Usable Robot Interaction

Robots have always been comfortable in industrial settings, where the jobs they perform have to do with parts, assembly, and other inanimate objects.  But when they have to function around people, it's a whole different ballgame:  it's not just the accomplishment of tasks that matters, but also how robots interact with the people around them.  That was the focus of a recent study at Palo Alto's Willow Garage, as reported by tech columnist Dan Lyons in Newsweek.  What they found was that people need more than just the rote performance of tasks from robots; it helps to have little extra signals that communicate, in human terms, what's going on.  My favorite example:  "To figure out how to open a door, the robot will simply stand in front of the door, not moving, just scanning the surface with its cameras. To a human, the machine seems to be stuck in one place. But if engineers make the robot’s head move up, down, left, and right while it is scanning, humans understand that the robot is trying to figure out how it works. The movement is unnecessary, but it helps humans recognize what the robot is doing, a trick that animators call 'readability.'"  In fact, more than just being unnecessary, that movement likely makes the engineering task even more difficult.  But since it helps the robot function in its context around humans, it's beneficial to the overall design - it's precisely where human-centered design and task-focused engineering meet, and hopefully find a way to get along!

Return of the Shutter Button!

Apple has been on a crusade against buttons for quite a while, removing them from the faces of phones, tablets, and even their own store elevators.  This means almost everything is done through the touchscreen - but recently, the tide has receded, and a few functions have regained physical, tactile buttons.  The one I'm celebrating today is the camera shutter button, which is the new secondary function of iProducts' volume-up buttons. And folks, this makes sense!  When you're taking a photo, you're focused on the world you're shooting: making sure the camera is aligned, everyone's smiling, and so on.  You need to be able to feel the button, to press it and get that tactile feedback.  It's pretty remarkable that we've gotten to the point where we applaud the re-introduction of old technologies as new design innovation.  Incidentally, using the volume-up button enables some new useful tricks, like using a wireless headset as a photo remote.  Welcome back, shutter button - it's good to see you again.

The Pillow Tie: Silly, serious commentary?

Okay, so it doesn't quite fit with a "usability" theme - but there's something kind of deep in this ridiculous combo.  The blurb puts it best: most functions that require a tie deserve to be slept through.  So the subversive thing to do is enable the wearer to sleep - thereby committing a more egregious violation of norms than simply not wearing the required tie in the first place.  It's a statement; first camouflaged, then bold, always ironic.  And sorry, but completely unusable!  Oh well...
[Thanks, Ruairi!]

Future Vision: Not just ubiquitous touchscreens...

Microsoft recently made another one of those "vision of the future" concept videos, and designer Bret Victor tears it apart limb from limb. And the limb, in this case is the hand: Bret makes the case that touchscreens make pitifully insufficient use of the versatile and capable human hand.  It's true: simply sliding around Pictures Under Glass (as he calls them) like in the top screengrabs from the video is such a limited interaction, when the hand can do so many things as shown in the bottom rows of photos.  Let's hope the future isn't just the same iPad-style interaction model we have now, extended to every possible surface - that's just the present, mindlessly multiplied to aggravating infinity.  Read Bret's rant, and demand something better!

iPhone Player Buttons: More Space, Please!

Don't get me wrong, I love my new iPhone 4S.  But it's not perfect, and some of its buttons are downright - yes - unpressable.  Today, I'm picking on the quick audio controls that come up when the home button is double-clicked.  They're a great idea; they're just spaced too darn close to each other.  The times when I use the quick-access buttons, instead of fully unlocking the phone, are times when I can't give the phone my full attention - I just want to quickly pause the audio.  But the buttons are spaced so close together that I frequently hit the Forward or Back button instead of Pause - and that risks losing my place in my podcast.  Apple, why not give each button more space, like the quick Photoshop job on the right?  It may not look as "clean" from a design perspective, but it's definitely more usable.  They'd be more pressable buttons!

Dissolving Fruit Labels!

There's really nothing not to like about this one:  fruit labels which dissolve quickly in water, becoming "fruit soap" which helps wash away pesticides, dirt, and bacteria.  It's a concept being pitched by Scott Amron, complete with the opportunity to invest.  I hope it works out - but I hope it's executed better than the Photoshop job used to demonstrate it...
[via Inhabitat & Gizmodo]

It's (Not Really) Ready...

