Chip card readers' bad sound design

Here's a little gem from Roman Mars of the excellent podcast 99% Invisible. A recent episode was about sound design, specifically the NBC chimes, which are one of the few sounds ever successfully trademarked - worth a listen! Anyway, quoth Roman: "My current least-favorite sounds are from credit card chip readers that blare an obnoxious warning buzz that clearly signals to normal humans that something has gone wrong, even though it actually means everything went right, and it's time to remove your card." He's right: people do need to be reminded to remove their cards, but there's a huge disconnect between the intended message and the received message. Is there a more pleasant sound that also gets attention? Or can it be accomplished with any of the other senses? ("That smell means it's time to remove your card" - nah.) It's definitely a design problem in need of a good solution.

Time Buddy, for the weary globalized time-traveler

Scheduling a meeting for teams in two time zones can be challenging; increase it to three or four around the world (a feat my wife accomplishes frequently), and it's higher math than most mortals can do. Time Buddy is a well-designed solution to the problem: it's not too "simple" (in the modern trendy style) to be limited, and not too complex to be overwhelming. It's approachable and intuitive, with colors for business, personal, and sleep times, and it has more advanced features for those who need them. Best of all, that nice black highlighting rectangle slides gracefully to the best time by default, providing an easy instant answer. If you're scheduling a multi-time-zone meeting, check it out - I doubt you can do any better.
[via Lifehacker]

Actibump, a speed bump only for speeders

Speed bumps have a certain brute-force, undeniable effectiveness: you'd better slow down, or you car (and your butt) will be very unhappy. One problem is that this affects those obeying the speed limit as well as speeders; everyone gets a compromised ride experience. Swedish firm Edeva has designed a solution: Actibump, a speed-dependent speed bump. Radar detects the speed of an oncoming vehicle and adjusts the bump accordingly, and if you're below the speed limit, there's no bump at all. There are certainly tradeoffs here: the unit could break down (which traditional speed bumps won't do); there's the issue of educating the driving public about those "bump if speeding" signs. But if everything goes smoothly, it could result in everyone going more smoothly, too.
[via Core77]

"New Mac" Scented Candle

One way you could look at the "New Mac" scented candle from Twelve South is that $24 is a lot to pay for a candle. Another way is that it's a lot less than the grand you'd drop on an actual new Mac. So if you really need your fix of sensory stimulation to trigger memories of new tech toys (which apparently smell like "mint, peach, basil, lavender, mandarin and sage" - who knew?), maybe this is for you. I mean, consumers have been craving that new car smell for decades...
[via Gizmodo]

Starbucks' Splatter-Hiding Countertops

This is the countertop for the drink-fixing station at my local Starbucks - and without doing any research or substantiating this claim in any way, I think it's pretty obvious and clever why they chose it. Look at all those tiny spots in the pattern: coffee-colored brown and creamer-colored white. Exactly the kind of camouflage that would hide the many real drips of stray liquids, and make the constant mess there invisible to customers. Well played, Starbucks, well played indeed.

Foolproof Rolling Pin

Rolling out dough, despite being a favorite activity of toddlers, can be surprisingly challenging for adults just trying to make a pie that won't fall apart. For those who don't trust their kitchen skills, Josesph Joseph has an innovative "Adjustable Rolling Pin": select side disks to set the thickness, then roll away worry-free. Normally I'd say something a little snarky here to wrap it up, but... darn it, this one seems pretty solid! Nice work, JJ.
[via Kinja]

Olympic Matching Luggage Folly

For all the things that could have gone wrong at the Rio Olympics, here's one that nobody expected: the patriotic efforts of Team Great Britain to provide its athletes with dapper matching luggage was perhaps a bit misguided. Windsurfer Nick Dempsey's photo - and expression - nicely sum up the problem. It's another instance of a design tradeoff I've mentioned before: uniformity is aesthetically pleasing, but differentiation is more usable!
[via Deadspin]

Get your beer out of the way of your TV!

