I went to buy a microwave the other day. I thought it would be simple. But then is anything really simple these days? I had three factors I decided to consider: Price, Design and Usability.
Price: A microwave is an everyday appliance and hence I wanted it to be cheap. The cheaper the better.
Design: I wanted a microwave with a simple design. No Cuisinart stainless-steel. Just something I could bear to look at in the kitchen.
Usability: I think most of the time I use only 3 features on a microwave. 1) For heating small things up I usually guess 20 seconds and if it’s not heated I try another 20 seconds. Heating something has never been a precise science ever for me. No one measures the mass of a slice of frozen pizza from last night. 2) Sometime I heat larger things which I guess in 1 minute increments. 3) I also heat the occasional popcorn and frozen meal. Both have instructions and I need a way to input precise timing.
So why is it so hard to find something that fits those things. When I find something that is simple, it’s totally unusable. Why do cheap things have to have really ugly design? What was suspiciously annoying was the fact that this was the same case with all the major Korean brands.
In the end, as it usually is, it is a trade-off. Either pay dearly for something that is unusable, or pay for something that is moderately usuable, cheap but ugly. Most Korean would choose the more expensive and better designed product over the more usable one. I am finding out that Korean generally have a strange bias towards things that are “pretty” (which isn’t always the same as “well-designed”). I have overheard conversations at work where people say, “I don’t use that [website, phone etc] because it isn’t pretty”, and not because it is unusable. People here are more forgiving if it is pretty. Don Norman agrees that people generally perceive attractive things to work better.
[A]lthough poor design is never excusable, when people are in a relaxed situation, the pleasant, pleasurable aspects of the design will make them more tolerant of difficulties and problems in the interface.
Product designers in Korea must know this, and they must work with the marketing department to make sure that the products that are at the lower end of the price scale look ugly so that people don’t buy it and buy the product that is more expensive not because of any added functionality or production cost, but simply priced higher over the “ugly one.”
Bruce Tognazzini observed something similar when he wrote:
What a strange situation. You take a mediocre product and rework the design to make it better. Your design is a success, by any reasonable measure, but the resulting new release is actually worse. You redouble your efforts and matters become untenable. It doesnt matter how brilliant and effective your designs, the more they improve the product, the less usable the product becomes.
The clean design but expensive and unusable
The ugly but cheap and usable
What people consider “pretty” is culturally subjective. What one culture considers cute and pretty, another culture considers childish. Cyworld as wildly popular social networking site made this mistake when they launched in the US, maintaining their “pretty” aesthetic which was part of their success in Korea. This alienated a lot of the teen, youth audience who viewed Cyworlds avatars and wallpaper to be more fit for a pre-teen audience. Now they have more photos and less “prettiness”. This is why it is acceptable for grown adult women to don Hello Kitty accessories in much of East Asia whereas it will be viewed as plain freaky in the much of the US or Europe.
In the end, I settled for the cheap and ugly microwave. For better or worse, the usability professional in me prevailed.