This one comes from my lovely wife Jessica, whose eagle-eyes noticed some contradictory fine print in an ad for the new Toyota Camry.  The tagline is "It's Ready. Are You?"  The fine print?  "Prototype shown."  Sooo, is it ready or not...?
[Thanks Jess!]

The Binder Clip: Design for Versatility?

Lifehacker has a (very old) ode to the  standard binder clip as an office omnitool,  lauding its ability to adapt to an impressive number of uses.  And that brings up an interesting design goal, which might be called "design for versatility."  With this goal, it's not about optimizing a single use, but keeping the design so basic - that is, free from application-specific features - that its few general features can be used in many situations.  An analogue would be the paper clip: it may be possible to improve the design of the traditional wire paperclip.  But would it then lose the ability to be used as a general-purpose wire, a pin to eject stuck optical drives and iPhone SIM cards, and MacGyver's multitool.  Sometimes it's better to design several "products" pretty well than a single product perfectly?

When User Experience is Down the List...

This blog is dedicated to the user experience - but user experience is hardly the only factor in product design.  So what happens when it's a little farther down on the list of priorities?  Mark Hurst posted this message from an anonymous employee of Blackberry maker RIM, sent to the heads of that company:  "We often make product decisions based on strategic alignment, partner requests or even legal advice -- the end user doesn't care. We simply have to admit that Apple is nailing this and it is one of the reasons they have people lining up overnight at stores around the world, and products sold out for months. These people aren't hypnotized zombies, they simply love beautifully designed products that are user centric and work how they are supposed to work."  It's true - the user doesn't care about your strategic alignments, partnerships, or IT-friendliness.  User experience trumps it all, and results in something even better than demand for your product - love for your product!

Concept: See What You Print

Printing has always been a sketchy area of interaction design:  for some reason, there's a deep chasm and a leap of faith between what you see on screen and what comes out of the printer.  To bring printing, finally, to the 21st century, Artefact Group designed a concept called  See What You Print.  The printer has a display that matches the 8.5x11" paper, and shows exactly what to expect on the page after you print.  It even "slides" the paper out of the display and into the tray as it's printed.  It makes sense, and is something that's only recently become feasible with lower-cost LCDs.  Now that the technology is there, it's time for design to catch up!

Butter, better?

We've all used those little single-serving (or for me, single-slice-of-toast) butter pads, and designer Yeongkeun Jeong thinks he can one-up the existing packaging.  The photo of his "Butter! Better!" design speaks for itself, showing how the lid doubles as a spreading knife.  The question is, do we really need this?  More plastic used for an (arguably) inferior usage experience?  Making things convenient but disposable isn't always "better" - but for this one, I suppose each user can decide on his own...
[via Core77]

Sunlight Reflectors for No-Power Lighting

The sun is a pretty formidable source of light - but we silly humans keep building buildings and using electricity to light the insides.  "Daylight", an anonymous entry in the James Dyson Award competition, proposes a better way to get sunlight indoors, when simply enlarging windows or adding skylights won't do the trick.  Reflectors shift their angles as the sun moves, directing the light indoors where it reflects off a white ceiling or wall - or even additional reflectors which take the place of light fixtures.  The efficiency of using a little bit of electronic smarts plus low-power physical actuators to leverage a hugely powerful natural light source definitely appeals to the engineer (and greenie) in me - and hopefully will appeal to architects, too!
[via Core77]

Building a Better Clamshell

I've ranted about difficult and wasteful packaging on this blog before - and the usual villian in the story is the clamshell package, designed to attractively show a product in a retail venue while making it (1) larger and (2) unopenable, both to prevent theft.  Amazon came up with an excellent alternative in their frustration-free packaging - but this really only worked because they're free from the retail-venue constraints of attractiveness and theft-resistance.  So, Proctor & Gamble took a shot at improving the clamshell - keeping the same advantages, but ditching the downsides.  The result is an attractive package, made from renewable pulp materials and easier and safer to open.  It won a DuPont Award for Packaging Innovation, in the Sustainability and Waste Reduction category - and it's something I hope we'll see more of on retail shelves!
[via Core77]

Coffee Table Rethink

Coffee tables have a tough job to do, because they really have so many jobs:  work desk, storage area, dining table, ottoman, objet d'art.  And yet, we keep thinking it just needs to be a flat surface with four legs.  James Cornetet thought a little beyond the usual, and came up with this award-winning design for what he calls the Get Your Feet Off My Coffee Table!  It makes the table decidedly unfriendly to feet, while adding a few other features:  remotes rest on a lower plane than the top surface, which holds flat objects like laptops and books; meanwhile, glasses and mugs are prevented from tipping when resting between the ridges.  It's elegant that such simple geometry accomplishes so many things - but sorry, James, I'll keep my own coffee table.  I love putting my feet up!
[Thanks to Bill Lewis for sending this along!]