It's football season, and that means beer and TV. Unfortunately, you never know what amazing play you'll miss during those few seconds when your glass blocks your view, so you'd better play it safe with the TV Beer Mug. Of course it's ridiculous and you shouldn't buy it (what else would you expect from a site called Perpetual Kid?), but it's still clever enough for a laugh. Cheers!
[via Gizmodo]

Irregular Mr Potato Head fights food waste

Fruits and vegetables often sell based on aesthetic appearance, leaving strange-looking but otherwise fine produce to go unsold. This is a part of the food waste problem, my favorite explanation of which (as usual) comes from John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. Unlikely hero Hasbro has stepped in with an asymmetric version of the classic Mr Potato Head, in a bid to win hearts and minds toward produce with a little wabi-sabi. I'm all for it, and believe that it's possible to appreciate aesthetic beauty where it's appropriate, but be wise enough to set it aside when it's not.
[via Gizmodo]

Swipe the spacebar to move the cursor

Mobile devices have limited touchscreen space, so many interface elements do double duty (or triple, or more): the same button reacts differently when tapped, swiped, long-pressed, or hard-pressed. The trouble is that many of these aren't intuitive: you won't find them unless you're told about them. And so, with a useful feature like Google Keyboard's spacebar which can be swiped for cursor movement, it comes as an "oooh!" moment when someone reveals it. (Just look at the elated comments on that post - and these are tech-savvy people!) The feature is mentioned in the brief novella that is the app description, but who actually reads those? And who knows what other gems might be hiding there...?
[via Lifehacker]

Design & engineering during an active shooting...

In a recent active-shooter crisis at UCLA, many students found themselves in rooms without door locks. It's a grim and terrible situation, but one that can still benefit from quick design and engineering. Pranasha Shrestha shows one example of the lengths some went to keep the doors closed - copied above, complete with hashtags - and Gizmodo cataloged many more. Locks are basic tools, whose presence or absence can be used for good or bad; the ability to improvise a change to the lock situation can be, literally, a lifesaver.

Beer Trough Picnic Table: Impractically Fantastic

I know it's impractical: tough to fill, quick to melt, hogging precious table real estate, and more. But damned if it isn't gorgeously inviting, like a cornucopia of booze right there for the taking! You don't even have to stand up to get a new drink! Sometimes maybe the un-usability of a product (or DIY project, as most of these seem to be) is justified by a fleeting moment of sweet, satisfying perfection. Now let me grab another beer out of that trough.
[via Core77]

The Ugliest Color (and a good use for it)

Want to make cigarettes as unappealing as possible? You can put warnings on the box, show photos of smoke-ravaged lungs and other organs - and you can find the ugliest color in the world and swaddle the packaging in that, too. Market research firm Gfk Bluemoon determined that Pantone 448C, delightfully named "Opaque Couche," was deemed least attractive in a poll of over a thousand smokers. It's now on duty in Australia, UK, France, and Ireland, making cigarettes look just as repulsive as they are.
[via Core77 & The Evening Standard]

Visual Voicemail on Android: An Unfulfilled Promise

Another reason I'm relieved to be going back from Android to iPhone: Visual Voicemail on Android hasn't worked out. It was a truly innovative part of the original iPhone, forced by Apple on carriers as a condition for carrying the must-have handset (and removing a sneaky profit-making annoyance in the process). As Apple tends to do, it took full control of the feature and implemented it with high quality.
Android is different, with the vision that "carriers are free to implement their own vision of Visual Voicemail!" But with nobody enforcing it, the task was met with near-apathy by carriers who know the feature isn't central to their profits. And so we have the sad, half-baked abomination that is AT&T Visual Voicemail, guilty of the following sins:

  • The phone will double-notify of voicemails: once with a prompt to dial the non-visual voicemail number (what am I, a caveman?), and once much later to notify that the visual version is available. Separate apps, of course.
  • For a loooong time, the app didn't use the proximity sensor to turn off the touchscreen when listening to a message without headphones or speakerphone. My ear usually triggered the notification shade and pressed god-knows-what buttons up there.
  • The current version of the app doesn't keep the screen alive while playing back a message over headphones or speakerphone. So the phone falls asleep halfway into playing the message - which also causes the audio to stop (unlike most audio-playing apps). I have to wake the damn phone up and press "play" again to resume the message.
Bugs are bugs, and the first issue may be more related to insufficient integration at the OS level. But the prox-sensor and stay-awake behavior are basic, easy design issues that shouldn't have made it past a single design review - if there ever was one. So in this case, it'll be a relief to go back to an ecosystem overseen by a zealous tyrant obsessed with user experience - it's better than a wild-west where nobody's motivated to offer something competent.

