Touchscreen Testing - Usability is both design and engineering...

With so many phones moving toward giant touchscreens and very few physical buttons, it's worth considering just how easy they are to use. The good news is that the interface is completely flexible, capable of showing buttons and display elements in the perfect location for any given application, and changing things completely for the next. The bad news, aside from no tactile feedback, comes when things don't WORK as promised. Moto Labs set out to scientifically analyze the performance of mobile phone touchscreens - so you can see whether your off-target touch is just user error and/or your imagination, or if it's really the hardware's fault. They experimented with a robot finger that traced perfectly straight lines across the screens, and repeated with different finger sizes and touch pressures. The results are shown in this image, and they're pretty amazing (at least to a nerd like me) - there's a real difference between all these phones' touch performance! It's something to consider, on the subject of usable design: it's not just how it's designed, it's how it's engineered to deliver.
[via Gizmodo]

Screen Rotation Lock - Usability for all positions

Among other innovations, Apple's iPhone introduced (or at least brought to the mainstream) accelerometer-based screen orientation: rotate the device, and the screen will re-orient itself so that up stays up. However, that convenience hasn't always been welcome, especially for users who like to do a little reading in bed - lying down. It's annoying when your head is sideways, and that little screen insists on staying upright! Thankfully, Apple seems to have recognized this not-infrequent use case, and added a "screen rotation lock" button to the upcoming iPad - an especially good idea since the device is meant to be an eBook reader. And I've gotta say, anytime Apple is willing to add a new physical button for a function, they must think it's crucially important! For this case of usability, I wholeheartedly agree.
[via Loop Insight and Gizmodo]

Rotary Faucet - Clever, usable conservation

You know those faucets in public restrooms that only stay on for a few seconds? The ones before touchless sensors, where you press the button and get 5-10 seconds of water? Well, they're due for an improvement, and this time it ain't electronic. Designer Eun ji Byeon shows off a rotary-dial-style faucet at Yanko Design that fits the bill. You "dial" the wheel to the number of seconds that you want - and just like an old-timey phone, it winds back to its starting position and shuts off. Very nice: easily understood (at least for anyone who's ever used, or even heard of, a rotary phone), functional, and delightful. Well done!
[via Gizmodo]

Outdoor Placemats with Windproof Pockets

Seen last summer at a family gathering in Minnesota, these outdoor placemats have a clever little feature: pockets and straps that keep napkins and plastic cutlery in place during the occasional gust of wind. If you want to set the table early and not worry about the breeze, I'd say this is a good way to go!

Folding UK Wall Plug - Making portable products even more portable...

My old college buddy Barry Simon hit me with this one: recent design-school grad Min-Kyu Choi won the Brit Insurance Design Award for a folding AC wall plug for use in the UK. It's regrettably true that even as portable devices have gotten slimmer and more pocketable, we remain stuck with existing AC plug standards. And in the UK, that's especially bad - their systems' plugs are huge. So it's certainly refreshing to see some innovation come to plug design: an elegant solution that lets you keep using the standard that's out there, but save some space in your bag. Congrats, Min-Kyu! (And thanks, Barry!)
[also on Engadget]

Restroom Satisfaction Sign FAIL...

Spotted recently in a business restroom, this sign just seems... a bit much. Actually, a lot much. It smacks of legalese, or maybe a too-literal translation from another language with all possible accommodations for politeness thrown in for good measure. My recommendation:


Conciseness is usable, folks. Look into it.

Recycling: You're doing it wrong...

This is a quick iPhone camera shot of the trash and recycling receptacles on my Amtrak train. And you can't quite tell from the photo (sorry 'bout that), but both those holes lead to the same trash bag. If you ever wondered whether recycling was really accomplishing anything, seeing something like this is a real blow to your confidence in the system! Now that's bad product design: one product's failure ruins the perception of, and thereby the effectiveness of, all others. Yikes!

"Take Turns" - A usable new traffic sign?

