Why design means compromise

Catching up on podcasts, I was recently listening to ‘An hour with Bill Buxton’ recorded at Microsoft’s Mix conference in 2010. Bill Buxton is Principle Researcher at Microsoft Research and an early pioneer in human-computer interaction

During the session, he talked about the need to compromise in design.  Describing the process of constructing a new building, he described three roles that must work together if the building is to be a success: the architect, the businessman and the structural engineer.

The focus of the talk was on how software design could use a little more emphasis on structural engineering compared to the preference to comparisons with traditional architecture – you can still listen to or download the talk, link at the end of the post. It includes some great discussions about the process of applying design thinking to technology solutions.

Housing project

One of the examples Bill gave was how the structural engineer could advise on different materials that may influence what options the architect has to create a design. The architect may come up with a design that is too expensive but instead of changing it, the businessman could suggest adding floors that could be rented out to help pay for the extra cost.  Working alone would result in far bigger compromises than working together – a design that is so expensive it isn’t built, a building that isn’t safe or safe but unsuitable for the purpose. The image at the start this post is a Gaudi building in Barcelona. We are unlikely to see such elaborate buildings become common place. Its compromise is cost and functionality – imagine trying to put an extension onto any of his buildings.

Good design means the appearance of an object is created with consideration to, or in conjunction with, function and purpose. The goal should be more than being admired for looks. But that also goes both ways – is the demand for features forcing an ugly design, that impedes the usefulness (and ultimate goal) of the object?

An example of this is comparing Apple and Microsoft. Apple will remove features that some people consider essential to ensure its products are beautiful and easy to use.  Microsoft will cram in every feature any customer ever wanted, but this can result in products that are complicated or suffer poor usablity.  In both cases, compromises are being made. It is a fine balance to create an object that is both beautiful and true to its purpose

The makers of the film Wall-E describe the process of deciding whether or not Wall-E would have elbows. How could they convey emotions using his arms if he didn’t have elbows?  (hoping keeping within 30 seconds is fair use and doesn’t upset the copyright folk…)

Adding elbows spoiled the remit of the design (watch the clip in full for more details – it’s on the Wall-E extras DVD). So they found a compromise which was to make his arms move up and down his ‘body’. Arms are up when he is active or happy, doing stuff and waving. When his arms slide down, it looks like movement from the elbow and is used to show he is focused on something or worrying.

The reason for thinking about all this? I have had a couple of challenging conversations with clients recently. In both cases, the client had created what they considered to be a ‘design’ for their systems. But they were creating visual layouts – styling – without any consideration to the impact on functionality. The visuals looked great but would introduce unplanned cost (to implement and maintain – both require custom code), increase risk (supporting that code) and would impact key functionality in the system.


This article was originally published on www.joiningdots.com