Just one touch and I knew ...

June 20, 2017

I have this distinct memory from my childhood: I’m lying on my stomach, propped up on my elbows, cozied up in yellow and orange-ish shag carpet. Dust floats lazily through a sunbeam that peeks through the heavy velour curtains. A clock ticks steadily but softly from the other side of the room. My right hand is rotating the large machined aluminum tuning knob on my grandfather’s hi-fi tuner – back and forth, back and forth. 

My memory has me doing this multiple times on various visits, as though it was one of the items on my checklist of things to do while spending quiet Saturdays at my Grandparent’s house. The hi-fi system was objectively beautiful — three stacked rectangles in bright satin aluminum and delicately lit needle indicators that moved fluidly with the inevitable jazz music emanating from the corners of the room.

Each component had half a dozen switches neatly laid out in a row. They were composed of machined aluminum, thin precise cylinders jutting out from their axes with a crisp knurled pattern at the very tip. There were also a dozen or so knobs, each precisely machined with a distinct indicator notch cut into the edge. The aesthetics, while remarkable even today, were not what captured my attention.

My regular visits to Grandpa’s hi-fi system were primarily to FEEL it.

By this, I mean to simply enjoy the experience of turning the knobs and flicking the switches. Every input on the system felt precise and significant. The tuning knob, in particular, had a sublime, lightly dampened momentum when rotated. It felt impressively heavy yet was nearly effortless to move. The switches snapped assertively into place when activated, giving one the assurance that the simple act of switching from mono to stereo was done with purpose and gravitas.

This memory was, in a sense, my first acknowledgement that design can and should be about more than aesthetics.  Design should be about curating a balanced experience for all of the senses. When the term User Experience (UX) is used, we often automatically associate it with digital media design, where users navigate through a complex series of tasks in two dimensions while limited to relatively few inputs. While digital UX is no easy endeavor, I’d like to consider the term UX in a broader context.

As an industrial designer, I think of user experience as the human/machine interface, the way human senses interpret a thing, whether it be a tool or a toy. In most products, a good user experience is not limited to good aesthetics.  A good experience is had when using the product strikes the right balance between multiple senses, while meeting its intended purpose. To put this into context, I’ll use one of my favorite foods, pizza. 

A pizza must meet many requirements before it can be considered “good.” Initially, the pizza should look tasty. It should contain the right contrast of toppings and cheese, it should have a pleasant browned, slightly singed color to the crust. Presentation is key here as one opens the ubiquitous pizza box and all the steamy, melty goodness shines forth. Obviously, we’re not done here, just as a product manufacturer should not consider themselves finished when they have a nice aesthetic design and a good packaging scheme. The pizza also must have a pleasant aroma, an agreeable texture, then finally, it needs to taste good. Only then can a pizza be considered “good.”

High-quality touchpoints say volumes about a product and, more importantly, about a brand.

The pizza chef has to strike the right balance with all of these requirements. If everything else is great, but the pizza smells funny or the texture is off, it won’t be a “good” pizza. As designers and manufacturers, we should have the same standards for the products we create.  As consumers, we should have the same high standards for the products we buy. After all, the products that we choose to buy and live with will be around much longer than the pizza … especially if they’re good.

There are cases where the manufacturer of a product gets this balance wrong, typically placing too much emphasis on aesthetics while ignoring the other senses. This can have unintended consequences that not only deteriorate a user’s impression of a particular product, but also their impression of that brand.

I recently went shopping for a gas grill at our local home improvement store. I found myself standing in front of at least a dozen different models at various price points and with a diverse array of features. One thing they all had in common was their robust, agreeably substantial aesthetic. I approached one of the mid-priced models, drawn by the gleaming stainless steel and burly burner control knobs. I had already sort of made up my mind at this point as it seemed I would be getting a lot of gas grill for my money with this one.

This illusion evaporated when I grabbed one of the knobs. It looked as though it had been wrought from solid steel with its convincing metallic luster and brushed finish, but the moment my hand touched it, the knob gave slightly and emitted an audible plastic creaking noise as I turned it. At first, it was a cognitive disconnect, then a disappointment as I realized that the knobs were not what I had thought they were. 

Eventually, the aesthetic Illusion, although well crafted, crumbled into a general suspicion that this grill was merely a replica and not of the quality that it had initially appeared. I knew that if I bought it, I would have a sense that I had been willfully fooled by the manufacturer every time I turned those awful knobs.  Sadly, this experience is not uncommon.  Many of us will purchase a product based on its looks and features, then open the package only to find that the perceived quality of the product in the package does not maintain the experience once it is in hand.

Every time we touch a product it communicates something to us through our senses. Our challenge as product developers is to anticipate and tailor this communication during the product development process — the earlier, the better.

Achieving the right balance is no easy task.  It takes a lot of time and thought to get it right and relatively few manufacturers have either the resources or patience to create a class-leading experience. That said, many have succeeded in creating better products by acknowledging the human user and by using empathy to avoid offending their senses or sensibilities. 

High-quality touchpoints say volumes about a product and, more importantly, about a brand. A balance that offers a positive sensory experience not only visually but through other senses will give the impression of a deeply considered product and, like my experience with my grandfather’s hi-fi system, it will leave a lasting positive impression.