Design Jiu-Jitsu and the Change-Stealing Chair

I'm always fascinated by the design jiu-jitsu performed when a product takes an old negative and turns it into a new positive.  (Previously I covered Stain Stamp Mugs, where coffee stains shape themselves into attractive designs on the table.)  Here's something a little sneakier, but no less clever: the Artful Dodger rocking chair is designed to steal all the change that falls from your pockets when you're sitting.  No need to dig around in the cushions either, because the change is conveniently collected in a dispenser area in the back.  And if the owner of the chair is a nice guy, he'll even give you your change back!
[via Gizmodo]

An Overdue Umbrella Upgrade

The recent winner of a Red Dot Design Award, the Rain Shield by Lin Min-Wei and Liu Li-Hsiang seems to offer a couple of real improvements over the centuries-old standard design.  That generous side panel protects against wind-blown rain or splashes from cars hitting puddles, or could help protect something else you're carrying.  The structure seems more robust than a normal umbrella, using bent flexible tubes instead of flimsy hinged metal ribs - a stiff wind might twist this around, but you sense that it would just bend right back.  And they didn't ignore practicality when it comes to storage, either - it wraps up into a slim disc that would fit better in a work bag than a stocky cylinder.  Sure, there are probably a couple of catches that won't be found until this hits the market - but I'd give it a shot!
[via Gizmodo]

Technology Meets The Other Kind of Button

With all the attention paid to interface buttons (especially by this blog, and even in its title), the good ol' clothing button must feel a bit neglected!  But there's room for innovation even in the latter, as shown by Shapeways designer Egant and the clever-but-generically-named Button 2.0.  A simple clip holds your headphone cord, keeping it in place during use and letting it hang close by otherwise.  Admittedly, one could ask if it's worth it to sew one of these on every shirt you own, whether it'd match the other buttons well enough, and whether this feature should instead be designed into the headphone cord itself.  But shhh, don't let the shirt button hear you - it deserves its day in the sun, for once in a long while!
[via Gizmodo]

It's Just a Shrunken iPad

Yesterday Apple introduced the new iPad Mini - and with their typical fanfare, repeatedly insisted that it's "not just a shrunken iPad."  Well, a bit of wisdom I've often found to be true is that whenever a product is hyped as "not just a" or "more than a," it's almost always just that thing.  There can be exceptions, like when a feature is hidden from obvious sight, or when a specific combination of features makes it a fundamentally new product - but usually, those things are self-evident and don't need to be hyped.  If you have to say it, that's usually because it's not true - and sorry, Apple, but the iPad Mini is just a shrunken down iPad!

Hey, Dish: Zero is not Ten!

I feel sorry for the Dish technician who is getting totally screwed by bad design in this satisfaction survey.  Check it out: you call a phone number to rate the technician on his service on a scale of 1 to 10.  But to rate him a 10, you have to press zero; if you press 1-0 (sometimes also known as "ten"), it will only register the 1.  That means that if you're trying to give him the best score possible, but don't pay attention to the special rules of the Dish universe, you'll inadvertently give him the worst score possible.  The poor guy!  To solve this problem, why not have the ratings go from 1 to 5?  Or even 1 to 9?  Or 1 to any number but 10?  And in the meantime, where can I find a survey for my (dis-)satisfaction about the design of this survey?

Simple Stuff: The joys of a 10-foot USB cable...

It's easy to obsess over the fast pace of quickly-improving gadgets, but sometimes it's the simple things that can provide a real benefit in usability.  Gizmodo editor Casey Chan recently penned a love letter to the life-changing freedom of a 10-foot USB cable.  As he put it: "It allows you to charge your phone while you dance around the room. It allows you to never worry about accidentally prying the outlet open because you have a lot more slack. You can do anything you want because the leash is longer. You have a lot more freedom. Trust me, it's 5 bucks. It's totally worth your money."  So, why doesn't everyone jump on the long-leash bandwagon?  Because these cables are a commodity; nobody makes money on them, nobody thinks they're the hot new thing, nobody cares - except the user.  Good thing Gizmodo (ahem, and Unpressable Buttons) are here to help!