Lolo Lids for Sneaky Drinking

Sneaky drinking may be mostly in my past (well, except for golf courses), but it's still nice to see some innovation in the area. Lolo Lids are the latest clever iteration: looking just like the Solo lids used on to-go coffees everywhere, they attach to your choice of disposable coffee cup. But secretly inside that cup, they're holding a beer can with plastic clips and a spill-proof silicone seal. Pretty convenient - and preferable (for reasons I can't quite seem to enumerate?) to just pouring the beer into the coffee cup. Cheers!
[via Gizmodo]

There and Back Again: iPhone to Android to iPhone

This post is about my personal experience choosing between phone ecosystems, which (to possibly overstate the case) is one of the most impactful decisions many of us make as tech consumers. The difference between iOS and Android is significant, each carrying features and restrictions that have real effects on daily life. I'm not a professional tech writer, so I don't have test units to constantly test-drive and switch between; for me, like most people, the chance to choose only comes once every year or two. It's not to be taken lightly.

Just after the dawn of the smartphone era, I hopped on the iPhone train - it was objectively ahead of anything else, and I loved it. But after four years with an iPhone 3G and 4S, I needed something different: a bigger screen (available on many Android phones but no iPhones at the time); more freedom to tweak and customize; a device that worked natively and by default with my many Google services. So began three years with Android phones, a Nexus 5 and 5X. I loved them too; but when the next round of phones comes out this fall, I'm switching back to iPhone. It breaks my heart, but it's also a relief. Here's why:
  • My original reasons for switching are less valid now. iPhones have larger displays, iOS is more open, and Google services are almost universally available and work smoothly.
  • iMessage Purgatory burned me. I was dropped from conversations by iPhones that still thought I was on iMessage. Texting is perhaps the most crucial thing phones do these days (it sure isn't phone calls), so switching back will be a real relief - but I still blame Apple for the technological fumble.
  • It's just tougher being an Android user. Lightning cables and iPhone-compatible headphones are everywhere, but USB-C and Android-compatible (3-button) headphones are tough to find. Other accessories are the same way, as iPhone leads the premium US market and makes it easy on accessory makers with only 2 or 3 models they need to accommodate.
  • You know what you'll get with an iPhone. You'll get a damn good camera, a good-looking (if not crazy-hi-res) display, a highly-polished experience, and killer build quality. With Android phones, those things are all up in the air, so you need to do your homework.
  • Things I'll miss about Android: wireless charging (though the 5X dropped that anyway, much to my dismay), low cost (though for something I use many times every day, I've come to the belief that it's worth the price to get just the right thing), widgets, custom launchers, the "back" and "menu" buttons, the plastic body that feels so drop-resistant. The feeling of being a techie who goes my own way.
  • Things I'll welcome back with iPhone: getting new apps earlier, tighter control of the experience (it was sometimes choppy on Android), 3D Touch (if I ever use it?), Find My Friends (so I can stop wondering or asking about ETAs), iMessages actually working, compatibility with my AppleTV, the silence switch, the metal body that feels so good. The comfort and ease of being part of the market majority.
What might happen that'd make me switch back? I suppose Apple would need to open its services (iMessage, Find My Friends, iTunes music and movies) to Android, or at least definitively fix iMessage Purgatory. Or, Android would have to pull so far ahead in some respect that it would override those things, or in a very un-Google way, choose to make some of its services exclusive to Android devices. None of those things seems likely in the short term, so it's time for me to bid Android a fond farewell, and welcome iPhone back with open arms.

Passport Photos with Photoshop-Added Suits

Looking presentable in an ID photo can have immeasurable intangible benefits: you're taken more seriously,  respected more easily, given the benefit of the doubt. So when Cubans have their passport photos taken, Lian Marrero will Photoshop a suit onto them. It's much more cost-effective than buying or even renting a suit for the purpose, and in a world where aesthetic perception matters perhaps more than it should, the service sets his customers up for success. Not a bad deal!

"Smart Replies" act human so you don't have to.

