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Last Updated: Monday, 11 April, 2005, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
Designs for a happy life
By Lon Barfield
Author

Toasters, clock-radios, vacuum cleaners - everyday devices, found in everyday homes. So how do manufacturers make us buy more of what we already have? By getting product designers to think harder about how we use things, and designing products for couples, not just individuals.

Toasters, cutlery, a food mixer - such were the staples of traditional wedding present lists. Now, though, two-thirds of couples would rather have cash or gift vouchers, according to recent survey.

The main difference between wedding gifts and other gifts is that they are aimed at you-plural - the joyous couple - rather than at you-singular.

No 42-inch plasma screens and mini-fridges then, it's all about house-making devices and gadgets that embody the couple. It's the toaster that you both use.. and battle about which setting to have it on. It's the double duvet... that he says is too thin and she says is baking hot.

Or the alarm-clock-radio that is so loud that it wakes her when he gets up at 5.30am, even though she could sleep on. Or the TV with the remote control that gets handed back-and-forth on the sofa with shouts of: "Well, you set the volume then, I can hear it fine".

There are still a multitude of simple devices that both people use, but in different ways
Lon Barfield
Now that the majority of Western households have got one of everything, the designers are looking at ways to make you buy another one of everything. One approach is to invent new things, so that just when you thought you had everything, you realise that you haven't. Another is to work on better designed versions of the things that you have already got.

This is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it is just producing more things for the sake of more things. On the other hand, it is about "real design" - the designer doing their best to make aspects of the users' life better.

With today's complex gadgetry, a key role of the designer doing this is designing the behaviour of the things so that they do what you expect and want of them. It is called "interaction design" or "usability" and it is about making the user's life easier by making things easier to use.

It doesn't just apply to complex technology like video recorders and digital cameras. Even with things that are not-so-complex there is still a lot that can be done through good interaction design.

Microwave
How do you use yours?
Take the design of things that are used by couples. Most gadgets are designed for one person to use. In many cases this is what you want, especially with very personal technology like mobile phones and iPods.

Sometimes, you get systems that are expressly designed for the family to use, like broadband connection software where one person in the family is in charge of the whole thing and sets access levels, and passwords (and pays the phone bills!).

Somewhere in between there is a whole host of devices that are used by two people - the happy couple. In such contexts there is often a degree of delegation: he knows how to change the program on the central heating, she knows how to adjust the clock on the oven. She knows how to run the eco-setting on the washing machine, he knows how to change the bit on the power drill.

However, there are still a multitude of simple devices that both people use, and that they use in different ways.

This is where a designer's understanding of people comes in. Big technology companies are now starting to realise that they are not just designing for geeky folk like themselves, who buy everything anyway, they are designing for everyone, and to understand these users they need "product anthropology".

Remote control
Still no Happy solution for couple who can't agree on volume levels
Plain anthropology is about watching how remote tribes go about their everyday lives and joining in with them eating nasty things. Product anthropology is about watching how ordinary Westerners go about their lives; what sort of things do they do, what do they want to do, how do they use the things they have?

Part of this is how couples use things as a couple and in recent years designers have cottoned onto this and created products that solve some of the problems mentioned at the beginning.

There is the "thick and thin" duvet, where one side has more feathers in it than the other. There is the toaster with two setting dials - his 'n' hers.

There are now weighing scales that allow two people to key in their measurements, and check their weight against the stored parameters. And there is the clock radio with two alarm settings so you don't have to try and engage your brain at six in the morning to re-program it to go off again an hour later.

But, hang on. What about the other problem: different volume settings for the TV when you are both watching it? How do you solve that? Well, one creative solution I heard about was the couple who lost their TV in a burglary, but not the remote. With the insurance money they purchased the same model, complete with another remote and, "hey presto", a remote control for husband and wife.

Lon Barfield is author of Designing the Real World.


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