Sheath Scissors cut knife-style without cutting fingers...

Scissors often get used as knives when they're the only blade readily available, and it's always... well, a little risky.  Quirky has a clever design fix: Sheath Scissors, which safely protect the other blade in the fully-open position. More cutting (of stuff) with less cutting (of fingers)!
[via Gizmodo]

Serendipitous feature: Google as a printer test page...

It wouldn't be quite right to call this a clever design - not on Google's part, at least - but it's certainly a brilliant improvisation. If you need to test your printer, just print the Google home page: the logo uses all the colors, the little bit of text uses black ink, and the whole thing is so sparse and white that it won't drain your ink cartridges. Thanks to Reddit user zackofalltrades for the idea, and Lifehacker for the image!

Unpleasant Design as Behavior Manipulation

The Unpleasant Design blog, run by Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic, hosts examples of how design can manipulate people and their behavior in public places, by making things they might want to do, well, unpleasant. It's a workable substitute for active enforcement (or fixing the core causes of some of these behaviors), and yields some interesting designs. Seen here are anti-skateboarding metal strips, anti-posting textured pole covers, and anti-bum-napping armrests on benches. There's plenty more on their blog, if you feel like slumming among the less desirable human behaviors!
[via Core77]

Pinch-to-zoom has been one(finger)-upped...

Since the advent of all-touch smartphones and tablets, pinch-to-zoom has been a hallmark of intuitive gestural interaction. And while it's intuitive, it's unfortunately not very convenient - it's awkward at best, and almost impossible to accomplish one-handed. The team at Google Maps must have realized this, and designed a one-finger zoom: double-tap anywhere on the map, and drag your finger up or down to zoom in or out. Those blue circles and arrows shown in this illustration aren't actually onscreen - as with all gestural interfaces, real estate is at a premium and visual clutter is a no-no, which leads some to call this feature a "secret." But Google appropriately assumes that users will be quick learners - especially when the benefits are so compelling!
[via Gizmodo]

Curtain Ring + Hook = "Branch"

If there's one company that specializes in "clever and useful," it's probably Quirky - and their Branch concept fits the bill. They're a successful mating between shower curtain rings and clothing hooks that make you wonder why they haven't already existed for decades. Now why didn't I think of that...?
[via Gizmodo]

Ketchup Presser - Faster fast food...

Having done a little fast-food-related design myself as a student, this concept caught my eye: the Ketchup Presser provides a clean (well, "clean") place to put your ketchup, as well as a clever way of getting it out of the pack. After tearing the pack open, you pull it through the slot to the side of the dipping area - and the ketchup is efficiently squeezed out, right in place. The concept is probably doomed by the margins of the fast food biz, where cost increases must be justified by demonstrable ROI - but still, not bad!
[via Gizmodo]

iPad Bathroom Stand: Time to come clean...

Admit it: you use your mobile device in the bathroom. It's supposed to be taboo, and it existed for books even before smartphones and tablets. But you do it, I do it, we all do it - so let's all just admit it and start accessorizing. CTA's iPad/TP stand is a bold start; happy bathrooming, everyone.
[via Gizmodo]

Design Placebo: Seatbelt Knife

The Gerber Daily Carry Hook Knife is designed to save lives, but it goes about it in a sneaky way. It's marketed as a device that "can be used to quickly cut yourself out of a piece of clothing, seatbelt or other safety strap, should you ever get stuck in a tight spot." And, okay, that's true - but the real effect is to make carriers feel comfortable wearing seatbelts in the first place, without worrying about being trapped later. So it really saves lives by convincing more people to fasten their seatbelts - not by cutting anyone out of them!
[via Core77]

Kong's Mutable Squeaking Dog Toys

I have great respect for Kong's dog toys, for consistently being among the few toys able to survive my pit bull's enthusiastic "love." So it's not surprising that they've found another way to inspire devotion from humans and canines alike: mutable squeaking toys.  A small sliding switch disengages the squeaker, so you can silence the toy without taking it away from your pooch. It's a small feature that could go a long way toward keeping the household peace!
[via Gizmodo]

Broom Groomer: Sweeping the sweeper...

Quirky's Broom Groomer, the "broom cleaning dustpan," is a simple and useful innovation, allowing users to strain the dust bunnies from a broom after sweeping - alone, enough to merit a mention here on Unpressable Buttons.  But it's also been the subject of a patent/design plagiarism fight described by Gizmodo - to sum up, Quirky came out with the Broom Groomer, then OXO released the very similar Upright Sweep Set, but it turns out both were essentially the same as a now-expired patent from 1919. So, what's been stolen is the notion of modernizing an old idea, maybe? Regardless, it's a clever and useful design - so it's good to see it on the market!