Tall Bookshelf Packs Its Own Ladder

There's an attractive efficiency to problems that pack their own solutions - like soup cans that come with pop-tabs instead of requiring a can opener.  Here's one that fits nicely in that category: the Higher Ground bookshelf by Karen King, available on Ideacious, which secretly stashes its own ladder to access the upper shelves.  It's hidden so well that you'd never notice it - but even when it's pulled out for use, it looks good and seems to work well.  That's a win-win!
[via Gizmodo]

XKCD's Ideal Fridge

I'm a big fan of Randall Munroe's web comic XKCD - big ideas, geeky references, laugh-out-loud humor, and (perfectly) shoddy illustration.  I've even covered them here before - twice!  Anyway, here's his latest funny-but-plausible concept: a refrigerator which uses conveyor belts to move groceries along their expiration timeline, and eventually into a "BAD" bin.  Typical of his attention to technical details, he's thought this out pretty well:  the shelves are organized into different spans of time; the door conveyor belt has a functional but space-efficient ramp to dump its expired goods into the same bin as the main shelves; heck, the "BAD" bin even has a handle so it can be removed and emptied over a trash can.  We're gradually outsourcing our logistical brainwork to our various devices these days, and this fridge fits right in with that trend.  Well done, Mr Munroe - next stop, Kickstarter...?

Real Buttons for Touchscreens!

I've always had mixed feelings about touchscreen buttons: they're infinitely versatile, allowing buttons to appear, disappear, and change for each specific situation.  But the cost is that we abandon one of our five senses, as touch becomes useless to guide our fingers or feel the tactile force and click of the button.  Tactus Technology wants to bring that sense back to touchscreens, with an overlay that allows buttons to physically morph up out of the display on demand.  This is different from other haptic technologies, which use electrical or vibration feedback to simulate the feel of a button click - unlike those, this allows the buttons to be located with the sense of touch before being pressed.  In fact, this seems pretty close to the ideal improvement that could be made to touchscreens.  The only question is how well Tactus can make it work!
[via Core77]

Whaletale, the Portable Playspace

I'm not a parent yet (though I will be in a few months!), so I'm not quite qualified to say how realistically practical this design truly is - but design student Daye Kim's Core77-Award-winning Whaletale is certainly inspirational.  A soft and sanitary playspace folds out from the jetsetter-parent's rolling suitcase to create a private island in a bustling airport.  Even the sitting suitcase seems to provide some kind of barrier or backstop against the rest of the world, and the form makes it feel as if some piece of home is literally flowing from the luggage.  I know, that language is much more emotional/designery than my usual practical analysis - but for kids, shouldn't everything be a little bit magical?

Apple Stores' Touchy-Feely Tricks...

Even products as well-designed as Apple's don't just sell themselves - so the company has put some design thinking into their retail stores to help.  And that includes a few neat tricks, some of which were uncovered by Carmine Gallo in Forbes.  He reviews Apple Stores' basic advantages over big-box stores, like the fact that all the devices are powered on, connected to the internet, and unencumbered by bulky anti-theft fixtures.    But the sneakier tricks are even more fascinating: the Macbooks' screens are all tilted at 70 degrees by the store employees.  That's not a comfortable viewing angle, so it encourages customers to touch the computer to adjust it - and as Carmine says, "multisensory experiences build a sense of ownership."  He points out that it's the same theory that works for Build-a-Bear Workshops, where hands-on involvement creates an emotional bond - and it's put in practice in all aspects of Apple's product demos, purchasing, and setup.  Perhaps the best part: the employees use an iPhone app to measure that exact 70-degree angle.  Now that's putting your product portfolio to work!
[Forbes, via Gizmodo]

What Matters in Car Design

As a consumer product, cars really have it all: engineered performance, fashionable styling, a sense of identity, tons of usability considerations, along with safety and environmental balances.  The question is which of these things each consumer prioritizes in their purchase decisions - and which contribute to real satisfaction.  Don Norman argues that car reviewers are "stuck in the past", obsessed with performance driving and visual styling, and I agree - those two aspects are vastly over-emphasized, compared to how they'll serve the driver in everyday use.  Who cares if your car does 0-60 in 5 seconds, if you're never going to race it?  It's more likely that the usability of the more mundane features, or less sexy attributes like reliability and fuel economy, will contribute to long-term satisfaction.  Fortunately, these aren't entirely overlooked - Hipstomp writes at Core77 that these things are being quietly emphasized in car design.  "Quietly" because it's just not culturally preferred to buy a car for these reasons - I've taken some flack for my next car being a minivan - but the designers know that drivers will be glad they did in the long term, and hopefully come back for more!

