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She ain’t Pretty, She Just Looks that Way: Design and the User

The other day I walked downtown to get the world’s best soft ice cream. As I walked I noticed that the two million dollars of improvements to the main street looked amazing. 

The song from Odds entitled, “She Ain’t Pretty, She Just Looks that Way”, springs to mind when I looked at the street.  There were some glitches. In order to make the sidewalks wider, the street had been narrowed.  Now emergency vehicles would have a great deal of difficulty getting to the beach, a serious problem in a summer beach town. Then I noticed that about 40 parking spots on the street had been removed, replaced with planters and seating facing the sidewalk. Some of the new sidewalk was taken up with new planters, making it difficult for people to walk past each other. And the beautiful planters will be susceptible to vandalism by the bar crowd known to frequent our fair village.

So what’s my point? While the street looked beautiful, it had actually become less functional for both the visitors to the community and for the people running businesses on the main street. If a visitor can’t find a place to park, they will leave.  This is a problem in a beach town that earns its money in 90 days.

Design isn’t only about ascetic beauty, it’s also about functionality, engineering, useability. Richard Florida, the author of Who’s Your City, notes that part of what makes great cities great, is the beauty and accessibility of the city.  That we can enjoy the architecture, outdoor space, environment. At the same time, the city has to work, that is the basic infrastructure has to make it possible to work, live and get around.

Recently Apple has experienced a bit of a design meltdown with the launch of the 4G iPhone.  The functionality of the product was marred by a design decision (the placement of an aerial which caused many dropped calls).  While the response to this flaw has been a bit overwrought, it seems to me that design must always support function. But function doesn’t have to be ugly.

One of the biggest challenges in marketing (whether phones or vacation destinations), it to think about the experience from the users’ perspective. Having empathy for the user is a critical part of the task, understanding their need for function, ease of use and beauty. Looking pretty is not enough.  You have to behave “pretty” too.

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