Usability - Not Just for Toilets

The other day on This Old House they visited a major bath fixtures manufacturer and I was impressed by their design methods.

It's not surprising they'd be so thorough - one seriously malfunctioning toilet could ruin their business. What was refreshing was their attitude and approach to design.

Thorough, comprehensive research and testing is the foundation of their business, not just annoying project plan line items holding up a product launch date.

Sure, you might say, it has to be - they make things that if not well designed, will sink (har har) their business. But that's true of most businesses.

No matter what is created or for whom, if the end users and good design methods aren't part of the process, it'll miss the mark and the company will suffer - from technology companies to toilet makers.

Before the fixtures manufacturer begins designing a new piece, be it a gorgeous pedestal sink or porcelain throne, they do extensive research to build upon past successes. Design styles or functionality users preferred (or didn't) in the past, or new, modern styles and features popular today.

Based on all the research, many sketches are done and from those, plaster prototypes are built to ensure what they've imagined can be successfully built.

From a proven, plaster prototype they make the porcelain piece and subject it to exhaustive quality testing. The acceptable failure rate is 0. Zero. It must test as 100% functional before they proceed with user testing.

Yup, that's right - they user-test new designs to gather customer input. That feedback is factored back into the overall design process.

I can't tell you how many projects I've worked on where little or no research was done before kickoff - even basic user/audience research. Or even answering the question, What's the goal of the xyz?

Most projects have severely limited budgets and timelines, but just a small amount of forethought and research can save time and money in the long run. Rushing something to market never works out well, so why does it happen?