Easy-Open Packing Tape Concept

As I've said before, there's still room for innovation in non-digital products - and I always like finding evidence that I'm not just making that up!  Here's a concept under consideration by product incubator Quirky: Rip Cord Packing Tape.  That purple stripe down the middle is a string that can be pulled to split the tape in half, ideally eliminating the need for a knife to open your package.  I say "ideally" because it's not quite perfect - even in the photo above you can tell that just pulling the string won't let you open the package, because the flaps are still held down by being taped to the box sides.  Oh well, it's just a concept for now - maybe there's a way to fix that problem too...
[via Core77]

Email and Bacon and Icon Ambiguity...

Seen recently on Facebook (thanks to cousin Ross!), this image is good for a quick laugh and a case study in icons.  It can be challenging to design icons without text labels - and this is a frequent goal for products, so you don't need different versions for different countries.  The currently fashionable minimalist style sometimes makes this worse - in this situation, that style would perhaps show a circle and a line, or an open circle and a closed circle, neither of which clearly communicates which function is which.  At least with the "email and bacon" icons, even though they're not very stylish, you can tell what you're getting.  And without a funny picture border, you'd never accidentally think it's a digital message or a side of pork belly!

Floating Mug: Design & utility working together...

I often gripe about how usability is sacrificed for the sake of looks - an unfortunate reality in consumer product design - so it's refreshing to see an example of each helping the other.  The Floating Mug, a concept by Tigere Chiriga currently having a go on Kickstarter, eliminates the need for a coaster by levitating the actual mug above its handle-cantilevered bottom.  This functional feature also creates a striking visual; you can't help but give it a second look.  I'm impressed that the very same feature first grabs your attention, then serves a useful function.  Thanks, Tigere, for getting ID and usability to play nicely together!
[via Core77]

Design and Durability: Tradeoffs in a Screwdriver

Gizmodo is known for covering high-tech gadgets, but recently Harry Sawyers wrote about something decidedly low-tech: the basic screwdriver.  He points out that there are plenty of design improvements that could be made to the standard model (shown in his photo above) - add a non-slip grip for sweaty palms, ratcheting action for quicker turning, or changeable drive bits for versatility.  True, these are all great usability gains, but they aren't without a price.  Let's score it, with totally-made-up numbers:  if you gain 5 points of usability for a grip, 10 points for ratcheting action, and 5 for changeable bits, maybe you lose points on durability: 0.1 for the grip that will slowly degrade over time, 0.3 for the ratchet which may break, and 0.6 for bits that can be lost.  So is it worth losing 1 point of durability to gain 20 points of usability?  That depends on what you want from your tools; some people prioritize convenient features, but others want tools that will last a lifetime or more.  It's a classic tradeoff - and that's why both are out there for sale, and that won't change anytime soon.

Facebook's Throwaway Birthdays

The usual victims of the digital age are familiar by now - newspapers, book publishers, record stores, Blockbuster. But Sam Biddle at Gizmodo adds another: Facebook has ruined your birthday.  Their intentions were good, helpfully notifying users about friends' upcoming birthdays - but the result was that a thought-free  two-word wall post becomes the norm, devaluing the whole event.  The significance of remembering a birthday has become collateral damage of automated notifications.  Sam has some good suggestions about how to fix the situation, like preempting Facebook's notification, or taking the time to write an actual non-public message.  However, since any solution to this problem (by definition) requires more effort and less convenience, it's a bit of an uphill battle.  But well worth it!
[Great image from someecards!]

Piggy Bank as Parental Password Safe

Product design is difficult enough for one user at a time, but when products are meant to mediate between two people, it gets even more complicated.  Still, there's a good amount of cleverness out there - and this example uses an existing product to solve a problem between parents and kids.  Danah Boyd writes in the Social Media Collective blog about using a piggy bank to store kids' passwords (email, voicemail, whatever) in case of emergencies.  As Danah say, parents "don’t want to access their teens’ accounts, but they want to have the ability to do so... A piggy bank allows a social contract to take a physical form."  This is a brilliant system, which demonstrates to the kids that their parents are honoring their promise (since the piggy bank hasn't been broken).  A single physical token establishes trust while providing reassurance to both parties.  What a way to adapt a nearly-obsolete product for the digital age!
[via Lifehacker]

