You have read quite a bit about the design and use of products from the user's perspective. It seems that many products are not designed well enough, or at least not with enough thought about usability.
Work in teams of three or four people based on the number in the upper right hand corner of this page. If yours is an odd number, your magic word is for. If yours is an even number, your magic word is against.
A book on design, technology, ethics, and responsibility once proposed
the "Ivory Snow theory" of product development. The gist of this theory
is that "perfect design is an oxymoron" -- that no product can be better
than 99.44% good. (The name of the theory and the particular percentage
refer to a longstanding slogan for Ivory soap, which Procter and Gamble
advertised as 99.44% pure.)
This theory might be used as justification for good design or bad design, depending on how one chooses to apply it.
Construct a convincing argument <your magic word> the Ivory Snow theory. Be sure that your argument...
I realize that you may be put in the position of arguing for a position that you do not personally hold. Welcome to the world. Make that a part of the fun!
Class discussion considered the continuum between doing nothing and doing a perfect job. Clearly, most of our efforts will fall somewhere in between. Some companies have a reputation for releasing products relatively early the continuum, and some of you thought this a wise strategy. It gets your product to the market earlier, perhaps first, and takes advantage of massive parallelism in testing the product. Such a strategy is often more cost-effective than doing in-house testing with a small team, and it may even benefit the customer who has a (nearly correct) product sooner and can thus begin the long road to integrating it with other products.
In what circumstances of the theory is Ivory Snow a pragmatic one, and in what circumstances is it merely a rationalization of sloppiness?
Products for which Ivory Snow seems to make the most sense: entertainment packages; anything where the cost of failure is relatively low, say, word processing. (Don't tell that to the user of a word processor who has just lost several hours of work.) We must keep in mind that the person to judge cost of failure is the user, not the developer. So we need to ask ourselves: Who are the users? How do they judge and handle failure?
Products for which Ivory Snow does not make sense: any device with life-critical functionality; complex systems in which a small error can propagate into a large error, especially when the observable failure is no longer proximate to the cause of the original error; military applications; financial applications!?
Another interesting point that students have raised in the past: The theory makes sense when the developer controls the environment in which the product will be used, say, custom hardware or a company-controlled client group. It doesn't make sense when the environment is out of the developer's control. (How often do you imagine that is?)
The bottom line for some of you seemed to be: You can't make perfect products, so weigh the costs of failure against the costs of improving the failure rate. (Someone else equated this to joining the Mafia. :-)
The book from which I borrowed the Ivory Snow theory is Richard Epstein's The Case of the Killer Robot, a text on ethics and repsonsibility for computer scientists. In his discussion, Epstein often uses a quote that I frequently use: "Perfection is the enemy of the good." But we differ in how we mean it. Epstein uses it in a pejorative way -- that such a lackadaisical attitude can lead to product failure. I'd like you to think about how one might make this assertion in a serious but pragmatic way. When have we done enough? What standards do we use to make the judgment?
"The perfect is the enemy of the good." By this, people often mean that striving for perfection results in the product never being finished. (There is always one more improvement to make...) But I think that there are two other senses in which this adage is true.
Design is about trade-offs. That is true in terms of design features and in terms of business, legal, and ethical goals. Optimizing any one goal is not usually a good idea, even when possible. Pretending that we can design perfect products can lead to bad results -- but using that as an excuse for bad design can lead to worse.
Ivory soap turns out to be a great example for this discussion for another reason: its unique "floatability" resulted from an error that an employee made during the manufacturing process! Check out this web page on the legend. You can also read a more marketing-driven history at http://www.ivory.com/
The group for the theory started out by stating that there is no way you can possibly design a product that is perfect for every user. The group against argued that the more simple a design is, the more chance it has to get to that perfect design state. The next group (also against) stated that if you use a product and it works for you the way you want it to, then it's perfect in a sort of pass/fail test. Note: instructor did not like analogy of his airplane ride being thought of as pass/fail.
The side for our illustrious theory again stated that no design could be perfect. A rebuttal from the other side came up with a decent argument: When you are designing for a very small scale number of people, the more chance you have of designing a perfect product for them. Then the other side pulled out their cool whip defense!!! Non-dairy cool whip may be designed for people who can't consume dairy products, yet it contains 3% dairy. So the people it is designed for can't even use it. Which makes me wonder who will buy it if not the non-dairy eating people? [Good question! -- EW]
We debated back and forth for a while until we decided it comes down to what your particular definition of perfection is. Do you consider perfection from the designer's point of view or from the user's point of view? A designer can get pretty close to perfection if they have very specific objectives and focus on the product intensely. On the other hand, this specific design will result in the product being more expensive. Trying to design the perfect product will end in making no product at all, because the designer will keep finding a flaw and going back to fix it. So, most of the time a designer will send a product out to the market knowing it has design flaws and not denying it. Sometimes this will result in the user's finding the bugs and letting the designer know so he can work them out.
In summary, it was determined that a perfect design can be achieved; however it is not likely to happen. One roadblock to perfect design was mentioned in class and that was the economies of scale. With narrow markets, and infinite number of designs for one product it was suggested that such products would be too costly for individuals to afford. However I believe that the concept of mass-customization was introduced several years ago and is quickly gaining popularity among the industrial segment of our economy. For a mere $25 dollars extra I can get my ski boots custom fit to my feet. An excellent example of a successful company operating in this manner would be Dell computers. There mission is to provide you with the "perfect" PC. So, perhaps with increasingly more sophisticated technology and exponentially growing consumer demand for customized products we will one day see scissors that are reasonably priced and custom made for your hand.
The against side said that a product can be better than 99.44% good, or perfect, if it meets the design requirements set forth by the maker. They also said that a product can be perfect when it is designed for a specific task or group of users.
The for side argued that no product that is mass produced cannot be perfect, because no two users are alike. They said that even when a product is made for a small group, it cannot be perfect, because the user might start to try to use it for something other than its original purpose.
Scissors were a main focus as a discussion product. It was asked that if scissors are designed to cut, and you accidently cut your self while using them, are they still perfect? If the design principle is to cut, then yes. But, if they were designed to cut paper then no.
Microsoft was brought up in the discussion also. We were told by the professor that they knowingly market software that is not perfect, and they know it will crash. [I doubt that the latter is a part of its marketing plan. I may have said something different, but my basic point was similar.] This is due to lack of testing and development before market release. [MS does a lot of testing, but their products are very complex...] The public accepts this because Microsoft is very large, and they usually make patches and updates for software that has a flaw. [There are other reasons: tightly integrated products like Office, quicker access to programs, high degree of investment in tools from the company, de facto standardization, ....]
The crux of the arguments today was defining perfection. Those arguing against the Ivory Soap theory, defined perfection as "the product fulfilling its functions". Those arguing for the theory defined perfection as "the product being something everyone can use in many different ways".
This theory has been used to justify sloppy designing by saying that products can't be perfect. In the real world there are things we can do to prevent misuse in the public sphere. Saying "There's nothing we can do" gets designers in trouble.
Economic issues with perfection: Perfect things cost money. "Trying to build a perfect product results in no product at all." Microsoft routinely releases products before they're ready. This has given them an edge in sales, and has allowed them to release cheap products throughout the industry.
You don't want to design a perfect product upfront because things designed for a narrow spectrum will be used outside of those specifications.
Single failure theory: If one thing goes wrong, it can be identified and fixed.
*Design for narrow spectrums, and let your product evolve over time.*