The Lost Remote - ruminations on redundant controls...

"I can't tell you how many times I lose my remote and then can't navigate through the initial screen of a DVD because there are no buttons on the console."

My old buddy, Tony Springer, has a good point - most DVD players and home theaters don't have those pesky directional-navigation controls needed to get from here (disc insertion) to there (movie playing). Sure, most people are going to use remote controls most of the time - but those few other times, it's a pain to not even have the choice!

So what's the design logic here? Is there any?? Let's consider some evidence:

-The TV set can pretty much be completely controlled from the unit itself, if needed. Power, channels, volume, inputs, menu... even, in many cases, that elusive directional navigator!

-The DVD player does have some controls (power, volume, play, stop, forward/back, source), but not enough to get by.

-Tivo, the category-defining and famously-delightful-to-use DVR, has no buttons at all on the unit! And yet, no complaints about it...

The conclusion I'm coming to is that the suggestion of on-unit control guides the expectation of control. The buttons on the TV and DVD player suggest to user that they can be controlled without the remote; the TV lives up to the suggestion, so there are no complaints. The Tivo, with no buttons, offers no suggestion of on-unit control, so there's no expectation, and no disappointment. Only the DVD player makes a promise that it doesn't keep!

Digicam Mic Wind Guard - an *actual* bandaid!

Wow. In the previous post here on Unpressable Buttons, I called a do-it-yourself design fix a "bandaid" for poor design. But here's another bandaid fix - and this one's actually a bandaid. Yup, from PopPhoto Flash, a tip for silencing the horrible blowing-wind sound that plagues so many videos shot with digital cameras is to cover the microphone with a small bit... of bandaid.

Before I hit some limit that I'm sure exists for the use in a single blog post of the word "bandaid" (oops, just hit it), let's make sure there's a lesson learned here. When users come up with great workarounds, designers should be paying attention. (Any Canon folks perusing that blog, I hope?) And more than just replicating the fixes, attack the sources - are there microphones that do better in windy conditions? Can software sort out and ditch the wind noise? Or could a wind filter be automatically engaged by windy conditions - even just by being passively "blown into place" by the wind? These are the kinds of design solutions which, when done well, will be invisible to the user. No problem, no need for a... well, you know.

Snipped-Headphone Mute - bandaid for soft volume controls...

Called a "MacGyver Tip" on LifeHacker, the idea here is to use the snipped-off jack from some cheapo or free headphones to silence a laptop's startup sound effects. Sure, it'll do the trick; but this is one of the more blatant bandaids I've seen in a while - workarounds and fixes to compensate for inexcusably bad design.

I've always been a proponent of hardware sound controls (see the Treo hardware sound switch love letter); the presence and volume of sound that your devices make are visceral, fundamental interactions with the outside world, and deserve the most responsive and trustworthy controls. This case is an excellent example of this need not being met by software controls.

Here's the deal: you're in a quiet place, want to boot up your laptop, but your startup sound is poised to disrupt the silence. You can't hit the mute button until the system is almost completely booted, because it's a "soft" function handled by the operating system itself. So, hopefully you have a sliver of time between the button activating and the bootup sound playing - can you hit it in time?? Sounds like more of a scene from a thriller movie (albeit a bad one) than a product well designed for real use.

So, laptop makers, give us a hard mute button and maybe even a physical volume slider or knob. Then MacGyver can move on to more pressing problems.

Flower Pen Bouquet - reception desk triple-play...

From LifeHacker, the Flower Pen Bouquet is cute idea which actually solves three reception-desk problems with one crafty solution:

1) Eliminates the eyesore of the public-use pen jar. Too often, they're just hideous - a mug ugly enough that nobody wants it, filled with pens which were once the runts of many litters.

2) Beautifies the desk with a snazzy little floral arrangement. That one in the top photo is particularly classy, in my humble opinion.

3) Solves the pesky problem of runaway pens. Nobody's going to absentmindedly walk off with a pen sporting a life-size rose on the top, and this solution beats the heck out of chain tethers!

The only problem I can see is that it's too good at #1 - any visitor looking for pens would never find'em! And I can visualize a receptionist going crazy having to tell people that "the flowers are pens, just grab one" too many times...

The Problem with PowerPoint - content not needed...

PowerPoint has now turned 20 years old, and users and audiences everywhere seem to be uttering more weary groans than wishes for many happy returns. So, what's the problem? After all, it's a powerful tool with plenty of features and lots of flexibility, which is now a ubiquitous de facto standard accepted pretty much anywhere - everything one needs to make a great presentation!

