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Form And Function

By Carl Kritzinger Jun 27, 2014

A long time ago, someone asked me whether I thought form or function was more important. My immediate reaction was “why choose?”.

In every endeavour that I have worked or played in, form and function have been fundamentally interlinked. To create something truly interesting you need to find a delicate balance between the two. Either one by itself is devoid of meaning or utility1.

Knives are for cutting. And for humans. But not for cutting humans.

Take the humble kitchen knife. 500 grammes of metal and plastic, that can cost as much as a small car [^2]. The purpose of a knfe is to cut things. But to cut something, it needs to be in the hands of a human [^1]. And thus a knife has two parts: There is a blade, which is made for cutting, and a handle that is made for holding.

The blade is the functional part of the knife. Its purpose is to cut, so it needs to be hard and sharp and pointy. But holding a knife by the blade would suck. For starters, you’d end up bleeding all over the thing that you’re trying to cut.

So we invented the handle. The handle allows you to interact with the knife. When you look at a knife, it’s usually obvious which end you want to grab (pro tip: its the nice soft rounded hand-shaped end). Fans of Don Norman would say that the handle affords holding. The handle provides the knife with its form. It allows a person to relate to the knife, to interact with it and to use it.

Just for fun, try chopping a tomato using a handle without a blade.

Why mobile apps are like knives.

And so it is with the products [we](http://fireworks.fireid.com/) make.

Take [Nimble](http://benimble.co.za/). Like a knife it has two parts.

There is the part that handles the payments, handles the logic of placing, confirming and cancelling orders, handles network timeouts and errors, provides settlement to the merchants... I could go on for a while but you get the point.

Then there is the part that handles the humans. It helps them to understand what they are doing, conveys a feeling of coolness and allows them to interact with the product. It does this by hiding as much of the complexity as possible, but no more, and wrapping the rest in a skin that is aesthetically appealing enough to justify their time and interest.

Neither part has any purpose if it exists in isolation.

The hard part.

The hard part, the thing that keeps me lying awake at night, is how we negotiate the balance between form and function, between left brain and right, between engineers and designers.

Because it is the easiest thing in the world to pass our problem on to the user. And suddenly the user is worrying about reversals and reserves and PCI and 3G packet loss. And they hate your product.

It is equally easy to hide all those things away, and just show a pretty little fail whale that gives your poor user insuffient information, doesn’t allow them any control over what they are doing and makes them sad and confused. And then they hate your product.

And that is why building great products is as much an art form as it is a science. Having a great team is a good start.

  1. It seems that we humans have an instinctive bias towards dichotomies. I suspect that there is a good evolutionary reason for this: If you are being chased by a woolly mammoth, you best run either left or run right pretty sharply. Wondering about the possible middle ground would flatly remove you from the gene pool.

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