Apple's Abandonment of Usability Principles

Usability-design uberadvocates (and former Apple employees) Bruce Tognazzini and Don Norman recently lamented how Apple seems to have abandoned principles of user-centered design in a scathing but thoughtful article in Fast Company. They point out that Apple has historically been among the best practitioners of these principles, but has lately overlooked them in favor of aesthetics. For example, "Discoverability" of features now takes a back seat to keeping the interface clean. "Recovery" is severely underimplemented as the system lacks a "back" button like Android's. "Consistency" can't be found among the dozens of differently-configured gestures across many touch devices. It's a good read, both cautionary and instructive - and here's hoping Apple pays attention, too!

Apple Pencil's Precarious Charging

Apple recently announced a stylus called the Pencil, and Kinja's CitizenjaQ quickly noticed that its charging design leaves a little to be desired. It sticks out the end of your iPad's bottom port - straight out, begging to be snapped off and cost you a cool Benjamin.  Even more strangely, you can only charge the Pencil from an iPad that, itself, is not charging. CitizenjaQ summarized it best: "Right? That’s weird?" (Plus, you're going to lose the charger cap in no time.)

Walkbump: Fist bump to cross the street.

I've always said that buttons should be enjoyable to press. Well, I bet you can't fist-bump this crosswalk button without cracking a smile and having a better day. Walkbump is exactly what it seems to be, and I'm a fan!
[via Engadget]

GPS Uses Kids' Voices in School Areas

Driving is often such a monotonous activity that it becomes mindless, and these zombified drivers aren't the best at looking out for hazardous situations. So, Swedish agency If Insurance designed a way to snap drivers out of their glazed-over state of mind: when near a school, GPS navigation instructions are spoken in childrens' voices. It's a great way to use an unexpected change, and the instinctual response of adults to the voice of a child, to mind-hack drivers into a state of awareness. As I've always said, little things like this can add up to make big differences!
[via Gizmodo]

Airhook, for how we fly now...

Many airlines are moving in the direction of eliminating built-in entertainment systems, since we're all carrying our own systems in the form of smartphones and tablets. But actually using your mobile device in a plane is still a pain: there's nowhere to put the darn things! The Airhook looks to solve that problem, with a system that looks to be versatile enough to hold any number of devices in any orientation on the seatback, and a cup holder to boot. It looks like they're saving upfront costs by 3D-printing the final products, which I think is prudent - it may take off, it may not, so make each one as it's ordered.
[via Gizmodo]

Cantilever Flatware levitates above the mess...

After using a knife to spread butter or jam, I sometimes try to set it down on the table or counter carefully so that it doesn't spread its mess to the surface and vice versa; I almost always fail. Cantilever Flatware, it seems, is made for failures like me: it's designed to levitate the business end above the tabletop (as long as you set it down the right way). It's unclear how this affects the ergonomics of the utensils, but I have a few tables and countertops that'd appreciate the change!
[via Gizmodo]

Tablets for Prison

I've previously written about the situation-specific design of Sony's radio for prisons, but like the rest of the world, inmates are ready to move on to tablets. The JP5 mini is designed precisely for use behind bars, with a clear case so contraband can't be hidden inside and a locked-down version of Android that allows full access to prion officials. It's also essentially indestructible - because the only thing worse than a severely locked-down tablet is a broken one!
[via Coolest Gadgets & Gizmodo]

Bike-Thru Fast Food Packaging

Drive-thru fast food (and yes, I believe "thru" is the correct spelling in this case) is one of countless ways that car culture is reinforced. We may want to try to back away from dependence on cars, but not at the expense of greasy shame food! Never fear; here's a concept for bike-friendly McDonald's packaging, which hooks over your handlebars and then spreads open for easy gorging. At least in this case you will have burned some of the calories beforehand!
[AdsOfTheWorld via Gizmodo]

Crossword Wrapping Paper

It's no fun when you need to wrap a gift for a 35-year-old dude, but find that your wrapping paper supply only includes leftovers from bridal- and baby-shower gifts. I've previously written about the versatility of silver for all purposes, but Fabio Milito has one-upped that with "Wordless" crossword wrapping paper. Simply highlight the relevant occasion, slap on a bow, and you're good to go! It's the Swiss Army knife of gifting - and one that you might want to keep handy.
[via Dornob]

Origami flower pot grows with its plant

Plants eventually outgrow their pots like kids outgrow their shoes - but just like the recently-covered Shoe That Grows, a clever design can allow the pot to grow with the plant. Studio Ayaskan's GROWTH does so with a clever origami-inspired design, which seems to look quite elegant at all three stages shown here - though I wonder about any awkward half-unfolded middle stages. Regardless, I'd welcome the liberation from having to re-pot plants!
[via MentalFloss - thanks for the tip, Jess!]