The problem is that PowerPoint is an enabler - in the negative, alcoholics-anonymous sense of the word. All those bells and whistles can make a presentation out of nothing at all - add some animations, sound effects, slide transitions, clip art, crazy fonts, gradient backgrounds, corporate logo, page number, and weird art-deco theme elements - and pretty soon, there's no need for any content! Before (or simply without) PowerPoint, there was no easy way to add filler, to take time and space; the only option was to actually present real information and ideas.

While I could rant about PowerPoint all day (believe me), I'd rather end on a constructive note. What can audiences do to save themselves from a slow and horrible death by slideshow? Well, if they have any control over the presenters - if the presenters are students, clients, subordinates of any type - simply disallow PowerPoint at all unless there's a compelling need. (Hint: lists of bullet points are never needed!) If there's a need for photos, illustrations, or visual data, limit slides strictly to that. And if you need to be more open about the usual stuff (bullet points, come on in), the just ban the most grievous offenders - animations, decorative-only clip art, sound effects, and slide transition effects.

There's a fine line between giving users the power they need, and the kind of power that can be used as a crutch. Here's hoping that in the next 20 years, PowerPoint can find that line - and back up to it.

The Cues We Use - behavioral economics & why we eat too much...

David Leonhardt writes in the New York Times about Cornell professor Brian Wansink's research into a field by the name of "behavioral economics." Despite the bland title, this area is (or should be) actually pretty fascinating to the product design crowd. Here's the distilled sense of it:

Our behaviors are often guided not by the direct info and rational thought that we'd like to guide them, but by subconscious cues received from other, unexpected sources.

For example, we stop eating not because we feel full, but because the plate is empty, sending the cue that we've "finished a portion." We eat snacks not because we decide to eat a snack and head for the kitchen, but because we see the snacks displayed prominently in the kitchen and they suggest themselves to us. And people aren't just unaware of the powers of these cues, they don't even believe it when they hear it - "Things like that don't trick me," say the subjects of the research.

However, flipping this research around to apply the cues intentionally can be powerful... A percentage of peoples' paychecks from some employers go to 401(k) retirement plans not because employees decided to sign up, but because that's the default unless the employee opts out - and darned if there aren't a lot more people with good 401(k) contributions at those places! For the consumer, people can eat less and lose weight by owning smaller plates, bowls, and glasses, so that the empty-plate/finished-portion cue kicks in after finishing a smaller portion. They can eat healthier by rearranging the kitchen to display (and thus "suggest") healthy foods, and make the snack foods relatively hidden. And for the product designer who decides to incorporate these principles, well, the possibilities are vast, powerful, and sometimes even a bit scary. Responsibility to not abuse it may be the most important thing - think about McDonald's doing away with Super-Sized portions!

Foot Dustpan - convenience thought halfway through...

From designer Matthias Lange and through Yanko Design and Gizmodo, this foot-mounted dustpan at first seems to be one of those no-duh, why-didn't-I-think-of-that delights we're all lucky enough to find every once in a while, then regret that we didn't make the million bucks off the idea. However, photos can be deceiving, and this one certainly is - we're only seeing a snapshot of what is, in reality, a more involved usage scenario.

What we see in the photo at left is the good part - while you're sweeping, you can stand upright while your foot holds the dustpan firmly in place. But before that, you had to get the thing onto your foot - and unless you're particularly graceful and coordinated (in which case you wouldn't have spilled anything that needs to be swept up in the first place?), this probably involves the dangerous dance of hopping around on the other foot, flailing out for support to keep your balance, and maybe even spilling some more stuff to sweep up while you're at it. Then after the sweeping, you have a full dustpan attached to your foot - a loaded weapon waiting to spill its load on the way to the garbage can, if you so much as tilt your foot the wrong way or walk a bit too swiftly. Finally, the removal - you have to either bend down for this one (the action the product was designed to eliminate in the first place), or demonstrate the grace of a ballerina-gymnast-ninja to get the pan up to your hand or the trash can while remaining level. This seems to me a feat more appropriate to fun and games at a company picnic than menial chores around the home.

But at least it looks nice, even if its use isn't quite thought all the way through. Lots of products are sold this way, and many of the buyers/users are happy with the tradeoff. Not to be too harsh, but maybe Yanko's tagline should have clued us in from the start: "Form Beyond Function."

"This Light Takes Forever" - design commentary from unlikely sources...

Randall Munroe's xkcd, "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language," probably doesn't intend to have insightful commentary on product design and use in the real world - but, like any English major worth his salt (um, I'm not an English major, by the way), I'll feel free to BS all sorts of meanings into it that the author never intended. In this episode, a driver gets his wish - to meet "the idiot who designed this intersection" while sitting out an interminable red light. Read the comic - then think about that double punchline:

1) "You can't. Light's red." The design of products around us can influence our behaviors beyond what we might expect, or what might even make sense. Don't fling someone into traffic (very bad thing) because you can't break a red light (less bad thing)?? And yet, we empathize with this limitation, because to a certain extent, and inexplicably, we share it.