Stake: The Swiss Army Knife of Grilling

It's summer, and that means you'll frequently find me behind a grill.  And as much as I usually hate multipurpose-gadgety cooking accessories, the Stake makes a good case to be an exception.  It combines tongs, spatula, knife, and fork into one wood-handled grilling tool - and if it's executed well enough, it's looks possible that those functions aren't compromised as they're combined.  Only needing one tool for the grill means my other hand is free for a beer - sounds good to me!
[via Lifehacker]

MagSafe 2 Connector: No longer a USB magnet...

Apple released their latest MacBook Pro laptops recently - and there's a lot to love (Retina display, all-flash architecture, drop-dead sexy design as always) and a bit to hate as well (they're possibly the least-repairable computers ever made).  But I'd like to focus on one little change that says a lot about thoughtful design and usability: the updated MagSafe 2 power connector.  MagSafe is a great idea: the connector magnetically snaps right into place, but pulls out easily in case you trip over the cord, sparing the laptop a damaging trip to the floor.  However, the previous version had a problem: it was sized so that USB plugs would also try to snap into it, attracted by its embedded magnets.  The new version is thinner and longer, which helps keep the overall laptop thin, but also solves the USB-attraction problem because USB plugs can't fit into the new profile.  It only makes sense to keep connector sizes and shapes different enough that you can't go wrong - and this is one more step toward that goal.  The only downside is that it's not backwards-compatible with older MagSafe chargers.  Oh well - Apple is happy to sell you more STUFF!
[via Engadget]

Cursors on Touchscreens, Done Right!

Since the mass shift to touchscreen interfaces, buttons are suddenly a little less useful - yes, more "unpressable" - since every onscreen button takes up display real estate that would rather be used for content.  So user interface designers have come up with tricks: swipes, press-and-holds, double-taps, and multifinger gestures to add functions without taking up more space.  iOS has been a leader in this area, but they aren't perfect - and moving the cursor is one of their weak points.  Since text is smaller than fingertips, moving the cursor requires that kinda-cloogy magnification area, and even then it's a whole separate interaction to move from the keyboard up to the actual text - not a smooth flow at all.  UX Designer Daniel Hooper came up with a better way - and shows it off in a quick, clever YouTube video.  Like touchscreen techniques used elsewhere, he treats the keyboard as an area that reacts differently to gestures than it does to taps: drag to move the cursor, use two fingers to increase cursor speed, hold Shift to select.  It's smooth, elegant, and immediately intuitive once you've seen it.  Interestingly, as Engadget mentions, he's appealing directly to Apple to make this change, rather than putting it out as software for jailbroken iDevices.  That sounds like a job application to me - and pretty darn good one!  Good luck, Daniel...

If You Build a Better Ice Cream Scoop...

It may be a surprise to many blog readers, but there's still room for innovation in non-digital products, too!  Amco helps us remember this with an ice cream scoop that has a couple of new tricks:  a serrated front edge to break through too-frozen ice cream, and faceted inner surfaces that prevent it from sticking to the scoop.  Clever, useful, delicious - we all scream (or at least I do) for good usability design.
[via Gizmodo]

Apple's Flipping Logo

Apple used to place its logo on its laptops so that it's right-side up when the user looks at the closed laptop, but upside when open and seen by others - and then it changed.  For a company with such a reputation for design and usability perfection, how could a binary choice (literally) flip?  Joe Moreno reports why it happened:  it was originally oriented to help users know which end of the laptop to open - a laserlike focus on usability.  But they eventually realized that users will only make that mistake once or twice, and then solve the problem for themselves.  Conversely, the upside-down logo for everyone else lasts for the life of the product - and the product fumbles a great chance to advertise itself to prospective customers.  Every other laptop maker seems to have come to the same conclusion, and it'll probably stay that way - until a tech comes along that enables flipping logos!
[via Gizmodo]

Icons Stuck in the Past

Icons are handy little things: they make efficient use of display real estate, provide a quickly-identifiable visual cue to the user, and work across all languages.  But some of the standard icons we've used for years have been orphaned, as the technologies they visually mimic have gone extinct.  Scott Hanselman, a Microsoft programmer / author / comedian, has a great list of them on his blog.  Three of my favorites are above - I wonder what today's generation of "digital native" children would make of a 3.5" floppy disk, a reel-to-reel tape voice recorder, or a TV with (1) a rounded picture tube, (2) a rainbow test signal, and (3) rabbit ears?
[via Gizmodo]

Bigger Buttons: Adding meaning to energy consumption...