The Quality of Weight (and How to Fake It)

Of the many ways to communicate quality in a product, weight is perhaps the easiest to fake. In many physical products, high-performance components simply weigh more; thus, heavier or denser products deliver the impression of quality. Unlike build tolerances and genuine materials, however, weight can be inexpensively added just for weight's sake. It seems that's the case with the headphones shown in Bolt's teardown on Medium, where almost a third of the overall weight is due to superfluous metal pieces. It's worth noting that headphones are a product where extra weight actually detracts from the real use experience - but still, the weight adds to the perceived quality, and users may even experience a placebo effect. We humans are pretty easy to trick!
[via Gizmodo]

The Incredible Aluminum Can

It's a big accomplishment for any design to reach that level of maturity where it quietly does its job perfectly and reliably to the point where it becomes almost invisible. The aluminum beverage can has gotten there, and it's allowed us to forget all the amazing design and engineering that went into it. "Engineer Guy" Bill Hammack does a wonderful summary video, explaining among other things the genius of the modern pop top. Personally, I didn't know that it starts as a 2nd-class lever to pull out and break the can's seal (much easier than pushing into the pressurized can), then automatically changes to a 1st-class lever when that pressure is released to bend the tab out of the way. Just that little bit of engineering has prevented untold numbers of removable pop-tops from becoming sharp and dangerous litter. If you want to learn more, the video is well worth 11:38 of your time!
[via Gizmodo]

iOS and the Unpressable Shift Button

Apple has always tried to worship the dual deities of clean design and usability - and while those two often complement each other, sometimes they butt heads. Case in point: iOS 7.1 changed the color scheme of the shift key so that users just can't tell whether it's on or off. It blends in with function keys when it's off, and with the letter keys when it's on, but neither color intuitively suggests an "active" state. Allen Pike points out that making it stand out in any way would easily solve the problem, but standing out seems to be against Apple's dogma of clean design. A fix may be in the works, but in the meantime its aesthetics 1, usability 0.
[Thanks to Jonathan Jackson for the tip on this one!]

The Shoe That Grows

Keeping children in shoes is especially important in developing nations, but the cost of keeping up with kids' growing feet makes it a challenge for many families. The Shoe That Grows is designed to address that, by adjusting its size along with a child's feet from age 1 to 5. It's durable (lasting 5 years) and low-cost (reportedly down to $10 per pair) - and the design of how it adjusts to foot size is downright brilliant. Here's hoping this design can follow through with the impact it seems capable of!
[via Core77]

Towel Timer: Making use of unused space...

If you appreciate efficiency, simplicity, and overall cleverness, here's a treat: the Towel Timer is a one-handed mechanical kitchen timer that discreetly sits atop a paper towel holder. I love the fact that it occupies a previously unused space which happens to be easily accessible and visible - perfectly suited for its function. Add to that the satisfaction of simply turning a mechanical timer, instead of pressing beeping membrane buttons on a microwave timer, and it's a real delight!
[via Gizmodo]

Snuglet: The importance of the right force...

The MagSafe power connector on Apple laptops has always been a great design: it prevents cord-yanking table dives of expensive computers, and makes the power cord snap eagerly into place when plugging in. However, many users think the latest version is a little too weak, detaching unexpectedly and causing a prematurely dead battery. Along came a Kickstarted fix called the Snuglet, a tiny shim which increased the pullout force of the MagSafe - because no matter how brilliant the idea, a great design is only as good as its execution. Or at least, the best aftermarket fix...
[via CoolTools]

Taboo swaps buzzers for squeakers...

My wife recently purchased a new game of Taboo (for work, believe it or not), and we both discovered an interesting change: the old electronic buzzer had been replaced with a new squeezable squeaker. I applaud the change: it costs less, it's more recyclable, it doesn't need batteries, and a squeak works just as well as a buzz in letting your opponents know they just lost a point. The only thing it's worse at is pretending to be an electric razor for a chuckle. Oh well - I'll take it!

InfiniteUSB: Every plug's a port again...

The "U" in USB might as well stand for "ubiquitous" - it's a standard that's everywhere, used by most people many times every day. That means it's especially frustrating when you need more USB ports than you have (I'm looking at you, Macbooks). So here's a design which, if widely adopted, would really help: InfiniteUSB's plan is that every plug is also a port - so a plug doesn't take a port, but rather uses it and passes it along. I can think of more than a few times when this would come in handy - and those were just yesterday! Until everything's wireless and has infinite battery life (c'mon, future!), something like this is a great idea.
[via Gizmodo]

Parsonal: Mass-customized furniture...

Nashville-based Arrister has a new project called Parsonal: mass-customized furniture where customers can dial in the exact size, shape, and finish of a number of basic designs. This is pretty handy if you have a small or constrained space and need  just the right thing to fit; in the long view, such customization may enable more people to live comfortably in less space, increasing the efficiency of, you know, the entire human race. But that's the future; for now, it's just about getting a nice table that fits and matches your decor!
[via Core77]

Ideas vs Execution

The mythos of Silicon Valley tech innovation is very much about ideas: once you have the next great idea, success is assured and you'll change the world in no time. But it's just not true: execution is much more important. Julie Zhuo writes about it, pointing out that Google wasn't the first search engine - nor was the iPhone the first smartphone, and so on. Execution of the idea makes all the difference - and critically, that means that past failures of an idea don't necessarily invalidate the idea. Just make sure you have the right people to execute!