2) "Well, when will it change?" "Tuesday." A caution to designers, that especially when you base your decisions on rigorous research, testing, simulation, and so on, you can be blinded to the fact that the design just might not pass real-world, idiot-test muster.

Secret-Knock Lock - great ideas from the speakeasy era...

From Sprites mods and through Engadget, this is just a hack for now (check out the fugly-but-functional goodness at left), but what an excellent idea for a product! A secret knock unlocks the door - no fumbling with keys, dialing in codes, or swiping cards. As a bonus, there's the added security of not needing anything at all on the outside of the door - no keyholes that can be picked, card swipers that can be hacked, or keypads that can be damaged. Just a blank door that you have to know that you have to knock. It might even make you feel like a member of a secret club every time - and Engadget's suggested tweak is a must: "we're even thinking of a mod to make the door scream 'TWO BIIIIIIITS' when we knock 'Shave and a Haircut.'"

Taking it to the next step, voice-operated locks would be even more convenient by requiring no hands (and no sense of rhythm, either). Make the "key" a musical snippet with both words and a tune, to avoid accidentally triggering it in conversation. Definitely a plus when I'm trying to get all the groceries from my car in one trip. (Those plastic bag handles really do a number on my hands - but that's a different rant...)

Stain Stamp Mugs - the irritating becomes the delightul...

Here's one I saw a while back, and which is now available for purchase at Greener Grass Design - "Stamp Mugs" by designers Valeria Miglioli and Barnaby Barford. The concept is simple (as so many catchy ones are) - make the annoying coffee rings left on tabletop papers into something aesthetically pleasing.

However, I'll suggest that there's something more to the story here. Those little squigglies aren't inherently much more pleasing than the standard coffee stain ring, especially when they're distorted, bloched, and smeared. The real appeal is the surprise of finding something other than the normal stain, something consciously designed.

So if the surprise is the appeal, that appeal is lost if you just consciously spent over fifty bucks on two mugs that were marketed by spoiling the surprise in the first place! In my humble opinion, the way to go with this feature is stealth - sneak it into normal mugs that people might buy for other reasons. Then the surprise is real, and so is the delight, and it might just be worth a ruined paper or two.

Intuitive Indications - swelling flash drives...

Here's a neat little concept from PlusMinus Design: a USB flash drive which swells up to indicate how "full" it is. Now, there are a few other flash drives which show available space when offline, usually with a teensy LCD display powered by an eensy internal battery. This one has an advantage in its technical implementation, since its indicator only requires power to change its status, not during the static display of the status - therefore, no battery that can wear out. (The suggested tech behind this is a micro-pump, which literally inflates or deflates the drive.) On the other hand, it lacks the precision of a quantitative display - and qualitative indications (the drive is "kinda" full?) don't usually jive with the computer world. Of course, that might be the whole point - to appeal to the less computer-savvy, the more casual users for whom a friendly and accessible approach is worth sacrificing precision.

But we all know that the real idea is to make something cute, unique, and with enough of a wow-factor to be buzz-worthy. And blog-worthy. And in that, these little guys are a success!

iPod Interface - great, not perfect...

Leander Kahney in Wired points out three "quibbles" in the iPod interface; he nails them pretty well, actually. He provides lots of detail, and very good reasoning behind them. No doubt the iPod's excellent interface is an important reason for its success, and it's telling that these are such nuanced and minor quirks - in a more poorly designed interface, stuff like this would be overshadowed by the desperate bewilderment of frustrated users! But it's not perfect, three of the reasons why are...

1) "Menus scroll the wrong way... they scroll sideways, when they should scroll up and down." This goes to spacial mapping of the controllers to the controlled - or vice versa, in the flexible world of GUI. Spacially mapped controls - for example, where the burner dials for a stove are arranged in the same layout as the burners themselves - will always be more intuitive and require less labeling.

2) "No menu wrapping... why aren't they wrapped in a never-ending loop?" Instead of an intuition issue like the previous one, this is a convenience issue. In fact, this would be sacrificing a tiny bit of intuitive design (the menu list having "ends" on the top and bottom "grounds" the list in the user's perception) for a whole lot of convenience. And especially since iPod users are only briefly new users and then forever after experienced users, this is a good tradeoff.

3) "No Autofill for bigger iPods." Not user experience, but both a convenience and a feature-set issue. The kind of thing you learn by talking to real users, watching real users, getting in their minds - good old-fashioned needfinding!