Small, clean, tasteful buttons and switches may be the Apple-inspired style of the time, but there's no denying the emotional heft of a big damn button.  So why not harness that built-in meaning for a good cause?  Two products aim to do just that: on the left, Bracketron's Mushroom GreenZero is a big button you mash with your foot to start gadgets charging (for a limited amount of time), while on the right, ThinkGeek's Panic Button replaces any light switch so you can save energy with the action-movie urgency of an emergency shutdown.  Both products add drama, and meaning, and thought, to what's become a mindless activity - and maybe by thinking about it a little more, we can be a little more conscious of energy use.
[via Gizmodo and, well, Gizmodo]

Bloom Chips: Packaging Becomes Serving Bowl

It's one of those concepts that just makes you smile right away: folding out a Pringles-esque chip can into a serving bowl.  Bloom Chips made some judges smile, too, winning its designers a Red Dot Design Award.  It's not without its drawbacks - it can't re-package partially-eaten contents without crushing them to crumbs, and the engineer in me worries about the seal between the lid and the folded top edge of the can.  But those are problems for the real world, right? As a concept, this one's plenty clever!
[via Fast Company Design & Gizmodo]

Wheelchair-Friendly Kitchen Design

With aging baby boomers about to hit old age, it's time to stop seeing products designed for the elderly as "niche" - they're definitely going mainstream. Italian manufacturer Snaidero recently showed just how attractive and sensibly designed these products can be with a wheelchair-friendly Skyline Kitchen. The lowered countertop that wraps around a stationary user is an obvious start, but nice touches like multiple lazy susans show good thought toward real usability.  Perhaps the best innovation is that it actually looks good.  Let's hope that catches on!
[via Core77]

Not all buttons are created equal...

The photo here is of a remote control, modified so that one particular button is easier to find by both sight and touch - by gluing the other kind of button to it.  Besides being cutely "meta-button", this brings up an important point: not all buttons are created equal.  Some are way more important than others - mute, pause, and skip forward, for example, are more important than sleep, sound-mode, or close-captioning.  A well-designed product will reflect this, making the important buttons easy to find (again, by both sight and touch).  But when the design doesn't do that?  Apparently it's time to get out the glue and shirt-buttons!
[Lifehacker & Reddit]

FasTrak Switches It All Up

Maybe I care more about this stuff than the average person, but this photo makes me physically cringe.  So, what happened here?  I think I know exactly what it is, and so does commenter Michael Zuschlag on the original post on Usability Forum:  "The simplest way to make a three-position slide switch is to make center be OFF and the outside positions each be ON for different circuits. The guts of the device treats Solo Driver as the default (no signal, thus OFF), while the other two carpool options require distinct electrical signals."  Basically, someone added this feature at the last minute - too late for the electronics to be redesigned to make "2 Person Carpool" the "OFF" position of the switch.  It happens all the time - and usually, industrial design and usability take the hit!

Google's Project Glass: Non-sloppy data...

Google's recent Project Glass concept has been talked about, and parodied, quite a bit lately.  So I'm not going to hit the usual points of ugly-or-not hardware, potentially intrusive advertising or error messages, commentary on how electronic connection makes us socially disconnected or clumsy, or why these videos always star insufferable hipsters.  Instead, I want to point out one thing they did well:  resisting the temptation of sloppy data.  In too many conceptual videos, designers want to show off the futuristic displays with oodles of spinning, fading, scaling, scrolling, morphing data - visually stunning, but more info than the human brain could realistically handle at once.  Thankfully, the Google concept shows one simple thing at a time - clear, unobtrusive notifications that could actually be used without causing a headache.  It's especially important in this kind of setup, where the display is always on and always in (and on!) your face.  So, good job, Google team!  Resisting sloppy data in a concept is step one - step two, resist feature creep in the actual product...