Overlapping Contact Info

So many technologies, so many ways to reach people - but as this business card points out, they have a curious way of overlapping each other. Creative technologist Boris Smus shows how all his contact methods are contained within his email address - a clever trick, assuming you've claimed the real estate of an identical website domain name and Twitter handle. Hey, to up the ante, try to snag matching Skype and IM names!
[via Gizmodo]

"Pioneers of Industrial Design" Postage Stamps

One of the problems with good product design is that it frequently goes unnoticed - people love "the product", or the fact that it "just works", but that extra step to appreciate the thought, process, and logic behind the design often pushes the limit. Industrial design is a different matter, since it plays directly to your emotions - but these days, I'll take any appreciation of design as a good step forward. With that in mind, I'm a fan of the US Postal Service's series of stamps honoring the Pioneers of American Industrial Design. They're good-lookin' stamps with good-lookin' products - and maybe, just maybe, people will look beyond the form to discover equally beautiful function. Hey, it's a start!

[Thanks, Sohini!]

Elevator Buttons: Fubar!

Reader Nick Puglisi sent in this photo of the mind-boggling buttons in the elevator at his office.  This particular elevator is already a little challenging, since it has both front and back doors - but whoever designed the button layout just used that as a starting point for an opus of confusion.  I'll let Nick take it from here:

Two things involved in this picture.

1) The close (and open) symbols for front and rear are differentiated by a line in the middle of the close symbol, but it's not clear why that line means front.  

2) The braille is exactly the same for both buttons, so I looked up the braille alphabet and the translation is "Close". But it again, doesn't indicate which door will be closed.   

 It's the same with the "Open" buttons. So, what happens when someone says "hold that door" (meaning the rear door) and a blind person in the elevator finds the button that says "open," only it's for the front. They would look like a jerk when the rear door closes on the person trying to catch the elevator.   

 I'm sure it's a pretty infrequent occurrence, and I would wager that blind people have to deal with that type of problem a lot. But still.

I think he's made as much sense of this "design" as is possible - and for everyone else in that building, you're on your own from here on out!
[Thanks, Nick!]

Treat Customers Well By Kicking Bad Ones Out

I first saw the ad made by Austin Texas' Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (censored, but still kinda NSFW) because it's a pretty funny viral video. It's an actual voicemail left by a customer who was kicked out because she was texting during a movie - and she's ticked off and probably pretty drunk. But then Mark Hurst pointed out that kicking out bad customers is a great way to demonstrate how much a business cares about good customers. As a good customer, this evidence makes you feel special, even "VIP", and in turn makes you respect the business for valuing your experience over additional profit. It's a well-designed policy - which can make as much difference as a product, to the user.

Ford's Easy Fuel System - Goodbye, gascaps!

Not being a Ford driver myself, this one has completely gone under my radar until now - but apparently, since 2008, Ford cars have had no gas cap! Their Easy Fuel System seems like it has all kinds of things going for it: the fueling process is quicker and easier with two fewer steps, there's no possibility of putting the cap on incorrectly (which makes the system environmentally better), and the system "rejects" incorrect diesel pumps. This is one of those cases where engineering rules, and the user experience comes in second - but Ford's found a way to make it better on all counts. I can only assume that other auto makers can't use this because it's patented like crazy - but in that case, Ford should be shouting from mountaintops about this unique feature! The fact that I haven't heard of a great design feature until now sounds like a bit of a marketing failure...

[via Core77]

Lunch It, Punch It - A personal reward system...

As I've said before, good product design doesn't only apply to products you buy - they can be systems or rules that positively impact your behavior as a "user." And here's one that fits that bill: Lunch It, Punch It cards are printable rewards cards for yourself - that is, punch the card each time you pack a lunch, and then "earn" the reward of going out for lunch (or some other reward you may want). It uses marketing techniques developed by and for business, but for personal improvement: you'll save money, eat healthier, and get more done at work. It's amazing what you can do when you're willing to trick your brain into doing it!