One of the features demonstrated in Google's upcoming Allo messaging app is Smart Replies: AI will analyze the conversation and context, and suggest some possible ready-to-send responses. The image above shows an example, where "aww so cute" and "Love the daisy!" are suggested by the app based on what it parses from the received photo. This is certainly technologically impressive, where the AI is doing a fine job impersonating a human; the problem is that I don't want to outsource my humanity. I want my what I say to come from me, not the suggestions of a bot - and I want to know the same is true of what is said to me by other flesh-and-blood humans, even if it's via electronic means. Autocorrect features to fix typos or speed up text entry are fine, as they don't interfere with human-originated intentions - even offering quick-responses like "running late" or "busy now" is handy for quick logistical messages. But when AI strays into how I should emotionally communicate with others, that's too far. Engadget's Nicole Lee agrees: don't send me Smart Replies!

"Backspace" or "Back"? Google wants just one...

That one key on the keyboard performs both functions: backspace when editing text, or "back" to the previous page when web browsing. However, when editing text in a web browser, it can be easy to make a mistake: if focus is on the page rather than the text field within the page, you risk losing whatever you'd been typing. Google thinks the usage of the key as "back" instead of "backspace" is antiquated, citing the mere 0.04 percent of page views it triggers, and has experimented with removing that function. A mostly-techie set of critics has made their objection known - but the numbers, and the usability, may be with the masses here!

ResetPlug: Automating the first step of an Internet outage

When the internet goes out, the first step is always to power-cycle the modem and router. And that's not easy! We store our personal IT components in out-of-the-way places, and there seems to be some aversion among telecoms to putting power buttons on cable modems. The ResetPlug wants to take over that ubiquitous first step, by constantly monitoring internet status and power-cycling your boxes until it's back up. $60 might seem a bit steep, but if it works as advertised... it sure is tempting to never have to do the ol' power-cycle tango again!
[via Gizmodo]

Phone number UI fails (or jokes?)

Numbers are numbers - that is, until you have to enter them on a website. Suddenly the format, magnitude, precision, and validity of the number become big issues. Stelian Firez has been collecting horrific examples of phone-number-entry design gone wrong, accidentally or intentionally. Remember, a phone number is a huge number (in the billions!) that must be precise and accurate (two different things) to the digit. This makes some number-entry interfaces - like sliders, dropdowns, checkboxes, +/- buttons, and others - hilariously ill-suited to the task. Take a look, enjoy, and cringe!
[via Core77]

I'm so confused...

...I should probably call an attendant for clarification.

Emoji Fails: Cross-platform miscommunication

Emoji are increasingly a part of text-based communication, but they don't quite have the universality of text; whereas text would be interpreted the same way in different fonts (well, mostly, and not including ALL CAPS), the same emoji as rendered in different operating systems may be interpreted very differently. The example above is perhaps the worst: the emoji standard calls for a "grinning face with smiling eyes," but each operating system is free to design their own graphic to represent that - and that's where the trouble begins. If an Android user sends this to an Apple recipient, the sender sent something they perceive as +4.3 on the happiness scale, but the receiver gets something they perceive as -1. That's a big difference, which is just begging to cause trouble! (And I think Apple is at fault here: that's no grin, that's a grimace at best.) This was studied by the GroupLens research team at the University of Minnesota. Their results make me want to make my own grinning-with-smiling-eyes face... but Apple-style.
[GroupLens, including image credit, via Gizmodo]

Asinine Cross-Marketing: Cold Stone V Superman?

Hey Cold Stone: all I wanted was to order a cake for my wife's birthday. I didn't want to find most of your website occupied by a trailer for a bad movie that's been out for a month. A movie, by the way, which is dark and violent and not at all ice-cream-related. I'm a little concerned that any treats I do order from you will be contaminated with Jesse Eisenberg's Lex-Luthor hair. And it's especially annoying that the web browser tab title is just "Batman V Superman" - not the tab I'd be looking for to complete my order. So let's take it easy on the cross-marketing, and just stick to making ice cream? You're pretty good at that.

Good design requires compatibility.

Apple's slimmest laptop, the Macbook, partly achieves its svelte profile by sporting only a single USB-C port. And that's great, USB-C is the future; but good design requires compatibility, in this case with the present. See, Apple's mobile devices uses their proprietary Lightning connector, and until just recently Apple didn't make a USB-C-to-Lightning cable. You could spend thousands of dollars on the highest-end devices from the most successful company in the world, with no way to connect them to each other except a clunky, expensive, band-aid of a dongle. They finally got around to it, but compatibility shouldn't be an afterthought.