Glide Knife Squeegee: Things we don't need...

I'd originally saved this product, Quirky's Glide knife squeegee, in the mental category of "clever and useful." But as I look at it again, I've come to believe that it's just... too much.  It's another piece of plastic, riding shotgun on your kitchen knife, maybe getting in the way of your knife grip, and requiring its own cleaning regimen. And for what?  "Keeping a chef’s fingers safe from slicing, along with the stench of garlic or onion?"  Thanks, but I'll use my finger, or a paper towel if necessary, and save my eight bucks.
[via Gizmodo]

Headphone Cords: Which side is it, anyway?

With all the things we have standardized in the modern world - from electrical outlets to tire inflation valves to toilet paper tubes - it can be a little shocking when we run into something that sticks out as not standardized. Kyle Wagner writes in Gizmodo about one that irks him: the location of headphone jacks on computers versus which side the cord enters the headphones. He explains, "Headphone cords almost uniformly insert into the left cup... And the headphone jack on iMacs is on the right side as you face the screen... That means when you're wearing your headphones at your desk, you've got to either wear your headphones backwards or drape your cord across your workspace."  Though the connector itself has been standardized for decades, it looks like the industry stopped one step short of finishing the job! The question is, how do you create a standard for this now and make it stick...?

Holstee Reframe upcycles Detroit houses & greeting cards...

Holstee has always impressed with its commitment to real upcycling, shown so far in their Delhi Rang wallet made from plastic bags and shirts made from post-consumer waste or reclaimed thrift shop items.  Their latest project is no exception:  the Reframe is an attractively hipster-rugged frame made from deconstructed abandoned Detroit houses, and in a double-whammy of upcycling, they suggest using it transform greeting cards into display-worthy art.  Clever and commendable as always, Holstee team!

Sony's Decline: When great tech isn't enough...

Sohrab Vossoughi wrote last year in the Harvard Business Review about the decline of Sony in the last two decades, and how the strategy that served it so well in the past just isn't enough now. Sony's products have always had great technology, capability, and quality - but now it's the design of the user experience that matters most.  According to Vossoughi: "In the early 80s, simply delivering technology in a usable form was still the biggest challenge, and Sony got it right before anyone else. ... In [today's] experience economy, these expectations are reversed. Technology is a given, and the question of 'what are the specs?' has been replaced by 'what is it like to use?'"  It's a refrain that I've heard professionally, too: clients claim that some tech has been tried before and didn't catch on, when what was really needed was a well-designed experience around that tech.  So Sony, don't fire those engineers - but hire some product designers to make a bigger difference!

Digital Calendars Wasting Space on the Past

Skeuomorphism is easy to identify when it mimics the aesthetic elements of tangible objects, but it can have even more impact when it's subtly copying interactions from the physical world. In Wired, Clive Thompson points out this influence in digital calendar apps, where the monthly view stubbornly sticks to showing a single calendar month, regardless of how much of that month is in the past. This is relic of paper calendars where it made sense to put each month on a single sheet - but digital calendars are free to show just the current week plus the next several weeks, a much more useful proposition. So, why don't they...?  Skeuomorphismmmm!!

The Never-Hungry Caterpillar: Empathy in design...

That white blob sketched into the image above is the Never-Hungry Caterpillar, a concept designed and/or written about by Marc Hassenzahl and Evgeny Morozov which calls users' attention to the power wasted by electronics in standby mode. Here's how: "The Caterpillar has three different modes: It breathes slowly in the case of 'normal' energy consumption through a device, such as a TV. If the TV is switched to stand-by, the Caterpillar starts to twist and turn awkwardly, as if in pain. This can be resolved by disconnecting the TV entirely. The metaphor of a caterpillar touches upon people's tendency to help and take care of living things."  What's innovative here is the play on guilt and empathy - this isn't a blinking light or a buzzing alarm, it's a living thing in agony! Or at least that's the trick; they're counting on a very basic, almost lizard-brain instinct to help something in pain. As we grow desensitized to various alerts and messages, this is essentially an escalation in the arms race for our attention. Shrewd, manipulative... and possibly, effective!

Kombo: Fun with specialized tools!

