Iceman and Leftover Parts

A friend and I spent a few hours on a recent weekend assembling a spinning compost bin. We’re both old hands at the “assemble it from a flat pack” approach to modern homemaking, having logged hundreds of Ikea-person-hours over the past five years. We’d planned well for the process: we had a clean, broad, flat surface on which to lay out all the parts and build the bin; we had all of our tools selected; and there were no children around to run off with the instructions or swallow the smaller pieces of the kit. It still took us a while to put the thing together, but it was with great pride that we placed and attached the final part and spun the drum. Then I glanced at our staging area and noticed that we had more than a few left over parts. I don’t mean the extra fasteners and tidbits manufacturers sometimes include as an acknowledgement that tiny screws will make the jump to hyperspace and escape the moment you look away from them.

No, rather than courtesy extras, we were left with pieces that looked important to the composter’s structural integrity and operational capacity. I spent a good (well, not exactly “good;” more like “bad”) twenty minutes re-reading the instructions to see if we’d missed a step. Everything checked out, and the bin didn’t feel unstable, so we considered ourselves done with the project.

But every time I’m in my backyard now, I eye the bin with growing suspicion.  I’m convinced that a vigorous spin is going to crack it open and send all the decomposing vegetables, straw, and exotic wildlife tumbling through the air to “top dress” my face and clothing. I can’t help but wonder if I’m simply not as skilled at kit-building as I believe.  I also think there’s functionality that the bin will now be lacking because I didn’t use all of the pieces.

I’ve noticed something similar in many of the applications I use on my computers.  A subset of the available tools permits me to do the many things I need to do, but a non-trivial number of buttons and functions lie there unused. I’m not worried about wireframes and design documents falling apart mid-presentation – although I’m sure many of us have had just that happen.

Instead of structural integrity or lack thereof gnawing at my sense of accomplishment, I feel a nagging doubt that I’m not quite the expert that I think I am with the tools I use to do my job. It’s kind of like the time Emma Frost was trapped in Iceman’s body, and she discovered that, far from being a character of limited worth, he was one of the more powerful mutants in the X-Men; he simply hadn’t been using his powers to their fullest extent. When he regains controls of his body, Iceman is depressed to see how far below his potential he’s been living.

So could I be using Illustrator, for example, to take over the world if I knew more? Maybe. As a designer and sci-fi fan, I’m generally optimistic that the future will bring increases in my power level if I apply myself.  On the other hand, I’m also certain that I don’t want users of anything I design to look at an array of un-clicked buttons and menus and worry that they’d done something wrong or that they hadn’t done as much as they could have.

A prevailing belief in the design industry holds that we should reduce visual noise to help people focus on the things they need to see, and years of experience have shown me the importance of this rule. I now believe there’s an additional emotional dimension that defines this principle as well. Too many buttons and features can make a screen ugly enough to cause a full grown adult to wince; clutter can cause a novice to be put off by perceived complexity; andan abundance of functions can make an expert doubt her level of expertise when components go unused.

As designers, we want all of our users to feel like experts. In an ideal world, every user would have time to play around with an application and explore its full suite of functionality. I trust that while most of us couldn’t point to the ideal world on a map, we know it’s pretty far from our current coordinates. Our challenge, then, is to ensure that our users look at all the pieces in the kit and know exactly where they go and how to use them: we want folks to compost happily without crossing their fingers and preparing themselves physically and emotionally to dodge flying orange peels and anoles (or their respective digital facsimiles).

I’ll keep you posted on how the compost bin fares. Thanks for reading!