The Tool You Aren't Supposed To Need

Lots of packaging is designed to be opened with your bare hands - and though those design intentions are good, sometimes the execution just plain fails. So, from an online store appropriately called Useful Things, here's the 6-in-1 Multi Opener tool for all those packages that are supposed to be tool-free. Jar tops and twist-off bottle caps, those tiny tabs on safety seals, pull-tab cans, and a blade for sealed bags and packets - this will handle them all, a backup plan for bad design (or just poor manufacturing tolerances). I also like the title of Core77's post about this product: "Theoretically Unnecessary, Actually Necessary Tool Design." Yep, sounds about right!

Starbucks Milk Labels: Making mornings tougher...

When you get your coffee from the 'bucks, it's up to you to add milk and sugar yourself. You'd think that half-awake pre-coffee customers would be treated to no-brainer intuitive labels for this feat, but no - this photo is the typical situation. The labels for the three types of creamer (all in identical containers, of course) are facing away, and those big black handles mean you can't easily spin the carafes to quickly check which is which. You might say it's just bad luck that the labels are on the "back" side, but I'd say that this way is statistically wrong: most right-handed people will pour with their right hand, leaving the label facing away as shown here. My suggestion: labels that go all the way around the container, so you can identify it no matter how it's oriented. Good design can make it tasteful, too; instead of all-text (though text should still be used somewhere on the label, for infrequent customers), a different pattern or color could indicate nonfat, lowfat, and half'n'half. This is a small design choice that doesn't cost any more than the current method, and it could make mornings easier for millions of customers. If there's a bigger no-brainer, I haven't found it!

Alternative Alarm Clock - Wake up any way you want...

I've always been a little fascinated with alarm clocks - the tension between what you need and what you want, the game of negotiating with (or just plain tricking) your irresponsible future self, it's a rich area for clever design. And designer Ki Hyun Kim certainly has something clever here: the Alternative Alarm Clock, which simply turns on a power outlet when it's time to wake up. What you plug into that outlet is up to you: a fan to blow in your face? A coffee maker (or grill loaded with bacon a la Michael Scott) for an olefactory cue? A sun-simulating light? It's anything you want - and since there may be as many ways to wake up as people who need to, that's the genius of it. Here's hoping this one makes it to store shelves soon!

[via Gizmodo]

"Friend's Been Hacked" - A new button for a spammy world...

Mark-as-Spam buttons have been a standard feature in webmail sites for quite a while now - but what to do when the sender is someone you know, but the message is clearly spam? The old answer: write to your friend, or maybe call them (because their email is clearly on the fritz), recommend that they go through the painstaking process of verifying identity, changing passwords, apologizing to friends, and so on. The Hotmail team thinks (and I agree) that this event instead needs its own button: "My friend's been hacked!" This case meets the requirements to be button-worthy: it accomplishes a set of functions that'd be inconvenient to perform separately; it presents the button to those who are in the best position to judge whether it needs to be pressed; it's clear what the button will do, and when it should be pressed; it even adds to the internal "smarts" of the webmail system, just like spam buttons. Overall, a very fine addition - welcome aboard, friend's-been-hacked button!

Newsweek's Non-Info-Graphic

Infographics can be beautiful things: rich in information, showing layers of illuminating data in logical and attractive ways. (Charles Minard's graphic of Napoleon's 1812 Russia campaign can be pored over for a good 45 minutes.) And then there's the drivel that sometimes tries to pass as an infographic. Listen up, Newsweek: this is not an infographic. It's asinine, confusing, and a waste of both printed and digital space. Why are those flags pointing to different parts of a giant scoop of ice cream? Couldn't you at least put these locations on a map or something? Shape up, or I'm not renewing my subscription - you're on thin ice here...

Clever Toothpaste-Squeezing Toothbrush

Yep, "clever" just about sums up Catherine Werdel's concept for a slotted toothbrush that helps you get all the toothpaste out of the tube. It's immediately intuitive and brings a smile to your face - but also adds a step or two, of squeezing and then removing the toothbrush to receive the toothpaste. A dedicated squeezer might be even more convenient!

