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AskTog, July, 2001

Good Grips: Usability before Branding

potato peeler


Good Grips kitchen tools grew out of one man's desire to build a better potato peeler for his arthritic wife. It has become one of the great marketing stories of the last decade, garnering a huge market share. Software designers can take from it two lessons: Good designs for the disabled can also benefit the normally-abled, and effective product design must come before "branding."

Designing for the Differently-abled

How to Brand Yourself Right Out of Business

Guess what? Designs for the disabled don't have to hurt usability for the normally-abled. In fact, if you are doing your job properly, your designs will help everyone.

Lots of myths surround the whole disabled issue. First, you can give up thinking of yourself as permanently-abled. Most of us will end up with increasing disability, starting at age 40 when our eyes begin to go. If we live long enough, we can plan on a whole bunch of other systems to go, too.

We also tend to become temporarily disabled, and I'm not only talking about breaking your leg skiing. How about if you are trying to wheel a heavy suitcase down the street from where the cab abandoned you? Do you think that curb cut might turn out to be a good thing? When you get to the hotel, that silly ramp is going to look pretty good, too.

It is the same thing in software. Make an application usable by the blind and you have also given everyone else access to a powerful keyboard interface, particularly useful when struggling with an inferior pointing device on that cute little portable. (Nothing like a laptop or palmtop to make you temporarily disabled.)

Designs for the disabled can be screwed up. Apple created a special mode for the visually impaired in the early days of the Macintosh that would blow up a portion of the screen really big. It should have been useful for all users, but they had implemented it in such a way that you couldn't easily show and hide the expanded window. As a result, half your screen disappeared long-term. That was a reasonable price to pay for the visually-impaired. It was too high a price for the rest of us.

What to do

When you design for the disabled, do as Good Grips did:

• Design and usability-test extensively for the disabled.

• Also test across a broad spectrum of users as well, and keep a constant eye out for how your work can improve the lot of all users.

• Ensure that elements of your product do not actually impede its usability for the rest of us.

By the way, if you know the guy who is responsible for that toilet in the handicap stall with the seat four feet off the ground, how about passing this column on? I'd like to be able to leave my step ladder at home.


   Branding, like all things, is good in moderation. Right now, there is no moderation. Websites, for one, are being absolutely ruined by efforts to make sure that people remember the site's name. They remember the name, all right; that way they can ensure they never return.

The best branding starts with a good quality product that stands out from the pack. That's what Good Grips started with. That's what Yahoo started with. That's what Amazon started with. That's been the Procter & Gamble's secret for the last 120 years.

Only after Good Grips had a superior product did their attention go to branding it, which they did with consumate skill. It required little effort; their visually apparent superior design would sell itself. (offsite siteRead more.)

Lately, web companies start out with a branding strategy, use up 90% of their resources developing that strategy, then find out they have neither time nor screen real estate left to develop a useful product. The result? A whole bunch of Flash and little substance.

MBAs tend to be monomaniacal. They pick up one buzzword, then run with it for the next several years. Not long ago, it was "due diligence." They couldn't buy a pack of chewing gum without first performing due diligence. Now, it's branding, and they are running amok.

WebMD, my last employer, got a bunch of MBAs in who all but ruined the consumer website. The log files revealed that no one was reading the lead article. Why? Users literally couldn't find it, even when prompted to look for it, it was submerged in so much highly graphic branding. It took more than a year to weed these people out.

Marketing people have typically been the best friends of interaction designers. They tend to be natural communicators and have an understanding of the need to interact with users. Lately, however, with branding so in vogue, things have been going downhill.

What to do

If you are now using the word, "branding," more than once per week, you should:

• Immediately break off all contact with MBAs.

• Every time you feel the word, "branding," coming on, picture in your mind a burning cow.

• Look at your company's recent work with a new eye and see whether you've been branding, instead of building a product people actually want to use. Then change it.

As for Good Grips, they have failed to transfer the lessons of their product to offsite sitetheir own website. It is a branding-over-substance disaster.

Sadly (for those of us who search for good counter-examples), I must report that, as of September, 2003, at which time Cynthia Spellman brought it to my attention, OXO has now redone their website, stripping away the marketing overkill that made it so deliciously horrible a few years ago.


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