Trail: The need to use things

There are things we need to use. We really have to. Things like tax return forms which are mandatory. Or things like webshops. Not mandatory, but often necessary. I wouldn’t know where to buy Sugru if I couldn’t order it online, for instance. For more and more things we depend on the web. Good usability and accessibility is important, especially in these cases. But this is not always the case. In this document I’m trying to figure out the different aspects of why people need to use things. It has a similar structure as the one I wrote about why people want to create stuff, which is from a maker’s perspective. Here I’ll look at things from a user’s view.

First I’ll sum up some reasons to use things. Then I’ll look at the many aspects that make a thing good. And related, I’ll look at the aspects that make a thing not good. In the document about the maker I also included a section on restrictions makers face when designing and creating stuff. Since there are so many possible restrictions for users I will create a third document for that subject.

This is a document that will be changed, and it is in no way complete. I am sure there are many more aspects to the need to use things. Feel free to contact me is you have any ideas on this.

Reasons to use things

Of course there are many different reasons to use things. There are mandatory things like tax forms. There are things like webshops or travel sites that are not mandatory. Some of the products or services they sell are very hard to get if they are not usable. And of course, entertainment is not strictly necessary, but it can improve the quality of life. Many reasons why people need to use things. I found four reasons so far. These are not strict separations, of course. It’s a gradient. Some things can be more urgent for some than for others.

I want it

I want to listen to music. I want to use Twitter. I want to read the news (sometimes). Things like entertainment.

I need it

I need Sugru every now and then. Some people need things like iTunes gift cards because they don’t have a credit card. These things are not mandatory, you will not go to jail when you can’t do it. But still, you need it.

I have to

I have to use Google Drive because my colleagues use it. I have to use several Sharepoint implementations. I have to use Slack. I have to use a horrible Excel form when I fill out expenses. These are things you have to do to function properly in your work life, or for your social life. Not using these things will not get you into trouble, but it will definitely make life harder.

It is mandatory

I have to pay the bills. I have to fill in tax return forms.

What makes a thing good?

When I think of reasons why users think a thing is good, I come up with a different list than when I try to figure out why creators think something is good. This could be key in finding a way to make more designers interested in inclusive design.


A conservative view on design. This is how we do things around here. This is what I’m used to. This is how I learned it. This is how it’s written in the book. No room for improvement. Or no noticeable room for improvement.

It’s useful

The thing it does is of use. It makes things easier. It makes sense.

There are different layers for different contexts

The design adapts automatically to different contexts, like screen size, light conditions, types of interaction, etc.

I can personalise it

There are ways to adjust the thing to personal needs. You can change the position of car seats. Some sites or apps offer different themes. You can edit the notification setting on you digital devices. Or you can enable extra features by logging in.

There are handy options

Things like power features for power users.

It’s adjustable to my needs

It doesn’t break when the user uses certain (obscure) browser settings, or OS setting, or when the user has special needs, like assistive technology.


It’s fun to use. Or the content is entertaining.


Things like tone of voice.


It does the job in a way that’s not horrible. People can use it if they have to/want to/need to.

Easy to use

The thing probably doesn’t need an explanation. In the case of a website, it’s easy to use on all kinds of devices, with different types of input, like a mouse, trackpad, keyboard, etc.

It works …

Design is how it works, Steve Jobs said. There are gradations of how something works. Since we’re focusing on what makes a thing good, here are the positive gradations of it works.

… well

This can mean anything.

… sort of

When I talked to Léonie Watson, a blind accessibility engineer, and Larissa, a UX blind student of mine, about user experience they told me that for them a good user experience means they can get their task done. Which oftentimes they can’t. Most of the time it doesn’t get better than this. There is no delight in their user experience. So for them a thing is good when it sort of works. Purely functional.

… in nice way

A thing can be noticeably nice to use. For instance, this quantum polymetric drum machine by Heydon Pickering is very nice, maybe even delightful to use with a keyboard. The interface of the classic Ipod, with the circle and the ticking sound, was very nice to use as well.

… without noticing

Obstacles are not nice, so they are remembered. Details of smooth roads are probably not even noticed. Some things are so easy to use, you don’t even notice them. You probably don’t remember using your mouse or your trackpad today. And the details of riding a bike, like steering and peddling, go by unnoticed. Some digital interfaces are used without noticing. I guess this can be achieved by using patterns people know.

What makes a thing not good?

There are many, many reasons why a thing is considered to be not good.

It doesn’t work

If it doesn’t work, it’s not good. Most people will agree. Sometimes a thing works for one, but doesn’t work for another. If this situation can be solved, or prevented, it should. Oftentimes, especially with interaction on the web this means that the interface is not tested with a keyboard or with a crappy device.

It’s ugly

This is often a matter of taste. The Fiat Multipla was a brilliant car from the inside. But some people, like myself, found the outside so ugly, they refused to drive in it. Ugliness can be an obstacle.

It’s unpleasant

A thing can be too dirty, shiny, disgusting, ugly, out of proportion, painful, smelly, slimy, etc.

Very hard to …

While for instance for blind people a thing can be good if the task can be done, even if very hard, for most people this is not good enough. If a form is unstyled, or illogically structured, or randomly laid out, or if scrolling doesn’t work as expected, or when the information you find is hidden and hard to find, you will not be pleased.

… do the thing I need to do

If you need to do something, and the thing that should do it doesn’t do it, it’s not good. This can have many causes. Slow internet, older device, older browser, different way of interacting, or a bad designer. There are technical ways to solve most of these issues.

… find the thing I need to do

Sometimes the key feature of a thing is not directly visible, or even very hard to find. And sometimes even impossible to reach.

… understand how it works

Some interfaces are needlessly complex. The system we have to use to manage the grades for our students for instance is a visual representations of the underlying database. The terms used in this database have nothing to do with universities.