I have a soft spot for specialized tools: niche products refined through decades or centuries of iterations by and for the experts. As a layperson, seeing a product of this type is like looking into a parallel universe where they're ubiquitous - it's amazing not merely that they exist, but that they're so well-developed. The Kombo Tool fits in this category, and if you couldn't tell by looking (I sure couldn't), it's for fishing. It's a bonker (yes!), a filet knife, a scooper, and a sharpener - of course, it's waterproof and it floats in case it's dropped overboard. It sounds like a well-designed product that I'll never use - but it just makes me happy that it exists!
[via Gizmodo]

The Aspirin Point: Shrinking ingredients liberate design

Rain Noe recently wrote in Core77 about the "Aspirin Point", where the functional component of a product (a few milligrams of the drug) becomes so small that the physical design of the product (the pill) becomes essentially independent. This is incredibly liberating from a design point of view, because the product can be designed purely for the best possible use case. The Aspirin Point is gradually reaching consumer electronics, and USB flash drives are one of the first products to get there. In the tiny drive shown here (images from Rain), the cylinder that protrudes from the port isn't needed for electronics - it's purely ergonomic and aesthetic. What's the right shape? The right diameter, edge, and surface for a user to be able to remove it easily but prevent snagging on things? It's great to consider those questions all by themselves!

The Yellow Dog Project: Designing a message...

As a dog owner - especially since my dog is an energetic pit bull - I try to be responsible when my dog is approached by other animals or children. But it can be difficult, when even the humans don't always ask before interacting with her - and when they do, the question often carries a distinct connotation: "Is she friendly?"  I don't want to answer "no" because she is friendly, but she also needs her space, so the answer to that question is longer and more awkward than the asker expected. The Yellow Dog Project is trying to make that answer both easier and preemptive, suggesting a yellow ribbon or bow on the leash of any dog who needs this kind of consideration. It's a good attempt so far: the yellow-ribbon signal is flexible enough to be easy but specific enough to be recognizable. The trick is getting word of it to catch on, because its effectiveness will depend on reaching a critical mass. An awareness campaign by the ASPCA would be a good ol' 20th-century method, but the Yellow Dog Project currently has over 23,000 likes on Facebook. That's a start - now if only other dogs could be taught what that yellow ribbon means, too...

Good Design Starts with the Right Problem

I recently attended a workshop on the Stanford's design innovation methodology given by Jeremy Utley, and he shared an excellent story about defining the right problem before designing the solution. Paraphrasing and simplifying: a project brief called for less-expensive infant incubators (about $2k) for use in Nepalese hospitals, where normal incubators (about $20k) were too costly to purchase and maintain. It sounded like a straightforward, well-defined project - until the team went to Nepal and noticed that there were no babies in the hospital. They learned that most babies were actually born in rural areas because parents couldn't make the long trip to a faraway hospital - and so the problem was redefined. Instead of "a low-cost incubator for hospitals," the real need was to "keep infants warm in rural areas" - in a way that's easy, portable, and works without electricity.  The result of the effort became the Embrace Infant Warmer, a $25 sleeping-bag-like pouch that uses a phase-change material ("rechargeable" in boiling water) to keep a constant temperature. It's a fantastic example of how assumptions should always be questioned as a first step in design - it can mean the difference between merely giving the client what they ask for, versus truly giving  users what they need!

eBooks Stuck in the Physical World

I do a lot of reading on my digital devices: I read Kindle books on my phone and my tablet (until I left the dang thing on a plane), and read plenty of newspaper, magazine, and blog articles on mobile and laptop screens. Strangely, only one of these sources seems stuck in the past: eBooks, which insist on dividing the text into pages. Pages have no meaning on digital devices - just look at all the content that's happy to scroll vertically - but eBook software seems to insist that users want the "page" metaphor to live on. Gizmodo recently asked why, and Wired (where this image comes from!) did the same a year ago. Long story short: it's a crowd-pleaser, more a showpiece to entice buyers than a feature that helps users. At least for now - it could be argued that by comforting reluctant users with familiar paradigms, eBook apps are positioning themselves to usher those users gradually into the future. If so, I'm eagerly awaiting that future, where the versatility of digital content can be leveraged instead of dumbed down - and in the meantime, having the option to de-paginate wouldn't hurt!

