datapanik - elegant tools that do useful things for real people
Vancouver, Canada
phone: 604 767 1997

What it is and why it's important

The basics of how and why I do this

What can I do to help?

Annotated examples of my work

Articles and comments on designing for real people

A few design ideas that are up for grabs

My design philosophy is summed up in the datapanik motto - “elegant tools that do useful things for real people.”

Elegant Tools

Elegant tools fit well into people lives. Like a well-balanced steak knife, a reliable car, or a simple appliance, elegant software feels comfortable, requires learning only for those things that one has never done before, wherever possible is self-evident in its use, and has a sense of quality and durability. Elegant tools truly make life easier. They allow people to be more self-reliant, communicate more naturally with others, and achieve their personal goals. They make life more efficient when efficiency is the desired goal, or allow for more reflection and thought when that is required. Elegant tools are, in a word, appropriate - they do the right thing in the right way at the right time.

The challenge in designing elegant tools lies in recognising what “appropriate” means in a given situation. Sometimes it means faster, but other times it means more reliably. Sometimes it means handling activities so that the user doesn’t need to attend to them, and other times it means allowing the user to monitor the entire process closely.

Elegance also comes from attention to detail. Providing clear and appropriate feedback, anticipating errors, and maintaining aesthetic integrity, are elements of software and hardware design that require insight and foresight.

Useful Things

Useful things are those that allow people to reach their goals. Those goals can be many and varied, but they must be understood if the tools are to be of value to the user.

Image I am going to buy a lawnmower. If I go online to buy a lawnmower, many might misinterpret that as being my goal. But this is merely a tactic. The tactic is to go to an online store and buy a lawnmower. The strategy is to buy a device that will cut grass. The goal is to have a neat yard. The reason this distinction is important is that the strategies and tactics can change and still fulfill the goal. If it’s easier and more familiar for me to go to the neighbourhood hardware store than to shop online, I can change tactics, buy the lawnmower there, and still achieve my goal. If the neighbour’s kid offers, I might pay them to cut the grass using their own lawnmower, changing my strategy entirely, but still achieving the desired goal. Goals, strategies, and tactics are often misunderstood.

People will always lean towards the strategies and tactics that are familiar and comfortable to them, even if sometimes that is not the most efficient or logical path. If you want to get someone to adopt a new tool, that tool must be clearly and demonstrably better than their current strategy - and better on their terms, not your's.

Recognising goals and understanding why people choose one strategy over another is critical to designing truly useful software.

This is true of all tools - they must allow the goal to be met. The degree to which they fulfill that goal in an appropriate and comfortable way will determine how likely the user is to adopt and continue to use that solution.

To give another example, most people need to organise their daily activities. Their goal is to manage their time. As a strategy they may decide to try using a software-based daytimer or a PDA. The degree to which that solution allows them to achieve their goal, considering the effort required to use it and their comfort level with that tool, defines its usefulness. Something that achieves the goal perfectly, but requires an inordinate amount of effort to master or use may lose out to a less than perfect but simpler solution.

Real People

Recognising and understanding the real people on the other end of the tool is a tricky and commonly overlooked or misjudged factor in designing interactive systems. As designers and developers, we are, by definition, unlike our target audience in the vast majority of situations. Luckily there are a range of tools and techniques at our disposal that can help us to understand our end users.

Early in the design process, while the product (Web site, device, software, etc) is being conceptualised, it’s important to begin researching and understanding the end users - who they are, how they think about their tasks, what their context is (personal and environmental), how they would complete the tasks in the absence of this tool, and so on. No tool exists in isolation and users brings with them a huge number of expectations, past experiences, and psychological, sociological, and physiological needs. Your ability to get past your own knowledge, prejudices, motivations, and experience will have a profound effect on how well your tool fits in the minds and hands of your target users.

The best way to make sure the design process is successful for the intended audience is to truly care about them. Clients play a critical role in the success of any business, but it’s the end users who ultimately determine the success of a product. Creating a product which the client loves but serves no useful purpose to the target audience in the long run cannot, by simple logic, survive. Conversely, a product which proves elegant, useful, and well suited to its audience will reflect well on the organisation that provides that product and may become an indispendible part of a person’s life.

These are a few thoughts on the attitude I bring to my designs. My aim is to find people with business and technical skills who share this vision of user centred design and work with them to bring elegant tools, that do useful things, to real people.

I'm currently available for consulting, contracts, or full-time positions - please feel free to email me at


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