This one comes to me from good friend Shouvik Banerjee, and has already inspired quite a bit of debate among my old college buddies. Gary Lauder suggested at the TED conference that we need add a new traffic sign to our roadside bag'o'tricks: "TAKE TURNS." Watch the video to get the details, but the gist is that you don't exactly YIELD (because that could screw over the yielders if there's too much cross traffic), you don't exactly STOP (because you don't always need to), but instead you follow some common-sense rule to take turns if there's a lot of traffic at an intersection. He does a neat job of justifying it with savings of drivers' time and fuel - both because unnecessary stopping-and-starting is reduced. But the debate with my college friends is whether people can be trusted to do this correctly - are people fundamentally courteous, engaged drivers? Or distracted, selfish jerks? It's a good question - the answer to which may well determine just how usable this new sign would be!

Clothing as a Gadget Accessory?

With so many accessories being designed to complement our gadgets - cases, skins, dongles, headphones, stands, chargers, the list goes on and on - why not clothes? After all, most gadgets spend at least some time in your pockets - so why not make a pocket that matches the gadget? WTF Jeans - with a name that may inspire its own WTFs - take a stab at just that, with pockets sized to fit iPhones and flash drives. Of course, one could argue that many gadgets have already been designed to fit existing pockets - but maybe a perfect match is even better. There are only two downsides I can think of: (1) when you get a new phone, your jeans may become obsolete. And (2), all the stitching is in Twitter-blue. Ugh.
[via Gizmodo]

The Right Remote for a Home Theater PC?

Brando is a company usually known for making USB crap - and I do mean crap. Check out their site to see what I mean. But they've got one little nugget that just may fill a growing niche: a good coffee-table-ready remote control for a home theater PC. The Rii, confusingly named similarly to Wii despite having nothing to do with it, simply combines a keyboard and a trackpad into a remote-control form factor. It sure beats having a full-size wireless keyboard and mouse in the living room - and though its looks suffer compared to the Logitech diNovo Mini, it just feels... more at home on the coffee table. A rare decent job, Brando!
[via Engadget]

Mute on Lock - Wait, it doesn't already?

I'm mostly posting this because I'm shocked that it's not an option - or the default - in the Windows operating system. Seriously, you need a third-party utility to mute the speakers when you lock your PC? To kill the notification sounds and other drivel that would periodically spout from a box that can't even be accessed to stop them? Wow. Way to step up to the plate, Mute on Lock; Microsoft, get your act together!
[via AddictiveTips & Lifehacker]

The DVD User Experience - Pirates do it better!

From TheNextWeb comes this clever graphic illustrating the difference between a user's experience with a pirated DVD versus a purchased DVD. The problem? The pirated version is waaaay better! Pirates, of course, omit all the B.S. that comes with regular DVDs - the FBI warning, the MPAA ratings, the disclaimer that "opinions are those of the people giving them" (I've never understood why those are necessary), and worst of all, the previews and other drivel that can't be skipped with the chapter-forward or menu buttons. Seriously, how frustrating is it to have those buttons, only to be told "that operation is not available here?" It turns your DVD player into an obstinate, stubborn, unreasonable little brat. Thanks, pirates, for solving the problem!
[via Gizmodo & Lifehacker]

A Better Way to Change Smoke Alarm Batteries

Changing smoke-alarm batteries is a pain in the butt - and the higher the smoke alarm, the worse it is. (I'm thinking of my brother-in-law's house, with one alarm helpfully located in the tallest reach of the entryway tower.) But Ohio State Univeristy junior Trevis Kurz has a solution: a concept for a smoke alarm that can be removed from the ceiling with a broomstick, so battery-changing can occur comfortably on the ground. There's still the issue that most smoke alarms are also hard-wired, but a detaching connector should be easy to integrate. Well done, Trevis - now get someone to make these!
[via Gizmodo]

Sync-Blocking Cables - A good idea in a USB-charging world...

It's taken a while, but USB has become the de-facto standard for charging mobile devices. (I wrote with joy about this a while back!) But to make USB power really convenient, we need one more step: the ability to just charge on any given USB port, without your device getting all smart on ya and trying to sync with the host. USB Fever is on the task, offering a number of "Sync Blocker" products - cables and adapters each with a little switch that toggles between charge-only and full USB connection. I already blogged about an iPod/iPhone cable that does this, but it's clear that we need more and more general-purpose sync blocking for all devices - heck, why shouldn't every USB cable have this option? Or how about toggling buttons for the USB ports on computers? A few years from now we'll look back and wonder why these things took so long!
[via CrunchGear & Gizmodo]