No (Connected) Product is an Island

Products these days are tending away from being stand-alone entities, and are instead gateways connected to ecosystems of other products and services. An iPhone isn't an island; the App Store, iTunes, iCloud, and all of Apple's services are critical parts of what it is. This is a shrewd play for companies with good ecosystem offerings like Apple, Android, and Amazon - but for those without solid accompanying ecosystems, it means that even very strong product design isn't enough. Gizmodo pointed out a few well-designed products that are suffering this fate in a post titled Hardware Comes Last: the Blackberry Z10, Nokia Lumia 920, and Chromebook Pixel. In each case, the individual product is excellent - but the ecosystems are so lacking that the whole product falls short. Perhaps the best hope is that some design elements will be stolen from these orphaned products and find their way into major ecosystems!

Feedly: Very good, but with surprising misses...

Like many blog readers, I've been searching for a replacement for the beloved but soon-to-depart Google ReaderFeedly has emerged as the heir apparent, and with good reason: it's attractively designed, cross-platform, customizable, and duplicates the vast majority of Reader's functionality. However, there are a few surprising holes in Feedly's offering - and I thought I'd point them out here so fellow migrators will be warned, and maybe even the Feedly team will take notice and fix them!
  1. Next Article / Previous Article: These are literally unpressable buttons because they don't exist: they're available as keyboard shortcuts, but not onscreen buttons. Making them keyboard shortcuts acknowledges them as worthwhile - so shouldn't I at least have the option to use my mouse for this interaction?
  2. Save For Later: The location of the save-for-later button (the equivalent of "starring" in Google Reader) is illogical: it's only at the end of each article. If I'm saving something for later, it's likely because I haven't read it - which means I haven't gotten to the end of the article! Give me this button alongside the headline - that's where I really need it, especially in the full-article view mode I use most.
  3. Unread Only: I use the "unread only" filter - but the way this filter actually works seems to be: "unread only, unless there are no unread articles, in which case show all articles." I hope this is a bug and not an extremely poor design decision! It's especially bad since I also filter by "oldest first" - so when I log on, I see either (a) new unread articles or (b) hundreds of month-old articles. If there's nothing new, why not give me the satisfaction of that big green checkmark I'm beginning to love so much?
So, Feedly ( #feedly or @feedly ), what do ya say? I'm a fan, but I could be happier...

The Feel of Non-Tactile GUIs...

Despite the lack of tactile feedback, digital interfaces have a "feel" - and one of trickier elements for this are dropdown submenus.  You know them: hovering your mouse over a menu option in a column causes more options to pop out to the right. The trick is that if the submenus pop out too quickly, the interaction is "slippery," and you can too easily slide to an adjacent option and the wrong submenu. So a delay is added, which is effective in preventing these mistakes but makes it feel "sluggish." Well, Ben Kamens has discovered how Amazon's dropdown submenus are lightning-quick and error free: tracking the path of the mouse, rather than its location. He determined that if the mouse moves from a menu option to any location in the colored triangle (shown for illustration here, but not actually visible), the current submenu stays open; if it leaves the triangle, the submenu changes with no delay. So it's not slippery, but it's still quick. It's the GUI equivalent of a tight-cornering nimble sports car - and that's a pretty good feel! Check out his explanation for some good animated examples of dropdown submenus that are slippery, sluggish, and just right.
[via Gizmodo]

When Product Specs Become Meaningless

Gizmodo posted back in November 2012 that PPI - pixels per inch on digital displays - was about to become the "new most meaningless spec."  It made me think about the forward progress of many product specifications until they reach a plateau of meaninglessness - where every product has it, making it better wouldn't matter, and so it's not worth talking about anymore. This has already happened with, for example, the number of colors a display can show, which is in the millions for essentially all displays. Sure, it's technically possible to keep going into billions and then trillions of colors - but nobody would be able to see the difference. PPI is about to join this club, with Apple's marketing blazing the trail by coining the term "Retina Display." But it's worth noting that they've constrained themselves with this designation: it makes no sense to create anything more than a Retina display, since it is by definition the PPI at which the human eye can no longer see pixelation. So, this is where the PPI arms race will end - and we focus on other specs that haven't yet become meaningless, but eventually will: processor speed, RAM and storage, network speed, camera resolution, and on and on and on...

HapiFork nudges you to slow your eating...