[via Core77]

Acer's Removable Trackpad Remote

Laptop trackpads have earned their place among the fundamental input devices of computing, along with the keyboard and mouse - but that doesn't mean they can't learn a few new tricks. Well, Acer came up with one for their Aspire Ethos laptop: a trackpad that pops out and becomes a media remote. Clever, useful, and immediately intuitive, this is just the thing I need to keep the stream of Modern Family episodes coming via Hulu when the laptop is wired to the home theater!

[via Gizmodo]

Elevator Button Jumble

Well, it's not exactly an unpressable button, but it's a 50/50 chance what each of those door buttons will actually do! Looks like the text and the icons have been swapped - and there's no logic saying that one "should" be on the right and the other on the left. Oh well - the same thing happened with the up/down indicator lights on the elevator in my workplace: the module was symmetrical, and simply installed upside down. Anyway, thanks to my reader in the 803 area code for sending this in!

LightDims Stickers - Solving the annoying-LED problem...

An underappreciated area of design in most consumer electronics is lighting - power and status lights seem to have a mission to "be seen," but not to "be pleasant." As a result, we have piercing pinpricks of glaring light coming from wifi routers, modems, and receivers while we're trying to watch TV, use the computer, or sleep. (One notable but unsurprising exception is Apple, whose status lights are always understated and unobtrusive.) Anyway, stepping in to solve the problem are LightDims stickers, which come in a variety of sizes and tints to cover all lights and either dim them or black them out entirely. It's a band-aid, but certainly better than suffering from poor light design - and even better than my own homebrew solution of covering annoying lights with electrical tape. It's just a little that LightDims' website is itself even more annoying than the problem it solves!

Holstee's Delhi Rang Upcycled Wallet

News today from one of my favorite practitioners of upcycling: Holstee just released the Delhi Rang Wallet made of discarded colored plastic bags collected from the streets of Delhi. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, "upcycling" refers to reusing products or materials in a way that increases their value - which makes it, as far as I'm concerned, even more magical than the other two types of recycling: reuse (where value stays the same), and downcycling (where value degrades, like printer paper being downcycled into toilet paper). Anyway, the wallet has an efficiently compact design for less of a butt-bump, and you can feel good about buying it for all sorts of reasons: their production supports impoverished Indian workers, the packaging is minimal and biodegradable, and each one is unique because the color pattern is made by the plastic bags themselves. Overall, seems like it beats the heck outta leather! Great job, Holstee team.

Upcycling: Guitar Pick Punch

I'm no guitar player (even Guitar Hero gave me some problems), but that doesn't stop me from liking the Pickmaster Plectrum Punch. It'll make a quick guitar pick - or two or three - from any old credit card, loyalty card, or piece of plastic you don't want in your wallet anymore. I'd call this upcycling, because lots of those cards are junk - and hey, every pick will be unique. Like snowflakes.

HitchSafe - Convenient outside-of-car storage...

It may smack of infomercial tackiness, but the HitchSafe actually seems like a pretty slick idea. A combination lock discreetly and securely holds a small stash inside your trailer hitch - a spare key, cash or credit card, whatever you need. Beats the heck out of magnetic hide-a-key slapped on the undercarriage! It's something I might not be ashamed to use - if I ever have a vehicle with a trailer hitch, that is...

Money-Shredding Alarm Clock

Alarm clocks really represent our battle against ourselves: the part of each person that wants to sleep versus the part that knows he or she needs to get up. Well, to really align your incentives, try this devilish invention: an alarm clock that slowly shreds your cash if you fail to get up on time. How much do you really want to sleep in? Could you put a dollar amount on it...?

[AcidCow via notcot, but I can't find the original designer - anyone?]

Henge: Sturdy Outdoor Ping Pong Tables

I love ping pong, but I can't remember ever loving a ping pong table. They're always light, flimsy, designed to be folded up and stowed away - they practically apologize for their very existence, and all it takes is one forward lunge for a shot and the table might just crumble in front of you. That's why it was great to see these sturdy concrete outdoor tables from Henge - ping pong deserves something like this, even if it's unrealistically aspirational. And sure, the actual sport may suffer outdoors - the slightest breeze would wreak havoc on the ball flight. But the table is a thing of beauty, and it's got me craving a game right now!

