The random musings of a software developer

Of Dyson and Design

I’ve been thinking recently about the reasons why I’m so drawn to the Dyson family of household products. I believe it’s the elegance of superb industrial design applied to ordinary things about the house. We have a Dyson DC-17 Animal upright vacuum cleaner and here’s what I like about it:

  • when you turn it on, it starts in a known state – the vacuum begins ingesting dirt and the brush roller will come on when you lower the handle. This has been referred by many interface designers as the Law of Least Surprise. Some of the vacuums I have used power up in the state which you last left. Goodness knows what that might have been, given that it might have been a week or more ago!

  • it automatically adjusts for carpet height. The degree which you move the handle down sets the brush roller height to match the carpet height being vacuumed. My old Eureka had a dial to set the height – is this carpet a setting of 3 or 5? Who can tell?

  • it has a transparent dirt collection container. This to me serves two purposes: you can see the dirt being actually sucked in (yes, it’s working!) but more importantly, see when it’s full. My Eureka has a bag, tucked away on the inside, under a lid. Full, empty, or almost full – I have no idea.

  • The on/off controls for the vacuum and brush roller are easily reachable, clearly marked, and designed well. Yes, you can even turn off the brush roller for hardwood floors. My Eureka has a flap switch you step on the left to turn it on and off, and a round button on the right to unlock the handle. Both are not marked, you just have to know. It also doesn’t have a switch to turn off the brush roller.

  • Small things matter. The HEPA filter in the Dyson needs to be washed every 6 months. This filter is marked with the digit 6 with an underline beneath it to indicate not only the number of months but also to differentiate 6 from 9. There’s a tap icon to indicate what needs to be done, no words in multiple languages, just 6, an underline, and a tap. Details, I know, but it counts.

  • The new Dyson vacuums have a ball which contains the vacuum motor, it lets you manouevre the cleaner deftly. But did you know that Dyson invented the ballbarrow? Design reuse there!

  • Dyson has recently introduced a fan without exposed blades, the Dyson Air Multiplier which was an innovative reapplication of the vacuum cleaner motor. This fan was reinvented as the Dyson Hot which incorporates a heating element and became an electric heater which circulated warm air. There is a video and article from the Telegraph discussing the engineering in its design. There’s also the Dyson Air Blade – a neat way to dry hands in restrooms.

You can see where these design ideas can help us build more engaging and useful applications.

To wit:

  • Always uphold the Law of Least Surprise. Design for the most expected user experience. Take for example the iPhone camera activation button on the lock screen. If you didn’t know how to use it, you might tap the camera button and immediately see it bounce up and reveal a sliver of the camera app, a cue to perhaps think about sliding the button up to reveal the entire camera app.

  • Make things as intuitive and easy in the application interface. Hide complex computations and lookups so as to present results succinctly. Take guesswork out from the functionality exposed by the interface.

  • Show that the application is working – put up a spinning cog or progress bar. If the application uses storage – maybe a bar indicating storage space used would be beneficial, especially when the colour of the bar changes to say, red, when nearly full.

  • Make controls obvious in their use and stick with design guides and commonly expected behaviour (law of least surprise, again).

  • Details matter – it’s what separates the truly elegant applications from the run of the mill ones.

  • “Whevever possible, steal code” – Jon Bentley, Programming Pearls. Jon wasn’t referring to the misappropriation of software, but of the reuse of code. I’d also add “Whenever possible, contribute code” as a corollary.

  • Innovate. Come up with clever ways of doing things, and using things ingeniously to make other things

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