Designers don’t really see themselves as playwrights but in reality, designers are writing scripts – complete with stage directions – for every user. And like all actors, what users really want to do is direct.
The French government learned this the hard way. In a fit of charity, the government decided Africa needed electric light. Noting that African countries often lacked centralized electricity systems, French engineers designed battery-powered lights and sent them to Africa. The lights were designed to be robust systems that could withstand the rugged African countryside. It was envisioned that many owners of these lights would proudly use them for decades. Instead, the engineers delivered lights that were difficult to install, very quickly burned out, and proved almost impossible to repair. Quite a few African homes were then decorated with useless battery packs.
What as the problem? French engineers – despite their noble intent – designed lights that were only useful to docile users. The play they wrote was in three acts:
Act 1: turn on light.
Act 2: burn out light.
Act 3: do nothing with the light ever again.
When I made toast this morning in my kitchen, the script writers for the toaster did not consider the “set” of my kitchen, nor did they consider the supporting actor, my husband.
Their script went something like this:
Act 1: User takes two pieces of toast and places them in the two slots. User pushes down the plunger. Toaster toasts the bread. User waits until bread is cool enough to handle, and places toast delicately on a plate. Curtain. Applause.
But the actual script went something like this.
Act 1: Sam pulls bread out of freezer and then pulls toaster out of the cupboard where they store it. Toaster bottom opens up (again) and spills crumbs all over the floor. Sam plugs in toaster and separates two pieces of frozen bread.
She places only one slice in a slot and presses the plunger. She begins chatting with her husband, not noticing that she chose the wrong slot for a single slice. Toast pops up, decidedly still frozen. Curtain.
Intermission: Getting orange juice
Act 2: Sam moves slice to correct slot and presses plunger again. Toast toasts and pops up. Again, while chatting with her husband, she does not realize the bread is very hot. She burns her fingers on the toast, dropping it. Curtain. Curse words.
Design scripts need to be clear, concise, and above all, consider active users. When you design a product, a print ad, or a Web site, consider the script you are writing. What are your assumptions? What is the “set” of the eventual “play”? Are there supporting characters? Consider how you want your script to end before you start writing it.