03 December 2015

Lessons from sex toys: you have to let other people try things out

And I thought I was pushing the envelope when I talked about how lingerie design could inform poster design. Well, here we go for the edge of the envelope again...

This post was inspired by the article on the design of sex toys. Once you get past the giggles inherent in talking about sex toys, it’s a very thoughtful article on design more generally, and there are lessons that can be applied to conference posters.

As I’ve mentioned before, anyone designing anything must always have empathy for the end user. That article talks about how you have to know those users in detail, not just in a vague, “they’re kind of like this” way.

For instance, if a designer is making something to be held by a hand, there are measurements for every dimension of the hand. And not just for one hand, the average hand, either — measurements exist for every dimension of the 5th and 95th percentiles of hand size as well. “But that’s just not available for designing sex toys,” (engineer Janet) Lieberman says. There is no corresponding data for vulvas. There is no official classification for the many different types of vulvas, and no sense of how common each type might be.

For conference posters, this might mean considering the average height of people, which would affect where the eye level of a reader is. You should also think about the readers who might have problems like colour blindness or presbyopia.

The part of the article that made me think the most about my own design practices, though, was the discussion of user testing. Sure, it might sound like fun at first... but think about being the first to try an untested prototype with your most sensitive bits.

(N)ot surprisingly, getting data on the efficacy of a sex toy isn’t always easy. “If you’re designing a (children’s) toy, you can put 10 kids in a room together and have them all play with that toy and get a bunch of data really quickly,” says Lieberman. But with adult products, designers and engineers are rarely present for the actual product testing, and getting feedback can be challenging. With Eva (a hands-free vibrator for use during intercourse), Lieberman found that women who tested it out struggled to describe why something did, or didn’t, work well for them. And the trials are time-consuming: a week’s worth of testing time for each pair of participants. ...

Dame Products has also employed the services of a team of gynecological teaching associates — women trained to provide medical students with hands on guidance through the particulars of performing a GYN exam — for one-on-one product testing sessions. Though the GTAs don’t provide insight on how Eva works during intercourse, they do help the Dame Products team examine how well the vibrator is secured by a wide array of labia; and, with their training in anatomy, they’re able to offer the nuanced, thoughtful feedback that many earlier testers could not.

I realized that it had been a long time since I had showed drafts of my posters to anyone else before printing them. This is dumb of me. I rehearse my presentations I give with slides. Why don’t I do something similar for posters?

Now, having written this blog for over six years, maybe I do have a little more knowledge that allows me to create something passable without having other people look at it. But that doesn’t let me off the hook for user testing.

Back in February, when I did a poster workshop, I did a little user testing, and noticed:

(T)he difference between the intended order of information, and how people actually looked at the poster. Even... posters, with a clear three column order, were not often read in that order.

How I think people will read through my posters is no guarantee that this is how they will actually read through them. There is no substitute for criticism and feedback. I badly need to get into the habit of showing my posters to others before taking them to the conference again.

As I was writing this post, I saw this on Facebook, from my buddy game designer John Wick:

FIRST RULE OF GAME DESIGN: External contact always causes dramatic change to your design.The moment you hand any game—...
Posted by John Wick on Tuesday, November 24, 2015

One problem, though, in getting proper feedback is that printing full-sized can be expensive. It would be helpful if you could print a greyscale draft version on cheap newsprint paper before going to the full-coloured glossy paper.

Finally, the article talks about another barrier to getting the feedback you need for great design: social pressures.

“The only difference I noticed [between designing mainstream and adult products] was the stigma… that was attached to designing a vibrator compared to another consumer electronic product,” says Béhar.

People don’t want to talk about their experience with sex toys. (See this probably NSFW this Sex in the City clip about the reluctance to talk about them and the difficulty in getting user feedback.) I’m willing to bet that when most people get a badly made sex toy, about all that happens is silent grumbling to themselves. There are strong conventions about keeping sexual experiences private, so it takes a certain amount of courage even to leave a one star review on an online shopping site.

There’s a similar social stigma about calling out bad posters or presentations at conferences. We might say, “Did you see that?” sotto voce at the conference lunch table. We might write a tweet. But to say to a speaker at the time, “The design of your poster needs work” doesn’t happen all that often, because we’re worried about being rude. And that’s impeding our ability to get better posters and presentations.

Related posts

Lessons from lingerie
More lessons from lingerie: details versus decoration

External links

Why aren’t vibrators as good as other gadgets?
Let’s stop enabling bad speakers

Hat tip to Gerty Z. Picture from here.

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