How Design Makes the World :: UXmatters

Perception Is Reality

I love discussing queuing theory and its application to user experience—particularly because it demonstrates that UX design is not so much about making things look good as about human behavior, motivation, and perception.

You may be familiar with the use of mirrors in elevators or character visits to lines at Disney World to reduce the perception of waiting—or more likely, wasted time—on an elevator or at a theme park. This book introduced another example of reducing the perception of waiting to me: baggage carousels at airports. As you might expect, people really don’t like waiting for luggage once they disembark from a plane. In fact, this was a leading complaint at one airport, which hired more baggage handlers in an attempt to speed things up. But the complaints persisted. By realizing that the issue was people’s perception that idly waiting for luggage was wasting their time, the airport authorities devised a new solution: moving baggage carousels further away from arrivals. This might sound like a rather sadistic move—making passengers walk six times further to get their baggage—but the complaints vanished after the airport redesigned the process of baggage pickup.

Plus, the inclusion of estimated wait times can give users a sense of what to expect. Lacking some expectation of the waiting time for a theme-park attraction, being put on hold on the phone, or waiting in any other queue, people’s anxiety can rise. Will it be a five-minute wait? A five-hour wait? Am I still in the queue, or has there been a system failure? Of course, well-designed systems overestimate wait times. After all, who would not find it gratifying to be greeted by a customer-service agent after waiting just three minutes, when a previous message had advised that there would be a five-to-ten minute wait?

Similarly the perception of a lack of control creates anxiety for many people. I’ve frequently hypothesized that an irrational fear of flying—which is perhaps the safest form of travel, as opposed to driving—is the result of a person’s lack of control while traveling in an aluminum tube, 30,000 feet in the air, with someone else at the controls rather than because of the actual odds of a bad outcome.

Berkun describes the use of placebo buttons, which give people a sense of control—or the locus of control. Scattering these buttons throughout cityscapes provides the illusion that pressing a button would activate a stop light, allowing pedestrians to cross at an intersection. We see similar buttons in elevators. Do you really think the Close button works?

Let’s consider another application of this phenomenon: the use of autosave in cloud-based software. It is common for such software to continuously save drafts and changes to email messages, presentations, or other documents. Unfortunately, poorly designed apps omit a Save button, assuming that users would know that their work has been saved. The resulting lack of user control can create anxiety and doubt about whether the application has saved the user’s work and, thus, whether he can close the browser tab.

Defining Good Design

What is good design? This question has dogged many designers. I recall this question being posed early in my studies in graphic design. At that time, we considered effectiveness to be the primary criterion for evaluating the goodness of a designed solution. Berkun provides a more refined definition, noting that this product-centric evaluation is flawed because it “assumes goodness and badness are defined by the thing rather than by what the thing is used for.”

Berkun advises that good designers should ask two questions throughout any project: What are you trying to improve? Who are you trying to improve it for? These two questions can provide a powerful set of guardrails for projects that, all too often, get wrapped around the axle of building the solution. Without these guardrails, teams may design projects for ease of production, cost savings, or the all-important project timeline. But, if you return your focus to what you need to improve and for whom—usually a customer or user—you’ll realize that the ultimate indication of whether a project is successful is user sentiment. Without focusing on the customer or user, there is ample opportunity for conflicting goals and suboptimal results.

Saying It’s Easy to Use

Sadly, too many organizations use the language of user-centeredness as marketing phluff. Rather than investing in research and iterative design, they resort to mediocre copywriting in an attempt to convince customers that they really are the focus of their product design. In an amusing example, Berkun shares a photo of a jar of dehydrated onions, which seems to provide evidence on its label that it is easy to use. Berkun discredits the points the label makes, one by one, starting with the first attribute suggesting ease of use: “No refrigeration required.” Now, I’m not sure whether storing a food product in a refrigerator or a pantry makes a difference in its usability, but this is an invalid point of differentiation for dehydrated onions. Because no dehydrated onions require refrigeration. Nor do fresh onions. In his critique, Berkun exposes the hollow exploitation of user-centered design principles.

Style and Substance

One unfortunate, possible consequence of our focus on usability is that the role of style and aesthetics could be dismissed as being unimportant to the user experience. However, as Berkun illustrates, the choices of fonts, colors, and form can influence the perception of a product’s quality and the meaning of a message. In an especially effective comparison, Berkun presents a 1972 Porsche 911. Clearly, in the case of the 911, its designers considered the entire product as a whole—from its engine to its frame and its spoiler. They designed the car—and its users experience it—as a singular object. In contrast, Berkun shows a four-door hatchback—a car that was clearly designed to be a utilitarian means of conveyance, but whose after-market spoiler, frankly, makes a rather plain vehicle ugly. Of course, incorporating style with function and experience is not a problem. However, it would be a huge error to assume that we could apply some pretty visuals to wallpaper over earlier design mistakes.


I enjoyed reading Scott Berkun’s earlier book The Myths of Innovation when pursuing my MBA at the Weatherhead School of Management. So I was especially excited to receive his latest work. As much as I liked Myths, I found How Design Makes the World to be more accessible to a wider audience. Plus, I could see growth in Berkun as a writer and storyteller.

How Design Makes the World is a useful book for design professionals who need to provide real-world evidence of the power of their work, as well as for organizational leaders who are interested in learning what design is really all about. The book expands the horizons of and opportunities available to UX design and other design professionals. 

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