Fitting squarely in that tricky category of "products designed to save us from ourselves," the HapiFork is a chubby little utensil that aims to make you, well, less chubby.  It's generally known that eating too quickly contributes to overeating, so the HapiFork detects the rate of your fork servings and vibrates if you're eating to fast.  In theory, a fine mechanism for self-control - but in practice, there could be problems. Meals are social occasions, and using a product with such a stigma (and no good looks to save it) may be a nonstarter. Still, similar user-guidance has worked for Sonicare toothbrushes which time your brushing and beep to cue a move to the next quadrant of your mouth - so maybe there's hope yet!
[via Gizmodo]

Starbucks Reusable Cup: A Helpful Hybrid

Starbucks recently announced a $1 reusable cup option for your caffeine fix, in an attempt to reduce the cardboard cup waste resulting from over 98% of their drink sales. They know it's a tough proposition to BYOC - something fragile, expensive, even sentimental - but hope that an impulse buy might be persuasive, especially since it pays for itself over 10 drinks with 10-cent discounts. It's a hybrid between permanent and disposable, where you can reuse it but wouldn't really care if you lost it - the same tack Gladware took to compete with Tupperware. It doesn't last as long, it doesn't cost as much - but it shifts the balance from disposable to reusable, if not all the way to permanent and durable. That shift could help, if people buy into it - and here's hoping they will.
[via Gizmodo, photo from The Parkhurst Group]

TrailerTail, for shapely aerodynamic truck butts...

The trucking industry is designed for efficiency: modular shipping containers, standardized everything, and even sleeper cabs help maintain razor-thin margins. However, the versatility-emphasized rectangular shape of the containers isn't designed for aerodynamic efficiency - and the boxy butt of a truck leaves a lot of gas-guzzling turbulence in its wake. But even if you can't change the standard, you may be able to adapt to it - which ATDynamics has done with its TrailerTail add-on. The flaps unfold from the back to streamline air flow and save fuel, reportedly paying for themselves in under a year. When every little bit counts, a clever design like this can make a big difference.
[via Core77]

Bevel Cup, a clean-storing coffee mug...

Sometimes you don't notice a problem until a design comes along to fix it - and darned if coffee mugs don't fit the bill.  Normal  mugs can be stored sitting right side up, in which case dust and debris can fall in; or they can be stored upside down, which prevents proper drying if they're wet and gets the rim dirty regardless.  The Bevel Cup from designers Gao Fenglin & Zhou Buyi finds a third way, with the cup resting on the flat 40-degree angle of its handle.  Moisture drains, dust falls off, and the rim is held off the resting surface.  Ergonomics may not be the best here, but if you tend toward germophobia this may be the mug for you!
[via Gizmodo]

iPhone Buttons Now More Pressable!

Back in 2011 I wrote about some unpressable buttons on the iPhone: the media-player buttons that appear when double-clicking the home button from a locked screen were too close together, causing accidental track skips instead of the intended pauses. You can see that problem in the left screenshot; I mocked up a quick fix shown in the center; now Apple has fixed it in iOS 6.1 as shown on the right! Yes, I know that correlation doesn't imply causation - but I'd like to think I was one voice among many who pointed out this problem. Good job, Apple, for making your buttons much more pressable!

Soccer Ball for the Third World

How do you take a mature and standardized first-world product - a soccer ball - and adapt it for the third world?  The One World Futbol Project found that it takes a little rethinking: instead of a standard inflated ball that would quickly pop on a rocky makeshift soccer field, they designed a "virtually indestructible" solid foam ball that never needs a pump. The effort has all the other hallmarks of a good-for-everyone design: sustainability (the ball far outlasts normal ones, reducing waste), a buy-one-give-one program for first-world patrons, no child labor; heck, even Sting was involved. It's good to see that not all the design effort is being put into the newest state-of-the-art World Cup championship ball - good design can make more of a difference here than there.
[via Core77]

Parental Product Design #1: Diaper Genie

It's been a while since the last new post here on Unpressable Buttons, but there's a good reason: I'm a new father! That also means a lot more coverage of parenting products, so let's start with a doozie: the Diaper Genie. This strikes me as a design that's fairly mature, seeming to have been refined over many iterations in a few short years. It's ended up packing some impressive features (and from the drawing above, heavily-patented features) into a pretty low-cost product: the continuous "tube" of bagging to simplify liner-changing; the well-located and obviously-childproof cutter to shear the bagging when removing a load; the two-stage sealing doors that work like an air lock to keep poopy smells in; and of course, the foot pedal, because you don't have any extra hands when changing a diaper. It's satisfyingly efficient, functional, no-nonsense - and unlike many baby products, non-cutesy. That's fine, though - the baby herself is plenty cute for me!