[via Core77]

Untouchable Braille

Here's something that must be some kind of close cousin to unpressable buttons: untouchable Braille. I guess it's easy to follow the letter of the law (get it?) when it comes to ADA requirements, but lose sight (get that one too?) of the real goal.

Rock & Rails: Microsoft's evolution of multitouch

Multitouch interfaces were the Big New Thing when they debuted with the iPhone, but since then, not much has changed - Apple's added a few more fingers, but that's about it. Touch interfaces suffer a bit from the lack of, yes, buttons: there are fewer ways to indicate different intentions when interacting with the same objects or locations. Microsoft has stepped in to add some interesting ideas, which they call Rock & Rails - the video is tech-geek heavy, but still intriguing. Using your fist, or a straight or curved hand, they show all kinds of ways your intentions can be made more clear, and your work made more efficient. There's definitely a learning curve - but hey, we all had to learn to type at some point, too, and it was worth it!

[via Gizmodo]

Save the Buttons! Arguments for tactility...

An Engadget editorial by Donald Melanson makes the compelling case for avoiding "a less tactile future" - and as the writer of a blog ostensibly about buttons, I'd be remiss not to mention it! Donald waxes nostalgic for the days of intentionally-tactile keyboards, warns against the impending ubiquity of glassy touchscreens, and even points out ways that products have lost tactility in their casings and buttons. Mr. Melanson, consider this one big "LIKE!"

Why Netflix Envelopes Aren't Smaller & Squarer...

It's definitely annoyed me a little ever since I joined Netflix: why the extra, empty, useless-seeming "flap" on the shipping envelope that makes it rectangular instead of the square shape that would fit the disc more precisely? Turns out, it's not just for aesthetics or waste for the sake of waste - it's to accommodate postal systems that really prefer rectangular mail, and have difficulties (and charge a higher price) for square stuff. It's a shame that a legacy design has resulted in a less-efficient system now - but these things happen. Designing for the future is as important as designing for the present!

[via Gizmodo]

The Toepener, for Untouchable Doorknobs

You know what they say about public restrooms: it doesn't matter whether your washed your hands if the guy before you didn't - and that dirty doorknob is to blame. Taking borderline-OCD from anxiety to product, a team of University of Minnesota business students have designed the Toepener, essentially a doorknob for your foot. Okaaaay... I guess it might be nice for some businesses to offer such an option to their customers (particularly psychiatry practices?), but 50 bucks seems a bit steep for a couple pieces of metal. And the likelihood of spectacular wipeouts as new users lose their balance with a toe stuck in that hook is high - followed by lawsuits that make the 50 bucks seem like a steal! So yeah, it's a nice option - it's just sold with a little too much fanfare.

[via Core77]

Designed apart, put together...

This fantastic example comes from Will Yum on the Usability Forum: the fine-by-themselves ideas of minimal paper cups and a lever-activated water dispenser don't play nicely when put together. The cup totally collapses under the pressure needed to activate the lever! Products need to be designed with an eye to the overall system, the surrounding environment - no product is an island...

Clear Trash Cans - Even terrorism can inspire design...

Many of the product designs I blog about are for perfect-world scenarios, where users are able and smart, and situations are unencumbered by malicious elements. But the real world isn't like that, and designs for real-world problems can be just as compelling. This is one, from HUB Street Equipment, addresses the problem that terrorists could hide bombs in public trash cans. The solution: clear trash cans, where explosives can't hide. Sure, you can see the rubbish inside - but that may additionally motivate people to conserve more and produce less waste! And they don't look too shabby, either.

[via Core77]

Cereal & Milk: No explanation needed...

Yep, this one speaks for itself - and that's good, because I have no idea where it came from, other than that it was shared by friend Celeste Roschuni. And I'd say this is an even better design than one I'd posted way back in 2007. Crunchy (but in the good way)!

Pedal Faucet + Ski Boots = :-(

Here's another gem from friend and frequent contributor Pete Kazanjy - and folks, this one is original material! That's Pete in his own photo, seen in the mirror of a ski-resort bathroom. He's pointing out that pedal faucets, which are usually a great idea, don't work well when you're wearing ski boots - they become something of an (ahem) unpressable button. And by the way, adding an extra "e" to the word "operate" doesn't help either... Thanks, Pete!

"Silence" Alarm Clock with Shake'n'Wake!

