Remember when you first learned how to drive a car? White-knuckled, you gripped the steering wheel. Nothing escaped you; you saw everything. When you sensed the movement of a bird flying by outside your moving vehicle, you got a shot of adrenalin. Not only was it a stressful experience for your dad in the passenger seat, it was stressful for you too. It was all you could do to get from point A to point B.
It wasn’t long before you drifted into the habits of one-handed steering and blasting the radio. Pretty soon you experienced that sensation of arriving at your destination without remembering how you got there. So goes the story Tony Fadell told in his TED Talk in March of 2015. What does it have to do with design? Introducting habituation.
“[See] the invisible problem, not just the obvious problem, that’s important, not just for [design], but for everything we do.”
Tony Fadell—a product designer of Apple and Nest fame—explained it like this: habituation is when our mind starts to filter out information that has become habit so there’s room for new stuff. That’s why you can end up at work and not remember the details of the morning commute. It is also what keeps you from seeing anything that your brain considers to be just the way things are. The best designers in the world learn to “see those everyday things, to feel them, and try to improve upon them”.
This propensity to notice things that no one else does—the invisible problem—is the force behind things we take for granted like the iPod, windshield wiper, and the smart thermostat. It could be the force behind a design for your dream home.
Tony Fadell offers three keys to leverage this secret of design.
How often do you believe you’ve thought through a problem and come up with the perfect solution only to find out later that you missed something that became a big issue later? Yep. It happens all the time, even to professional designers like Fadell. He suggests taking a step back to get a broader perspective. When you take the time to see things from a wider angle, you might notice stuff you didn’t see before.
Take that new kitchen design—the huge granite-topped island will give you all the prep and in-kitchen dining space you wanted, but step back for a second look. Do you have plenty of space for seating? Will you curse your beloved island in the future every time you round the corner and nail your hip?
Looking broader can help you identify future problems and solve them before you’ve invested thousands in your remodel.
After you’ve zoomed out on your project, take time to zoom in. Details matter. If you think you can get along without the tiniest details, think about how much fun it is to put together furniture with lacking directions. The more detail you put into your remodel plans, the easier it is and the sooner you can start enjoying your new spaces.
Think about this detail: where the tissue paper roll dispenser will be. Now imagine using it. Is it too close or too far away to use comfortably? Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you now, but how will you feel when you have to use it every day?
Taking a closer look will help you see the invisible details that will be important to you later.
When Fadell asked his son to run out to the mailbox to check it, the little guy thought about it then wanted to know “why doesn’t the mailbox just check itself and tell us when it has mail?” In the digital age where more and more of your home does this sort of thing, it’s a really good question. Only a kid would think like that and that’s why Fadell encourages you to think young.
To a kid, most things in the world are new. They haven’t habituated. They don’t have the attitude of that’s just the way things are. They want to know why. Because of this, they often see things we don’t and see problems and come up with solutions we never think of.
Designers took this perspective recently when accessibility for the disabled came more into the mainstream. Somebody, somewhere saw ovens placed at the perfect height for someone in a wheelchair and thought why isn’t my oven where I can reach it more comfortably? Now you’ll see ovens placed where you don’t have to bend over to get your quiche out.
Take the opportunity to be a beginner at the design in your home. You just might end up with a more functional and beautiful design.
Take it from Tony Fadell, looking at things differently is key to cutting-edge, smart design that you’ll fall in love with more everyday instead of finding problems, or worse yet, letting those problems become just the way things are.