Haptic Steering Wheel for GPS Cues

If you're getting sick of your GPS's bossy robo-voice and mispronunciation of road names, hope is on the horizon!  AT&T Labs are trying out another way you can get your turn cues: through haptic vibrations in the steering wheel itself.  Clockwise vibrations indicate a right turn, counterclockwise mean a left turn, and early results have been good - studies show that there's less "inattentiveness" with this method than with the usual visual and audio GPS cues.  I'm a fan of keeping a tight loop between cues and actions - if you need to take action with your hands (turning the wheel), then why not provide the signal to... your hands?  On the other hand (so to speak), road vibrations may provide background noise that would make it difficult to be sure you're getting a cue.  Even so, it's a design well worth exploring.
[via Technology Review & Gizmodo]

Left- and Right-Hand Sensing

This kind of thing must happen hundreds of times a day: a driver wants his passenger to enter a new destination in the car's GPS, but can't because that function is blocked while the car is in motion.  It's a safety feature designed to keep the driver from distraction, but it overshoots and blocks the passenger from helping.  This situation calls for a new sensor, something that's capable of distinguishing a passenger's interaction from a driver's interaction - and Cirque's new sensor that can tell which hand you're using seems like the right (or left?) way to go.  If it's the left hand being used on the center dashboard, that's the passenger - unless the driver is doing some crazy contortions, of course.  A sensor like this would be useful for the most part, although (like many sensors) probably annoying when it reads things wrong.  But still, the more sensors the better, so the whole system can see what's really going on, and work as it's designed.

eReader: One Worthy Dedicated Device

As tablets become more and more popular, device makers and users are figuring out how and where they like to do things: email, web stuff, games, videos, music, reading...  Generally, tablets are a great all-in-one device.  But it's starting to seem like one single-purpose dedicated device is still worthwhile: the humble eInk electronic reader.  And it's not about the features they offer - long battery life, sunlight-readable display, small and lightweight and low-cost - but rather it's about the features they lack.  As pointed out by the New York Times and Gizmodo, reading is an activity that's best with full immersion and no distractions - and while multifunction tablets are all about distractions, eReaders simply lack the capability.  It's the same frame of mind that makes you want to turn your phone off (or chuck it into the ocean) while on vacation:  disconnect, get away, and lose yourself in a book.  And unlike your tablet, you can trust your eReader to leave you to it.

The Case For Cases

Gizmodo recently posted a plea for people to stop ruining their phones with a stupid case - and while I respect that opinion (and love their blog, as the source for almost half of my own posts!), I feel compelled to make the case for phone cases.  Reasonable people may disagree, but I think both sides deserve to be represented!  So, to address some of their points:

1. "It's unnatural. Your phone wasn't designed to be covered up." True enough, but your phone also wasn't designed to be invincible. It was design to look sexy, and to be as thin as possible. People are willing to blame themselves when they drop and shatter their phones - but the design shares some of the blame for enabling it.  A case makes up for an artificially de-prioritized design goal.

2. "It's not worth it."  They're talking about resale value, scratches, stuff like that - but I'm more concerned with the case protecting the phone against a catastrophic drop that kills the phone entirely.  In that case, $30 to protect a $600 total-replacement cost isn't a bad deal!

3. Consider the point of view.  Like I said, I love Gizmodo - but they're all tech writers.  Their whole lives involve getting and playing with all the newest electronics, so the value they place on any one device is probably much lower than those of us with one phone. They know they'll get the next one as soon as it comes out - and the early-upgrade cost is a business expense. We should all be so lucky - and live caseless and carefree.

As for me?  My iPhone 4S is in a case at the moment; it'll probably go naked once it's one year old, like my 3G did.  So people can come to their own conclusions - but in any case (ha), be sure to see both sides!

Phone Stack: Unpressable buttons for social etiquette...

There's little denying that ever-present devices and always-on networks have taken a toll on basic social interactions - it's never been easier to be with friends or family without really being there.  To combat this, some people make rules: I'm sure oodles of parents enforce a strict "no phones at the dinner table."  To apply it to your peers, though, takes a little something extra - and gamifying the rule might just do it.  This game, most commonly called Phone Stack, is pretty simple:  stack your phones on the table at the beginning of a meal, and whoever breaks the stack first pays for everyone.  It makes your buttons unpressable, literally - unless you want to pay.  In the meantime, I guess you'll have no choice but to socialize with the other people who are actually there!
[via Gizmodo]

FreeKey, the press-to-open keyring...