Sent my way by friend and former coworker Celeste Roschuni, designer Johan Brengesjo's concept "Silence" alarm clock has a couple of neat tricks up its sleeve. The whole silent-vibrating-ring thing isn't so new - I blogged about a similar concept back in 2007 - but it's still a great idea to use a tactile alarm that won't disturb your partner. The interesting addition here is what I'm calling "shake'n'wake" - you shake your hand to snooze, but have to shake harder each time you want to snooze more. After a while, all that effort and motion will wake you up anyway - nice!

Twist&Brush: Convergence in the toiletry kit...

I'm something of a junkie for efficiency, especially when traveling, so it makes sense that this concept would appeal to me: Twist&Brush, from Kawamura Ganjavian, stores the toothpaste in the handle of a travel toothbrush. Simply twist the bottom like a stick of deodorant, and toothpaste oozes up through the bristles. Elegant, simple, compact - though I have no idea how well it would age, and cleaning the darn thing might be a pain. Still... want!

iPad 2: The Cover's the Story...

Apple is the go-to example for usable innovation these days, so I'd be remiss if I didn't do one post on the iPad 2. Well, here it is - kinda. See, the iPad 2 itself isn't really any different - it's thinner, lighter, faster, has a couple of cameras, blah blah blah, but that's incremental improvement on the same thing. Ah, but the cover! That's the story. Instead of the shabby-looking black cloak that hid the iPad 1, the new cover is a nice piece of usable innovation: magnetic attachment for quick-on, quick-off swaps! Instant-wakeup when you peel the cover away! Origami-like folding for angled support! It's good stuff - and yet, it's already been beaten at its own game. Miniot is offering a real-wood cover that, by my count, increases the number of stand positions by at least two, keeps a lower profile on the left edge of the device, and looks damn good doing it. Check out the video to see it perform its acrobatics.

Fake "Recycling" Box Conceals Valuables

In the same disguise-it-as-worthless category as the uglified bike and sandwich mold camouflage bags, this trick from Kevin Waits at Wisebread is simple but effective: hide valuables in your car in a fake "recycling" box, topped with cardboard and eggcrates. Is it a bit of an eyesore in a clean car? Maybe, but it's not as bad as having your stuff stolen! Let's hope not too many car breaker-inners are reading these blogs, huh?

Emoticons: Annoying, but useful?

Many post-teen computer users may consider emoticons to be a scourge, a dumbing-down of the level of discourse, and a sure sign of the impending downfall of civilization. I'm tempted to agree - and yet, it turns out they may have some use. As Scott McDowell argues at The 99 Percent, "I've had to let go of my own perception that emoticons are silly. They may currently be our best tool for elevating the emotional clarity of digital messages." That's right, it's difficult to properly convey the non-text parts of human communication in emails and IMs - and those subtle cues are important. Instead of (dangerously) assuming that the reader will receive a message with the right emotional tone, a silly combo of punctuation marks can easily and usefully fill in those blanks. Who knew? Those crazy texting kids are on to something!

Multi-Sense Trash Can Is A Bit Too Far...

Technology! It's here to solve all our problems - except when it's creating new ones. Exhibit A: the $225 electronic "multi-sense" trash can from a company somewhat-ironically called SimpleHuman. The image on this post is a summary of all the clever ways that the sensor interprets your actions, the different modes and functions, the safety and efficiency mechanisms. And yet, with all this, I'm almost sure that it won't perform as reliably or predictably as your standard foot-pedal model. Don't get me wrong, I'm a geek who loves to think about how to design automatic systems to do all kinds of things. But this, SimpleHuman, is too much even for me. Take it back a step - specifically, back to step-operated trash cans.

[via Gizmodo]

Map Readability - A matter of design...

At 41Latitude, Justin O'Beirne writes on "ideas about maps, technology, and usability" - and really dives deep into his explorations. A recent series of posts investigate why Google Maps just seem to be easier to read than other online maps. The series begins with a wonderful quote from Edward Tufte: Clutter is not an attribute of information, clutter is a failure of design. O'Beirne goes on to detail, bit by bit, how Google addresses the problem of presenting map information without feeling cluttered - and without stripping detail. If you're a design nerd, or a maps nerd, or an information nerd - heck, any kind of nerd will probably do - it may be worth an in-depth read!