Design of Everyday Things

Click here to read the first post in my series on building a business education through MOOCs.

This week, I wrapped up Udacity's "Introduction to the Design of Everyday Things." This two-week online course was self-paced, low-intensity, and a lot of fun. Here are a few of my takeaways:

  • Design is foremost about user experience, rather than aesthetics.
  • Good designers have the ability to empathize with their end-usersand ensure that they find the outcomes they seek.
  • Design thinking can be applied to all settings and career paths, whether through designing a web application or shaping the experience of a first-time Sweetgreen visitor during lunchtime rush.


Design concepts are often intuitive, but the right vocabulary can make your thinking more logical and precise. Here are a few terms I learned from the course:

Affordance: features or experiences that are determined by the properties of an object and the abilities of a person.

  • For example, sitting is an affordance of a chair, made possible by the interaction between the design of the chair and the shape of the human body.
  • Similarly, an anti-affordance prevents you from taking action. For example, metal bars in front of a pedestrian-only street.

Signifier: a symbol, sound or image that provide clues of underlying concepts or meaning.

  • For example, a green light signifies that an electrical device is turned on, or a HIGH VOLTAGE sign teaches us not to touch that velociraptor enclosure.
  • Similarly, a false signifier, like a fake CCTV camera, seeks to prevent crime by suggesting the area is under surveillance.

Conceptual Model: a highly simplified explanation of how things work, sometimes inferred, learned over a period of time, or passed from person to person.

  • For example, the water cycle provides an easy-to-understand model of the continuous movement of water on Earth.
  • A designer is responsible for helping users form an accurate conceptual model about a product.

System Image: the visual cues (shapes, forms, signifiers, or instructional models) that provide information about how to interact with a product.

  • For example, a defibrillator is illustrated with three steps that clearly instruct people how to use the device under stressful circumstances.

These frameworks help designers to create intuitive and effective products and processes.

Everyday Design

Bad design is often a result of confusing signifiers and system images. Take the example of Snapchat: I use it every day to send my friends kitchen mishaps and surreptitious videos of cute dogs. None of these seem significant enough to warrant a permanent text message, but they represent those everyday moments that bring us together. With Snapchat -- even more so than email -- I feel closer to friends who are scattered across the country.

However, my appreciation ends with Snapchat's user interface. During my first few months using the app, I would swipe wildly to figure out where to add friends, send messages, or view stories. I could never remember, and the app provided no clues to help me along. (According to this Slate article, I'm not alone.) Universally-understood signifiers -- such as a book for stories, an envelope for messages, and arrows to navigate between features -- would have made a big difference.

Another important question is: Am I solving the right problem? One of my college roommates was a systems engineer, and she shared a story that has stuck with me. Her professor presented a problem: Apartment residents complained about a slow elevator. The engineers could have replaced the elevators at great cost and time. What did they do instead? Install mirrors by the elevator doors. Now the residents had something to distract them, and the wait time no longer felt objectionable.

Finally, less is more when it comes to instruction manuals. I occasionally visit a co-working facility in Washington, D.C., that attracts a bright, entrepreneurial crowd. The other day, about six of us were gathered in the kitchen. I observed as two-by-two, members approached the "Pour-Over Brew Guide" posted on the wall. After a few moments of reading the poster, they returned to their laptops, defeated.

The problem? There was too much text and no images to illustrate the process, which made it confusing to determine a conceptual model for making pour-over coffee. (Which, I've since learned, is pretty easy.)

The instruction manual that intimidated us all.
The instruction manual that intimidated us all.

Now that I've finished the course, I look forward to applying these lessons when I write about complex international development processes in the future.

Sketches for the final project: creating wireframes for a skill-sharing app.
Sketches for the final project: creating wireframes for a skill-sharing app.

A Business Education -- For Free

For the past ten or so months, I've worked as one of the World Bank Group's thousands of short-term consultants. All in all, it's been a great learning experience -- shaping the post-2015 development agenda, meeting bright and driven young people, availing myself of the plentiful croissants.

But there's one caveat: Short-term consultants (about 40 percent of the Bank's staff) are permitted to work no more than 150 days in a fiscal year. And that leaves me with a lot of time on my hands until July 1st.

So, I've decided to use the next several weeks to tackle a few goals.

Building Business Skills

I graduated from Johns Hopkins SAIS with a master's degree in international relations and economics, and I have nothing but positive things to say about the program. However, a traumatic management consulting-style interview taught me that I have a lot to learn about the theories and vocabulary of business.

Recently, I stumbled upon Laurie Pickard's blog, The No-Pay MBA. Pickard, an international development professional in Rwanda, is working her way through a massive online open course (MOOC) curriculum to gain the knowledge of an MBA -- for free.

Working at the World Bank, I've become increasingly interested in social entrepreneurship and project management. Following Pickard's lead, I've identified a few courses that will help me build those leadership and analytical skills:

April 1st to Mid-May

Mid-May to July 1st

I plan to give them all a try, and then pursue three of these four-week courses per month. I'll report back with lessons learned, as well as progress in other goals -- my Chinese could use a refresher, for one.

(Fortunately, I have strong support at home: My boyfriend had his own successful funemployment last fall!)