The article: Wired - Three Little Quibbles About the iPod - Leander Kahney

House-Off Switch - green'n'easy...

From designer Jack Godfrey Wood (through Gizmodo and Yanko), the "House-Off Switch" is a single button which turns off all non-essential electrical items in the home. This is a wonderful example of design enabling, or even suggesting, desired behaviors. All the ad campaigns begging people to turn out their lights when leaving home don't change the fact that it's still a time-consuming pain - light controls are usually scattered throughout a house or apartment, and getting all of them is no small feat. This makes it easy - even tempting, and hopefully (if that button has a good tactile feel, or is accompanied by a distinctive sound) downright satisfying...

Of course, this requires a sufficiently intelligent setup, which may be a barrier for first-time users - those who don't realize at first that putting the microwave in a house-off controlled outlet will give them the dreaded blinking 12:00 every time they power back up. Ideally, it would allow the convenience of each individual wall socket to be toggled between house-off control and always-on modes; but even then, users would have to be smart about using powerstrips. One added bonus is that this could help with safety as well as green living - having this switch control the oven, stove burners, and iron socket could quell that nagging "did I leave the oven on?" fear!

In the end, this is about matching controls to usage patterns. People need to shut down their houses when they leave, so make a control for it. (Just like people might want all-open, all -closed, or leave-cracked buttons for car windows and sunroofs?) The things people want to do and the things people should do: make them easy to do and make them satisfying to do. And they'll do it!

Reverse Alarm Clock - wake down, kids...

From Carnegie Mellon professor John Zimmerman (and through Engadget) comes a very interesting concept: a "Reverse Alarm Clock" which cues kids to go to bed. It features a display with three states - sun, stars, and moon - to signal full-awake, quiet-time, and in-bed states for the kids; transitions are accompanied by sounds or music.

What's most intriguing about this idea is not the details of the execution, but the overall concept itself. The notion of using external, controllable cues to signal quiet-time and bedtime could be a very powerful behavior tool. As is, any cues for quiet time or bedtime for children suffer from one or more of the following flaws...

-Not external- "Because I said so" has never been a very effective parenting phrase. Kids are too smart, and learn that parents are flaky or, worse, can be bargained with or manipulated. External cues come from machines or devices which possess none of these weaknesses.

-Not intentional- Kids, like dogs (hmm), often develop unintentional and unconscious cues. For example, maybe Dad tends to sit in a certain chair after dinner; this might develop into a cue for the kids that bedtime is near. So on a random night when Dad happens to not sit in that chair, the parents may be very confused about why the kids are suddenly more difficult to corral to bed!

-Not controllable- Dusk is certainly a powerful cue for bedtime; one that may even be ingrained in instinct. However, it changes time throughout the seasons, it may not be at the time the parents want to send the kids to bed, and the effect of dusk may be muted by dark weather during the day or spending a lot of time indoors.

This really is potentially a very powerful tool for those - parents - who need it most. Pavlov to the rescue, and not a moment too soon!

I Miss My Tivo - User interface matters!

I miss my old Tivo. With so much attention paid to the user experience throughout the interface design, Tivos are a pure pleasure to use. You always feel in control, and wonderfully empowered. Ahh.

But then, problems. Some of them technological - not being able to dial up over VoIP lines, compatibility issues with combined cable and internet signals. Some feature set shortcomings, like the single tuner and smallish recording capacity. And some just related to an aging box - glitches, freezes. Aww.

And then there's the Comcast DVR box... I like that I don't own the box, so the really nasty problems are Comcast's, not mine. I love the dual tuners; and when I switch to HDTV, the box will automatically switch with me. But dear God, this thing has no idea how to treat its users - menus laid out by what must have been monkeys playing with half of a flowchart set, inexplicable delays with no feedback whatsoever until the flurry of button-presses that follows, and graphics that would have made for a mid-range GUI sometime in the late 1980's. And my favorites are the really, truly bizarre gems that I'm blessed with from time to time. See that photo? In the middle of yukking it up for another episode of Family Guy, this popup pops up - I didn't try to delete anything, I don't want to delete anything, and I'm sure as hell not going to "try again!" AAAAH!

So I want to root for Tivo in the DVR biz, but there are certain realities that make it tough for an independent player. Comcast has the infrastructure and installed base of customers to be able to offer a leased rather than purchased box, to make the integration with cable programming and billing more seamless, and so on. But there's got to be some value placed on user experience - or we're all going to miserably slog through our recorded lives, cursing the DVR drug to which we're addicted. Tivo's current foray into developing software and interfaces for others' boxes is probably the best bet, and I hope it works out. Because mostly, I just miss my Tivo!