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Hi! I’m Vicky, A professional ergonomist who spends time in the wilds of the real world

Five signs a design isn't working

Five signs a design isn't working

This blog is all about spotting good and bad design in everyday life.  So in this post I wanted to share some of my favourite cues that I use to spot bad design.  

Make an error once, fool on me. Make an error twice…

It sounds obvious, but we explain away mistakes that we make all the time.  Most often blaming ourselves for it.  But always remember that there is a chance that “it’s not me, it’s you”. 

Anytime you make the same mistake twice, take a second and step back to think is there anything in the equipment, environment, or process that made that error more likely.

“What is it doing?”

Have you ever found yourself staring at your phone or sat in your car wondering “What is it doing?”

This experience has been studied extensively in the automation of complex systems - particularly in aviation. In the world of complex system it is called an “automation surprise” the experience when a system does something the user was not expecting. But with complex tech becoming common place, I am seeing this more and more in everyday life.  

So anytime you find yourself in front of a piece of tech not sure what it is doing, pause - think through what you were expecting the system to do and how the outcome has differed.

Wear in all the wrong places

A bit of a classic this one.  There are places that are planned to be used, and places that are planned to be unused.  Sometimes they get a bit mixed up.

Car park wear.jpg

Take this car park for instance - the routes around it for pedestrians were not at all obvious, and so it is not surprising that people have found their own way across the verge.

So if you see a bare patch on the grass, or parts of an object being worn through. Take note, and think what it may have been that led to that pattern of wear.

Home made labels

In great design the function should be clear and its operation intuitive so no labels are required.  In good design, there are clear labels explaining exactly how an object should be used.  In bad design, the user has to add their own labels so that they can use it effectively. 

home made labels

So if you start to see hand written notes added around controls, the manual permanently out with a page folded over - take note. There could be poor design at work.

You create your own tools

Perhaps an even bigger issue in the design is when an object cannot be used without additional tools - either provided with the equipment or even fashioned by the user.  Woodworkers may thrive on creating bespoke jigs as part of their projects.  But I think the rest of us should expect to be able to use day-to-day objects.  Take this fridge for instance…

The letter opener in the first picture is kept next to the fridge to enable you to open the door when the automatic systems keep the door sealed closed so the fridge operates more efficiently.  Great for energy saving, but no so helpful when you want to put the milk back in the fridge after you have used it!

If you find yourself creating your own tools, take a look at what has gone awry in the design that means you need the extra help.


So there you have it - my top five tips for spotting bad design in everyday life. Do you use these or have any other ways you use to spot a design that is not quite working? Have you spotted any design fails using these tips?

How to write a recipe (so people can actually follow it)

How to write a recipe (so people can actually follow it)

Two Christmas Design Heroes

Two Christmas Design Heroes