As an experience designer, my passion is creating wonderful experiences for people. Fundamentally, whether I am designing a new website, a mobile app, the interface for a home appliance, a surgical robot or a fuel management system, I believe the user experience should be thoughtful and well considered.
I believe interactions across all touch points with a product, device or system should be authentic, meaningful, pleasurable – and if we’ve done our jobs properly – delightful. I also believe that it’s important to understand the context of use for the things we design and to recognize that “we” (the design team) may not be the user of the product/system/service we are designing. Research is critical for our success. Immersing ourselves in the problem we are trying to solve, learning about our users and their needs and understanding their motivations and drivers fuel success for us and for our clients.
These are the core beliefs that guide my work and my design philosophy. And it was from this vantage point that I recently walked into a room in Sydney Town Hall (Sydney, Australia) to spend three days jurying products and services for the Australian International Design Awards, one of the premiere design awards programs in the world. The room was full of products of all shapes and sizes. There were home appliances, office furniture, consumer electronics, lighting products, medical devices, etc. As a jury, we had our work cut out for us, but we were ready and I certainly felt up to the challenge. All of the products were ready to go too. Their batteries were charged or they were plugged in. We just needed to do the diligence to assess all of them. To the greatest extent possible, this meant using the products. We would brew coffee, sit in chairs, remove hair (with a singeing device), use telephones, jump on trampolines, drive cars, etc. We would check fit and feel, manufacturing quality, controls, interface components, etc. It would be a lot of work in a short amount of time, but it would also be quite fun.
And then, I saw them. They were all lined up on a table. There were 30 of them and they were entered into the Sport & Leisure category, a category I would be jurying. For a moment, I was terrified. Then, I became a giggling 12 year old. And then, I panicked, a bit unsure how to proceed. My jury partner (whom I had just met) and I would have to assess 30 sex toys of various shapes, colors, sizes and intended for a wide range of activities – some of which were not immediately evident to us.
It was clear we were not going to be able to use all of these devices in their intended manner or for their intended purposes. We only had about a day to assess them and, really, who has the stamina? Seriously, though, we did have to assess them and we had to figure out how to do that in a methodical, meaningful, serious, considerate and dignified way. We decided this was actually, an amazing exercise in user experience. In fact, when used as intended, the outcome for the user should be, well, truly delightful.
We started by grouping the devices into categories based on intended use/purpose – which required a bit of internet-based research. There were vibrators, mini-vibes, love balls, rabbits, lay-on-tops, bullets and penis rings. Then, within each category, we reviewed each product. We considered the ergonomics of the device and the controls. There were push buttons, knobs, lights, etc. We assessed how to access or change the batteries. We looked at part lines and thought about how each device might be cleaned. Hygiene seemed especially important. We turned everything on and checked out the functionality. Some things had a simple on/off control. Others had multiple speeds. A few were even multi-functional with both vibrating and pulsing capabilities. We quickly decided that they were all functional and, were you so inclined to use one of them in the intended manner, it would, in all likelihood, “do the job.”
It took us about 5 hours to assess all 30 products. By and large, they were quite well done. Some of them were even beautiful. They were highly sculpted and finished in a silicone material that was wonderful to touch. It had a talcum powder quality to it. Everyone who came by to check out our progress or just to look at the products commented on how nice they felt to touch (even without being switched on). We kept having to track people down because they were carrying the products off, mindlessly holding them and (oddly enough) caressing them and feeling the material. It was surreal at times.
In the end, the process came back to those core beliefs I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The functionality of most of the products was evident. Based on individual tastes and anatomy, we believed they would be delightful to use. We considered the context of use, how each product might be oriented for use, who the user(s) might be, etc. We tried to understand the needs and the drivers and we discussed how each product might deliver against the user need. We did our research. We learned a lot. Some things can never be un-learned, in fact. (Yikes!) We talked about things that don’t usually get talked about in a professional setting. We were photographed and videotaped handling the sex toys. We renamed the category Sport & Pleasure. We blushed. We took the assessments seriously. And that felt right. After all, with products so intimate, has there ever been a better case for delivering great user experience?
Editorial Note: It’s not at all unusual to find sex toys entered into design awards programs, but this year is the first year the Australian International Design Awards has seen this type of entry. It’s also the first time I’ve ever had to specifically assess this type of product. Additionally, it’s the first time I’ve seen so many of this type of product entered into an awards program.
UPDATE: Winners Announced!
The 2013 Australian International Design Awards Presentation Ceremony was held on Thursday, May 30th in Sydney. The aforementioned sex toys fared well overall with the ovo D1, ovo D4 and ovo K4 winning Design Awards. The ovo Packaging won a Design Award, Best in Category. Alas, the top prize, the Design Award of the Year, went to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (an exquisitely designed camera), rather than to one of the ovo products. My congratulations to all of the winners.