A truism we have all heard is that “form should follow function.” I tend to agree with this as a good general principle, but only if the designer has given more than 30 milliseconds of thought about what the actual function is. Even better is to observe function being used in practice. Below, I give examples of how form may look like function but not actually follow (actual) function.
The first comes from the complex and technical domain of nail clippers. My nails are tough and I actually need to use toenail clippers to cut my fingernails. But the same principle applies to both fingernail clippers and toenail clippers. I see many many examples where the designer has attempted to curve the surface of the nail clipper to “match” the curve of nails. This is a brilliant idea, but only if every nail on every human being on the planet has the same curvature. A priori, I would tent to think this is not the case, but being empirically oriented I decided to test it out by actually looking at real nails. I looked at my thumbnail and the fingernail on my little finger. Sure enough, my hypothesis was borne out. They are NOT the same. What this means is that a nail clipper that is curved so that it fits my pinkie will wreak havoc when applied to my thumbnail. I am probably going out on a limb here, but I suspect that if one were to include fingernails from other people in this sample, one might find an even wider variation in curvature. What are people thinking when they make curved nail clippers? I can only speculate that they have never looked at the fingernails of more than one person and that, indeed, they never looked at more than one fingernail on that one person.
If only there were a solution. Sigh. Oh, wait! There is a solution. Make the cutting surface of the nail clippers flat. This enables the person to clip nails of any curvature. It does, of course, require multiple cuts. It has the added advantage, that if you so wish, you can sharpen your nails so they resemble cat claws.
Cats bring me to my second example. When we moved to California amid a large garden, we wanted to let our cats to spend most of their time outdoors, partly so litter box cleaning would be at a minimum. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that while the outdoors here offers many opportunities for cats to be hunters of lizards and mice, it also offers even more opportunities for them to be prey for bobcats, cougars, eagles, and especially coyotes.
Now, here is a beautifully shaped litter box (a gift). It even has a place for the cats to clean their paws before they track litter back into the living room. Nice. Unfortunately, this is a beautiful shape by someone who has never cleaned a litter box, at least not by litter box shovel. Perhaps they clean litter boxes with their bare hands? Anyway, this curved shape does not jibe well with the typical litter box shovel. Of course, the cats could choose to do their business along the gently curving side of the litter box. And, of course, they never do. They choose instead the places along the edge of the litter box where there is maximum curvature.
The idea that there is a place for the cats to clean their feet before venturing back out into the living room or pouncing up on the kitchen counter is a sweet idea. It is an idea that would never occur to the owner of an actual cat, however. Here are two cats we obtained from a shelter (Tally on the left, Molly on the right).
They are cute, but defective in that they do not speak English, nor so far as I have been able to discover, any other language. So, despite my explanations that they are supposed to wipe their feet on the way out of the litter box, they do not. Instead, they do their business on the foot-wiping section of the litter box. So, apart from the annoying high curvature, if you are unlucky enough to get a cat who either does not understand complex sentences or just doesn’t care, this is probably not the litter box for them either. It might work for cats who: 1) speak your language fluently and 2) are cooperative. (Recent estimates indicate the total number of such cats is zero).
The third example comes from health care and is a bit more abstract. On my insurance ID card is a field which is labeled: “Identification number.” In order to use this, I have to go to their website and “register.” In order to register, the website says I need to enter my “identification number.” But in actuality, that does not work! No. Instead, I am supposed to leave off the first three characters in what is labeled my identification number. The website doesn’t say this. But the help desk is quite familiar with the issue and will happily explain it to you after you listen to musak for three or four hours. This is not so much shape not matching real function, but label not matching function.
The fourth example comes from some of our “bookcases.” Why, I hear you ask, are there scare quotes around bookcases. I will tell you why. I put scare quotes because although the shelves are flat and just the right size for books, and although this piece of “furniture” is sold as a bookcase, in fact, it is a nick-knack shelf. My wife and I foolishly tried filling it with books and it collapsed. So, in this case, the label and the shape lead one to believe it serves a particular function but the underlying functionality is insufficient to fulfill that dream of ours (that the “bookshelf” would actually hold books).
The fifth example comes from my experience with companies who want to simplify things for their customers. That sounds worthwhile. So, they launch major efforts to make their products “consistent.” But they soon learn that making products behave consistently years after they were independently developed is way too expensive. So instead, they focus on making them look the same and using consistent terms across products, while leaving the underlying functionality behave quite differently. To me, this is quite akin to the bookshelf case. Making things look the same while continuing to have them act differently is actually worse for the user than having things that act differently also look different!
The moral of the story? It’s fine to have form follow (and signal) function, but you need to understand how users actually behave. They won’t necessarily behave as you imagine they are supposed to any more than a cat will read your mind in order to please you. Of course, if you see yourself, not as a partner of your users, but rather out to deceive them into thinking they are buying and using something different from what they really are…