File-Naming in Real Life

Yep, this looks pretty familiar. I've always said that the best way to guarantee that more changes are coming is to label a file "final." Sure, there are real best practices for file naming (I'm a devotee of YYMMDD labeling so they self-sort, woohoo!), but hey, those are boring. This method gives a window into the chaos of creation!
[Doghouse Diaries, via Gizmodo]

Long Live the Pizza Saver!

In a world of fast-changing technologies, it's rare to find a product that passes the test of time - but if there's anything that has, it's that little plastic pizza saver. Gizmodo wrote an appreciation on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the patent, and sure enough, it doesn't seem to have changed a bit since. It's a design that's everything it needs to be and nothing more; efficiency, form, and function in perfect harmony. Not only that, but it benefits from the positive association of being something you see right before you eat pizza. Not a bad gig for a little piece of plastic!
[via Gizmodo]

"You must choose wisely..."

So if one of these buttons flushes the toilet (in an Amtrak train lavatory), what does the other one do? And which is which?? That nice red anodized one looks so tempting, it must be a trap...

Cover-brella keeps things together...

It's one of the tiny conveniences of life, but personally, I like having a cover for my umbrella: it keeps a dry umbrella looking clean and contained, and keeps a wet umbrella from soaking everything it touches. The price paid for an umbrella cover is keeping track of the darn thing, a tiny vinyl sleeve that's almost begging to become lost. Thankfully, it's Nendo to the rescue with the Cover-brella, which stores its cover inside the handle. If I can feel like I have everything just a little more together, especially on a rainy day, I'll take it!
[via Gizmodo]

Tiya Convenient Floor Drain: Yes please!

I'll present this without explanation, because, well, no explanation is needed! Perhaps that's why it won designer Chen Wanting a Red Dot Design Award. Now - where can I buy one...?
[via Core77]

Post-It Notes Go Digital

From years in the design industry, I've used more than my share of Post-It Notes: color-coded, clustered and grouped, with text and doodles, trying to find those all-important "insights." Inevitably, the result is captured with a few photos, then archived for reference. However, 3M thinks Post-Its can make a more useful digital transition, offering an app where individual notes are captured from that overall photo and made sortable on your device of choice. Granted, it won't be as smooth as the life-size tactile interaction of paper squares (at least not until we have wall-sized touchscreens in project rooms), but it's a start!
[via Engadget]

Big Phones & Thumb Zones

When the era of all-touchscreen smartphones began in ye olden days of 2007, screens were smaller: holding the phone in one hand, your thumb could reach (almost) any corner of the screen. But now the trend is toward larger screens - and since people still prefer one-handed use, mobile OS and app designers need to accommodate the limitations of real-life thumbs. Mobile developer Scott Hurff has a wonderful summary of this new reality, mapping the comfort zones of different touchscreen sizes and exploring the design features that fit them. It's worth a look - you'll realize that you can't simply make a phone bigger to make it bigger, or you'll end up with some very unhappy thumbs!
[via Core77]

Humangear puts humans first, gear second...

Instead of calling out a single product for good or bad usability design, this time I'll point to a whole company: humangear is doing a great job of putting user-centric design above everything else. All the products shown above are clever in their ways - one detail I love that's included in several of them is a recessed labeling area, so penned-on labels won't get rubbed off. Check them all out, and you just may find yourself buying a few! (And I'd like to point out that the title of this post is literally true.)
[via Core77]

Knee Defender: The dark side of product design...

I love the ability of good design to make life better for everyone. And then something like the Knee Defender comes along to remind me that it can be used for evil, too. It's a nefarious, wicked, irresponsible, and unfortunately effective device that prevents the airline passenger in front of you from reclining. It's been the cause of at least one flight-diverting in-air scuffle, has been banned by many airlines, and its accompanying etiquette guide is only good for a laugh. But hey, maybe it's good that this so-called "Me First" product has gotten some media attention - so that we all see how low we could go, and instead aim higher.

Buttons you don't use are "Unpressable!"

Ain't it the truth? (Although we should expect nothing less from a site called "Truth Facts.") In any case, the illustration on the left actually seems pretty tame compared to most remotes out there! Focus on the buttons we need and use; get the others out of the way.
[Truth Facts via Gizmodo]

The NoPhone: Fixing your fixation...

Happy 2015, everyone; if part of your new year's resolution is to spend more time with the real world and less time squinting at your smartphone, the NoPhone just might help. Like smokers develop oral fixations, smartphone users have fixated on a rectangular slab of a certain size and weight; this is that slab, and nothing more. As the site explains, it's "Battery Free, No Upgrades Necessary, Waterproof, Shatterproof" - all technology features are helpfully listed as "No." It's a clever piece of commentary - and who knows, maybe it's also a tool that could help some addicts out there.
[via Engadget]