I just finished a user-centered design course with an unusual group project: redesign the office phone. It seemed easy. Everyone thinks office phones are dumb and ugly, right? After all, no one knows how to use features like conference call and transfer. The phone's functionality is like a fossil record: layers of new buttons alongside old buttons, all bolted together uneasily onto a chunk of gray plastic.
Although the class was about applying user-centered methodology, the users we interviewed were resigned to the current phone. As a result, our first prototype fulfilled the UCD requirements, but it was just as dull as the current product. So our professor pushed us to come up with something more creative than the incremental changes suggested by user research.
The process reminded me of a rant about design I read recently. I'd always felt comfortable with the definition of design being "solving problems." Sometimes, though, the only real issue is an aesthetic problem, and the only user feedback is apathy. So what? You can still take a new product to market and surprise and delight customers with great design.
My team's final prototype was a round, glowing disk called the Orange Moon phone. I think it turned out well, though it's not likely to get picked up by Nortel anytime soon. The corporate IT departments that buy these phones are not known for brave design choices. Perhaps your next office phone will be beige instead of gray -- that's progress for you.
For some data about trends in tech devices, all five project groups in class incorporated these technologies:
- Bluetooth headsets
And one or more added these:
- Handwriting recognition
- Wearable computing