by on 2012-01-24

Human Centered Design at SMU

author’s note: this post was originally written as a class assignment for Human Centered Design at SMU - one of the best courses I took in college - taught by the IDEO and Frog Design alum Kate Canales

I’ve always cared deeply about design, but I’ve never felt I was innately good at creating good design. It has, however, been something I’ve been consciously working on for the last few years, and something I plan on continuing for the rest of my life.

As much as I feel like an Apple fanboy for typing out the next several paragraphs, I feel like my love of well designed things started when my family bought their first computer: 1998 the Bondi Blue iMac G3.

bleh

To understand how well designed this computer was, you have to remember what every other computer looked like in 1998.

bleh

Ugly, no? But we didn’t realize it until the iMacs came along and showed us what a really well designed computer could look like. How much easier the process of setting it up could be (which, to my parents, was the primary motivation to go Mac).

The iMac was, however, slightly underpowered and overpriced for the raw performance you were getting. Couple that with the fact that the display was integrated into the computer (making it non-upgradable or swappable) and on paper the iMac looks like an awful machine. But using it was an experience an order of magnitude better than anything else on the market.

The level of attention to detail to make the user experience as good as it could possibly be extended to every pixel rendered on the screen, and it made me fall in love with computers.

From my first computer of my very own (a 12” aluminum powerbook G4), to my first iPod (3rd generation), to my first iPhone, to all subsequent half-rational half-emotional Apple product purchases, the user experience has been incredible. Unboxing something made by Apple is an ethereal and sacred ritual (which just can’t be conveyed in an unboxing video) that makes you feel like you really possess something special that was really cared for in its design process, which means you should take care of it too. I read once that an iPhone box costs around $10 to manufacture, which is probably $9 more than any other phone box. While it certainly makes economical sense to save money on the box, it’s an incredible testiment to how much Apple cares about their products (and it also, funny enough, creates a somewhat viable market for used Apple boxes).

So why am I taking this course? Because I want the things I create to have the same emotional connection with other people. There’s so much room for better design in software that the people who understand and care about how humans use the system consistently blow away the incumbants.

using BCeSIS every day would give me suicidal thoughts

I found a recent example particularly poignent: the Saanich school district, fed up with shelling out over a million dollars a year to an extortionist software company, decided to develop their own software in house. Looking at the software in question, cryptically titled BCeSIS, clearly shows why this needed to be done: it looks like a complete piece of shit.

Would you pay $1,000,000 every year for this? There is, unsurprisingly, much documented frustration with the embarassingly overprised system.

Assuming the Saanich school district rationally chose their best option at the time to adress their digital needs, and that most school districts are probably stuck with something that’s not that much better, there’s clearly a need for someone to step in with a solution that’s designed half as well as a third generation iPod. The first solution in this space could easily sweep through and put BCeSIS out of business in a few months. Extrapolate this over the thousands of other entrenched software packages opperating in every nook and cranny of world business and you’re looking at a lot of opportunity for good design.

And that’s why I decided to take Human Centered Design at SMU.