Happiness By Design

HAPPINESS

Yesterday I listened to a fascinating talk on experience and memory by Daniel Kahneman, psychiatrist and Nobel laureate. His talk is pretty wide ranging. Near the beginning, he explains how to make colonoscopies seem less of a pain in the, er, rear. At the end of the talk, he explains an old Bell Labs comment I’ve wondered about for years, that money isn’t a motivator, but lack of money is a de-motivator. In the middle of the talk, he mentions that, for most of us, happiness is spending time with people you like.

That is certainly true for me. But there are other less social things that also bring me pleasure, and about which I shall now opine. Perhaps the number two non-social activity that brings me pleasure is problem-solving. I’m not talking about problems like adding up rows of numbers (although I do have some very fond early memories of doing basic math, and I have a cousin who makes my day when she occasionally forwards a math challenge). By problem-solving, I mean things like figuring out why an electronic device, mechanical contraption, or software application isn’t working the way it is supposed to. Or how to demonstrate a new (shameless corporate promotion warning) U-verse feature idea in an efficient and understandable way. Or even how to get people I love to do what is good for them.

Not only does actually solving a problem bring me pleasure, but even the process of noodling it over, researching, trying ideas, using all the tricks I can think of, for hours, days, even weeks, is really enjoyable to me. Years ago I repaired an ancient vacuum-tube-based moisture meter belonging to a small concrete company located out in the sticks. It took me a year (calendar, not person-) of research, experimentation, and testing, but I finally figured it out. I sent it back to them, along with a circuit diagram, saying that if they had not replaced by now, they had surely learned to live without it, so I wasn’t going to charge them for the repair. I never heard back from them, but I was satisfied at having solved the problem.

But even more than problem-solving, I enjoy good design. I guess that makes sense, since good design is like preemptive problem-solving. I particularly enjoy coming up with a good design myself, but since that happens pretty rarely, I fortunately get nearly the same pleasure from recognizing good designs by others.

Of course, there are all kinds of good design. Perhaps the most common design decisions we see are incremental improvements, making things better by small steps. We see these in almost every object we encounter: cars, tea kettles, socket wrenches, computer hardware, plastic lids for disposable coffee cups. But my particular favorites are successful designs that differ significantly from previous efforts, such as Nintendo’s Wii video game, about which too much has already been written for me to add my meager comments, but which has clearly been a game-changer.

Some of my personal heroes in the design world are Donald Norman, author of The Psychology of Everyday Things (re-published as The Design of Everyday Things), and the unfortunately late Jef Raskin, who made significant contributions to the Mac interface, and who also wrote the powerful book The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems. If you are interested in design, I recommend these highly.

There are plenty of examples of good design that, like the Wii, have been throughly analyzed, including most Apple products and the Google search engine. On the opposing side, there are tons of examples of poor designs, those “what were they thinking” situations we all encounter entirely too frequently. In fact, most of the time users blame themselves (“I never will understand computers”), the problem can be traced to poor design. But, as much fun as it might be to jump on the poor designs of others, I shall resist the urge.

A FEW FAVORITE DESIGNS

FrameMaker

Sometime around 1990, BellSouth’s Science and Technology organization selected a program called FrameMaker as their document creation tool. FrameMaker was available for the three major computer platforms we used, Windows, Mac, and Unix/Solaris. FrameMaker files could be moved between these platforms without requiring conversion, which was nothing short of miraculous at the time. Drawings worked across platforms – another miracle. The more I used it, the better I liked it. Designed for the creation of large documents by teams of writers, it also worked well for the solo author. It included a drawing package that is still one of the most intuitive I have used. It supported styles and tables long before Word, and supported the use of frames to allow absolute positioning of images and text blocks. One of my most enjoyable discoveries was that the text and image frames could be nested multiple layers deep. Although it has only been useful a few times, just discovering that it can be done delighted me no end.

FrameMaker used a proprietary file format, but it also could produce several forms of text-based format, including rtf and a variant of SGML that allowed for all sorts of post-processing shenanigans. It supported a book function that smoothly combined independently-produced document sections, and, most important of all, as Jef Raskin recommends, it didn’t screw up your data. It could handle huge and complex files without crashing, and didn’t arbitrarily renumber stuff or change formats, unlike other popular word processing programs.

I have created literally thousands of FrameMaker documents over the years, and I can still open the oldest with the current version of FrameMaker. While most of my use was work-related, a few years ago I purchased a personal copy to use at home.

FrameMaker has wound up in the Adobe stable, and, despite a couple of product stumbles over the past few years, seems to be alive and well.

Good design.

Unix

My first encounter with the Unix operating system was in 1973 on a DEC PDP 11/45 minicomputer that was dwarfed by its nearest neighbor, a 40-foot-long Burroughs 5500 mainframe. Thanks to Mac’s OS X and Linux, I still use the commands I learned back then.

There’s a lot that can be said about Unix, but my favorite part is that it includes hundreds of tightly defined, highly predictable, carefully documented commands that can be used alone or strung together to produce a complex result. And because each piece was carefully made, the commands just work.

Clearly one characteristic of good design is that it stands the test of time.

Hardware

My appreciation for good design is not limited to just software. One Tree Hill (the band, not the TV show) has been using a Mackie sound board for years. I have a small one on my desk at work. They are flexible, functional, understandable, rugged, reliable, and quiet. Not to mention that the original user’s manual was not only very useful, it was also hilarious. Mackie has changed hands recently, which doesn’t always bode well for good design (has something to do with reducing cost to justify the acquisition, I think), so I don’t know about the newer Mackie equipment. But the early stuff is solid.

And while we’re on the subject of band gear, one of my favorite designs is the original Rock-n-Roller cart. It’s light enough to pick up with one hand, collapses small enough to fit into a car trunk, but it is stout enough to tote 300 pounds of oddly-shaped sound gear. I have bought several over the years, and my original gray and red cart is still in great working order. Like Mackie, they were acquired, and went through a phase of visibly poor manufacturing quality, but the new ones look pretty good.

Good designs.

Non-technical stuff

Good design is not just object-oriented. In my opinion, good design can be applied to a carefully constructed poem, novel, documentary, or any tangible artistic expression, even a (personal bias alert) good song.

Sensitize yourself to good design. Learn to recognize it. Seek it out. Avoid bad design.

Hopefully it will make you a happier person.

OTHER

Newsletters

Yesterday I was loooking for the broadcast schedule for Krista Tippet’s Speaking of Faith radio program, and I discovered that public radio offers a way to sign up for e-mail newsletters. This link will let you sign up for Krista’s weekly newsletter and more. Among others, I signed up for the daily Writer’s Almanac newsletter, and got my first dose of poetry this morning. I feel more sensitive already.

Carltoon

Like all of us, I’m always fascinated to find my name in a cartoon or comic strip. For some reason, I can’t relate to the Carls in most comics. But this one was a little different. Not only does he represent a bit of a problem-solving mentality, I think there is a slight resemblance.

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