I was just saying how much I love purely mechanical innovations, and along comes another one to make my day!  FreeKey one-ups the normal spiral metal keyring by simply adding a small bump in the metal.  The result is a pressable (yes!) spot on the ring that will flex it right open - no painful prying required.  Clever, functional, and I'd say ready for the market!
[via Gizmodo]

Pinch Hanger - Save your necks!

Being a mechanical engineer myself, I'm a sucker for innovations that are entirely mechanical - they prove that we haven't ceded everything to the digital world just yet!  So my thanks goes out to design student Jaineel Shah and his Pinch Hanger, which rethinks the interaction between shirts and hangers.  The right geometry and material allow the hangar to squeeze together, making it small enough to not stretch the necks of your shirts.  It hits all the sweet spots: it's simple, intuitive, and functional in an obvious way.  It even passes the "why didn't I think of that?" test.  Well done, Jaineel - let's see this on the market soon!
[via Core77 - and thanks for the heads-up, Jonathan Jackson!]

Foosball with Adjustable Goals

Sometimes when you play a game, you find that you're horribly mismatched against the your opponent - and the whole thing becomes no fun.  (I'm looking at you, Josh Whitten, air-hockey ringer.)  Well it turns out that a simple design feature can easily adjust each player's handicap.  Perhaps the first good idea ever from the pages of Hammacher Schlemmer, The Handicapping Foosball Table has goals that can independently made wider or narrower.  The same concept could be applied, with varying degrees of mechanical complexity, to almost any goal-based game or sport: billiards, basketball, mini golf - and of course, air hockey.  Bring it on, Josh!
[via Gizmodo]

Invisible Magnetic Drawer Lock

There's some truth to the notion that the most secure lock is the one you can't even find - if you don't even know where to start, picking it becomes practically impossible!  That's why I like the "Covert" invisible magnetic drawer lock from Quirky - it's not just a clean minimalist design, it's even more effective than normal locks.  The only problem with this kind of product is that it relies on its secret for its effectiveness - so if the product ever becomes too popular, it'll essentially stop working!
[via Gizmodo]

GymPact: Work out, or it'll cost ya...

I love products that users inflict on themselves in order to change their behavior for the better (remember the cash-shredding alarm clock?), and this one definitely counts.  GymPact is a system that pays you to go to the gym - and charges you when you don't.  It's pretty simple: you commit to a certain workout schedule, pay money when you don't go, and that same money gets paid out to people who do keep their schedule. The app seems to have clever enforcement techniques, like making sure you check in to the gym by actually being at its location as determined by your phone. Hey, if it makes people work out more, I'm all for it!

Unpressable Hotel Light Switches

I took these photos of two tabletop lamps in the same hotel room in Phoenix last week.  (Don't ask about the Fiesta Bowl, by the way.)  First, a quick word about usability design in hotel rooms: make everything obvious.  The nature of a hotel room means that all users are novices; their stay is so transitory, there's no time to become an experienced user.  So, are these two switches obvious?  No; in fact, one must be twisted while the other must be pressed, and neither visually suggests the correct action.  And putting two lamps with differently-operating but visually identical switches in the same room is a very bad move!  What any hotel chain would be wise to do is opt for large, obvious buttons on every device:  if it's a button, make it a big ol' mashable BUTTON.  If it's a knob, make it something that would be at home on an old-school stereo.  Don't make me spend extra brainpower figuring out a room I'll never stay in again anyway!

Does Form Make a Camera?

This one comes from old pal Jonathan Jackson, and it's a little silly on the surface - but like a lot of silly products, it's packing some design commentary just underneath the surface.  What you're looking at there is an iPhone case - and yep, it makes it look just like a somewhat old-fashioned camera.  Besides the disguise, the Gizmon iCa adds some function: it lets you attach different lenses to the iPhone camera in the bottom left corner, and features a big tactile shutter button and optical viewfinder.  But what's really apparent here is that smartphones have generally failed as a form factor for a camera.  You can't find the shutter button (if a real one even exists); your finger often blocks the oddly-placed lens, and holding the phone only by its edges (to prevent touchscreen interaction) just begs for an accidental drop.  Something like this silly case could actually improve the usability of the phone as a camera.  Now if only it didn't look quite like that...
[via TechCrunch]