The Cue Ball's Secret Magnet

One thing that's come up on this site frequently: I love magnets. So imagine my delight upon finding that my favorite physical force (way better than gravity, I mean come on) is responsible for helping the cue ball come back out of pay-per-play pool tables while the other balls are swallowed until the next game. Check out the animation on Sploid: a magnet in the table pulls the iron layer only present in the cue ball, yanking the ball onto the "exit" track instead of the "stick around for a while" track. I'd always assumed it was a subtle size difference or something - but this is much better!

Bottle Cutter: Answer in search of questions?

The Plastic Bottle Cutter sure seems like a simple device: insert a used plastic bottle, spin, and you have some tough, possibly-colorful, possibly-soda-scented plastic ribbon. Neat! But now what to do with it? Use it as weatherproof twine? Weave some rope? Arts and crafts? It's an answer in search of questions - but I'm pretty sure there are plenty of good questions out there. It's refreshing to take this approach every once in a while instead of the other way around.
[via Core77]

Third Brake Light, Tested & Confirmed

Jalopnik recently wrote about the surprisingly structured, rational addition of the third brake light that's been mandatory since 1986. Psychologist John Voevodsky came up with the idea for a third light that's only on when braking, as opposed to tail lights which are always on at night and just brighten when braking. From there it was a well-controlled scientific experiment, randomly applying the feature to taxis and comparing accident rates. The results: "The light prevented 5.4 collisions, 1.02 cab driver injuries, and $643 of taxicab damage per million miles." Now that's good design!
[via Jalopnik]

Watch out for that kerning...

Apple was an early advocate of beautiful typography in computing, including kerning, the aesthetic spacing between characters. This evidently continues to today, to the point that the word "click" in the above splash page for OS X is spaced differently than the rest of the sentence. Why that particular word benefits from extra spacing is funny, crass, and an exercise left to the reader. (Or you can just read what Dan Leech Tweeted about it upon discovering the tweak.)
[via Gizmodo]

The (Mythical) Worn-Once Valet

Rain Noe recently wrote at Core77 about a hypothetical piece of furniture: a place to put clothes that are somewhere between clean and dirty. Worn once or twice, but not yet ready for the laundry. Right now, these clothes have no good home - they're either put back with clean clothes, or left haphazardly out, creating a mess. The closest thing Rain's found to this mythical product is Ounce, a project by MFA design students, but I agree, that it may deserve to be its own product category. Maybe it'll catch and maybe not - but give it a chance!

Other Options: Surprise me!

I'm relatively new to workplace messaging app Slack, so maybe I'm a little slow to pick up on their irreverent brand of design. But I still didn't expect this particular checkbox to appear in the Advanced Settings menu - and who could resist the temptation to click it? I couldn't resist it. But I won't spoil the surprise.

Ruggie, the alarm-clock mat you don't need.

This is Ruggie, an alarm clock which only turns off when you get your lazy butt out of bed and stand your full weight on its fleece-covered memory foam ("the most comfortable thing you’ve ever laid your feet on"). Okay... But why can't I get the same advantage from any other alarm clock by simply placing it out of reach, and save (an "estimated retail value" of) a hundred bucks?
[via Gizmodo]

Apple Mouse: Charging as an afterthought

Here's an image from Gizmodo's Adam Clark Estes, who describes it as the "sad reality" of charging Apple's Magic Mouse 2. This is charging - a necessary thing! - as an afterthought, not integrated into real usage scenarios or given its own usability consideration. And Apple's done it before. It reflects a complete prioritization of the other 99% of the product experience, which is a viable decision - but still, it feels lacking. That poor mouse, stuck on its back like an overturned turtle? Sad indeed!

Lego Slippers eliminate the only bad thing about Legos

Legos rank right up there with the greatest products of all time. But when you - I mean, "your kid" - is in the middle of an epic room-size build, they become a minefield of potential foot pain. So, advertising agency Brand Station created what are unfortunately a limited run of Lego-proof slippers: just as blocky as Legos themselves, but a savior to parents' feet everywhere!
[via Gizmodo]

Watch out for design crashes...

People design network cables and add nice features, like protective boots to help easily unplug them. Other people design servers and add necessary features, like reset buttons. But if all those people aren't paying attention to each others' efforts, design crashes can happen - like with this Cisco router, where plugging in a cable with a protective boot presses the reset button on the server. Woops. Design carefully, people!
[Cisco, via Engadget]