Nominated by Sue Hignett, Fellow
Some innovations are obvious in everyday life, while others work behind the scenes, safeguarding millions of lives. One such unsung hero is aviation’s ‘Mode S’, a bidirectional one-to-one data-link for air-ground communication. This is praised by air traffic controllers for enabling better situation awareness, reduced speech workload and safety enhancements. It achieves this via better aircraft identification, more accurate aircraft tracking, and downlinked aircraft parameters (e.g. pilot’s selected altitude), while enhancing safety nets (e.g. conflict alerts). This helps the early identification of potential incidents, while supporting the efficiency and capacity of the aviation system.
Nominated by Steve Shorrock, Registered Member
The Fender Stratocaster electric guitar
An excellent example of usable, exciting, design (original 1954). It is extremely versatile for almost any musical style. The fretboard design makes it easy to hold down multiple strings simultaneously, whilst avoiding unwanted buzzing sounds from strings touching adjacent frets. It is highly interoperable with other systems components and has avoided language barriers. Most guitarists (from novice to maestro) find it easy and comfortable to play standing or seated. Tuning is easy and remains accurate and highly repeatable anywhere on instrument. It is robust, reliable and easy to maintain and repair. Now mass produced and relatively cheap thereby enabling a large population to benefit.
(Note: Thanks to my colleague Ed Matthews at the Royal College of Art for helping with this description)
Nominated by Peter Buckle, Fellow
Although Steve Jobs famously never asked customers what they wanted, he was still the ultimate champion of the user. Apple products were inspired by great design ideas but tempered in the fire of extensive testing. Many good ideas foundered, failing to deliver the user experience he demanded. But the iPhone was a game changer. Others had made mobile phones. Others had used touch screens. Others allowed you to check emails and surf the net. The iPhone combined all of this powerful functionality in a device, which was elegant and fun to use and changed our relationship with computers for ever.
Nominated by Tom Stewart, Retired Fellow
Inertia reel seat belts
Although many today take inertia reel seat belts for granted, for those who grew up with fixed belts (or none), inertia reel belts transformed driving protection. They allowed a degree of driver mobility when seated which was unheard of with the static belts previously available and yet provided enhanced protection when needed (especially as static belts were often just lap belts). They also ‘fitted’ immediately without adjustment. Arguably they also enabled future safety developments because, without some means of ‘retaining’ occupants within the car, there would be little merit in features such as safety bags, safety cages or crumple zones.
Nominated by Richard Graveling, Fellow
Satellite navigation systems
Satellite navigation or satnav systems provide autonomous geo-spatial positioning with global coverage, originally used by the military, are now used to assist the navigationally challenged, in getting from A to B. Satnav’s are one of the most useful systems we interact with today. Reducing the stress of driving on unfamiliar roads, which can be even safer when compared to using a physical map. Although user interfaces vary, the best are simple and easy to use, with clear and concise instructions. Developments have resulted in increased accuracy and useful additional features such as live traffic updates to help avoid time-wasting congestion. There are even options for walkers, cyclists and bikers.
Nominated by Roland Barge, Registered Member
Royal Mail postal delivery service
It is remarkable that it is possible to post a letter in one place in the UK and for it to be delivered anywhere else in the country less than 24 hours later. And delivered to the recipient’s door, with a process that is simple and convenient for the user. With over 100,000 post boxes, 30 million addresses and 50 million plus items delivered each day, this is an amazing feat. A feat that has benefited greatly from Royal Mail’s in house ergonomics expertise, from the design of sorting equipment through to the postman/woman’s delivery bag. Although mail volumes are declining, the Royal Mail Delivery Service should be celebrated as the forerunner of widespread delivery logistics on which we now all depend.
Nominated by Roger Haslam, Fellow
The World Wide Web
When Sir Tim Berners-Lee first connected hypertext to the internet, he may have had little idea of the impact that this development would have on the generations to come. But the web is a genuine game-changer of the technological age – in just 25 years, it has become an indispensable part of modern life. It both supports and exemplifies human-centred design: on the one hand by sustaining an entire industry of HCI specialists; on the other, by embodying a useful, usable and enjoyable system, offering as it does a world of information and entertainment literally at our fingertips. Arguably, the web has also raised the profile of human-centred design amongst today’s discerning users who know a usable interface when they see one.
Nominated by Mark Young, Registered Member
Ergonomists and human factors specialists work in a huge range of sectors, from healthcare to transport, solving problems and making everyone’s lives run more smoothly. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, join the CIEHF or learn more about how to get started on your exciting and challenging career in ergonomics.