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Spicy Ideas: Just. Press. Play.—Why Good Design Matters More Than Ever
Making a case for intuitive mobile device design

We are designers. Yes, that’s right. We are all in the business of design. Whether you are writing scripts, capturing video/audio, editing and encoding, slicing in postproduction, live streaming, selling services, supplying back-end support, or manufacturing hardware, you are forever intertwined with interface and usability. We all use tools every day to make one thing happen: communication. At the other end of our seemingly endless line of content, production, editing, distribution, support, and systems, we have a human being that is watching and/or listening. People have limited time and almost unlimited options for media consumption. So why does good design matter for media?

Good design almost always comes from putting ourselves in the shoes of our customers. We have all had an experience with a product or service that felt like it was reading our mind. The video camera that you could operate with your eyes closed, the software that cut your time in half, the website that was a joy to navigate, or even the new gadget that took 2 seconds to learn—all of these things were designed to make your experience an excellent one. In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald A. Norman states, "Good design exploits constraints so that the user feels as if there is only one possible thing to do—the right thing, of course." (This book is a must-read for everyone in this industry.)

I recently had two very different experiences watching video on mobile devices that will give you a taste of why good design matters. For the sake of focusing on the interaction with the device and my end-user experience, no brands or names will be mentioned. Feel free to contact me if you can’t figure it out and if you just must know.

Of Burritos and Mobile Phones
I had lunch recently with the family and some friends at the local burrito joint, and my friend happened to have a video on his mobile device that he wanted to share with me. He pulled up the video and handed the device across the table. His brand new phone was not one I had seen before, and I was instantly confronted with more choices than I knew what to do with. There were three words across the bottom of the screen, and the middle word was "Play." Directly underneath "Play," there were five buttons, none of which read "Play."

I blindly pressed a button that I thought would play the video but instead pulled up a menu screen that made "Play" go away and instead gave me six choices, including "Delete." Freaking out, I hit the "End" button, and the home screen was displayed.

Needing to find the video again, I handed the phone back to my friend and apologized. It must have been my fault that I couldn’t get the video to play. He went through about five button clicks and started the video for me before handing it back across the table. Success, but only after about 5 minutes of frustration.

Like any good geek, I couldn’t watch a video on someone’s device and then not share a video in return. So, I pulled out my device, pressed three buttons, and handed it across the table. After the short clip ended, he selected another video and watched it all without me having to intervene.

As a matter of fact, I had a hard time getting it back across the table from him. No frustration, and the interaction was so good that he continued the experience beyond the original viewing.

Less Is More
I understand that 5 minutes wasted over burritos with friends doesn’t seem that important, but what if my friend was trying to make a million-dollar sale or communicate a life-saving piece of information? Frustration—as a creator, user, or supporter of these new media tools—can lead to confusion and abandonment, but as rapid prototyping leads to lots of new devices, software, and services, sometimes design gets pushed to the back of our minds. Obviously, as more functions are needed, we need more controls, but with the advent of multifunction tools, we seem to be adding on instead of taking away.

So, why is good design important? Now more than ever, our time is precious, and we need tools that work for us, not against us. Faster, smarter communication means spending a lot more time on what the end user really needs, so whether you create, use, or support streaming media, take some time to think about design. Find out what it’s like to watch or listen to the final product, and make it easy for someone to engage with the story you are trying to tell. We are designers, so make a good design. And please let me know where I can trade the seven remote controls in my living room for one button.