Sunday, November 06, 2005

Designing for "the developing world"

MIT's Media Lab is a fascinating organization. From the moment I read Steward Brand's book on the lab I dreamed of being a part of that organization. They seemed to be having so much fun doing really cool and innovative stuff with technology. Media Lab attracted a lot of money from a lot of major corporations, all due to the suave and persuasive ways of its founder, Nicholas Negroponte (who also founded, and was the patron saint of, Wired magazine -- he used to write a tailpiece for the mag entitled, "Being Digital").

Organizations like Media Lab, staffed by very smart people, often feel a need to improve man's lot on the planet, which is typically translated to mean "let's make an impact on some Third World village or nation". The OLPC $100 Laptop is one such initiative. While the design of the laptop is intriguing I wonder about the advisability of "out of context" design: can a group of well-meaning and brilliant designers sitting in futuristic offices in Boston design products for children in a hot, humid and dusty Indian village? In theory, if a person is smart enough he can. But here's a short case study. The "Jaipur foot" is an artificial foot developed by an Indian doctor in the 1960's who had no access to the advanced Western medical research or technologies. Today, the organization behind the foot is the largest provider of prosthetic limbs in the world (nearly 800,000 limbs fitted). The Jaipur foot costs $30 versus $8000 for a similar prosthesis in the US. The main advantage of the Jaipur foot is that is suits the environment context of people not only in India, but in the vast majority of so-called "Third World" nations (the Jaipur foot looks like a normal foot and permits its wearer to squat, unlike the Western version).

I suspect that millions of dollars are being poured into the design of a "$100 laptop" that are unlikely to succeed in contexts completely alien to that of the designers. The Jaipur foot was developed by a doctor who lived among, understood and empathized with the people for whom he created his innovation. Using the language of Christopher Alexander, the MIT design is probably much more the result of "unself-conscious" design than the Jaipur foot which was developed and evolved in context. It would have been far better for the "$100 laptop" design project to have operated out of a remote village in India or Botswana. Design flaws may have become evident much sooner.

As it stands, the OLPC may be one of the last gasps of the Media Lab which seems to be struggling for funding and relevance. I would sad to see it go -- the world needs more dreamers who design more than sheep that count.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

MIT Media Lab's $100 Laptop

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is the acronym for the proposed "$100" (that's the plan) "computer for the developing world". Can it be made to happen? Let's focus on the design for now.

At first glance, it looks pretty neat. That's at least half the job done. And coming out of the fabled Media Lab one can expect at least as much substance as style. So let's look beyond looks.

OLPC has integrated handle for carrying in which is located a "power module" (which I assume is a battery). It also has a hand-cranked power generator. It has a spill-proof keyboard and an extended digitizer below the eyboard which can be used for freeform input, including cursive handwriting in any language. The screen can also be written on like a tablet PC. There are two trackballs located on either side of the screen for manipulating objects, menus, etc. on the screen. I am a little thrown off by the trackballs which can quickly gum up and die. OLPC can also be folded like a book and be used as an e-book for reading and for running video.

There's a FAQ with more details: Linux-based, full-color , Wi-Fi , 1 GB RAM, 1 Megapixel display. A bunch of OLPC can autodiscover each other and form spontaneous networks.

Portability was a key concern in design, aside from ruggedness. Can they do it? The field of high-expectations computing is littered with failures. Let's hope, though.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Of Mouse and Me

On the theory that that which does not infuriate you, brings you joy (paraphrasing Nietzsche), Apple drives me up the wall when it goofs up precisely because it does so many things so well, that you expect them never to make mistakes. Certainly not intentional mistakes, if there were such a thing.

With that preamble, let me say that the Apple Mouse -- not the Mighty Mouse with a track ball but the one prior to that -- sucks big time. And that, dear Apple, infuriates. What's wrong with the mouse? Let me list the problems:

1. It is hard and unyielding, making you constantly aware of its presence. The best kind of mouse should vanish from your consciousness and become a seamless extension of your hand.

2. In keeping with the above goal, the mouse should be shaped such that it fits nicely into your cupped palm, ideally making total contact with it. Apple's mouse looks like it would achieve that goal but doesn't -- it sits much too low to make that possible. (Apple did indeed experiment with form-fitting mice, but never released one to the market.)

There are lots of wonderful mice in the market, none of which look as elegant Apple's but which take you closer to the ideal of the disappeared mouse. ("Disappeared mouse" sounds a lot like "surrendered wife" -- I wonder if they are related.) The current mouse, of course, is far superior to the circular, "hockey puck" mouse which debuted on the original "Bondi Blue" iMac. That mouse is practically unusable. Let's face it: Apple chose style over function with its mice, and refuses to give up on this practice.

Before the advent of the Mighty Mouse there were other problems that Apple consciously and stubbornly refused to address:

1. A single mouse button -- in this day and age Mac users were compelled to use the command key in order to invoke the functions of the second button.

2. No scroll wheel -- this was a usability masterstroke from Microsoft, an organization not known for such feats.

With the introduction of the Mighty Mouse, Apple has dealt with both these issues in its own Applish way, which involves healthy doses of NIH (the Not-Invented-Here) syndrome. Both (all four, in fact) mouse buttons are completely invisible and a small rubber ball performs the function of the scroll wheel; they're Apple, they don't copy Microsoft! I've tried out the Mighty Mouse (only briefly, I confess) and found these features take some getting used to. But according to many MM users they work absolutely great.

World Usability Day -- Nov 3, 2005

Tomorrow is World Usability Day. The event is organized by the Usability Professionals Association and sponsored by Human Factors International (HFI). USA Today has come out with an article on the subject of usability for the occasion. I just realized that usability is spelled USAbility. Hmmh.

HFI has a page on careers in usability. About the industry, it says:

While the field of usability has existed for decades, the profession has greatly matured in the last 10-15 years. The long-term prognosis for the industry is also great: there are constant opportunities in almost every industry since new products and technology come out all the time.

If you're pursuing a career in usability, you can expect to find fairly standard job titles such as usability engineer, designer, analyst, or specialist (those wanting to focus specifically on the usability of technology should be cautious about jobs described as "human factors engineering," which often refer only to the ergonomics of workstations and physical design).

Also, the top two criteria for a successful usability career are:
  1. A passion for making technology fit human needs
  2. General computer knowledge and expertise of the domain you wish to pursue (e.g. medical devices, cellular phones, specialized software, etc.). However, it is not necessary to have a background in computer programming.
And,
Usability professionals tend to be outgoing, perceptive, and inquisitive by nature. They have an innate desire to understand how people think and work, always striving to improve technology by making it easier to use.

Providing instructions for simple applications

The "Three Designing Women" in their book Interaction Design enumerate six usability evalution principles: effectiveness, efficiency, utilit, safety, learnability and memorability. I've been reflecting on the learnability of a simple application such as Apple's Photo Booth application that I described playing with about two blog entries ago. For an experienced user like me, Photo Booth was easy to pick up. I mapped my prior knowledge of Apple (and Windows) applications and was off pretty quickly. I do remember puzzling about settings and I found out how to do that with a little bit of experimentation.

Photo Booth does not come with trainer wheels. The operational procedure for this simple application is not immediately obvious to the inexperienced computer user. I estimate that it will take no more than a minute, and perhaps even just half a minute, for an experienced person to train a user how to operate the application. Further, once you learn to use it, it is not difficult to remember its operational procedure.

In a case like this, an application designer is faced with the following design choices: should one provide operational instructions on the screen, or should those be avoided altogether and either have the user learn by exploration or be taught to use it by a trainer? The answer to this question is not straightforward, so a discussion is warranted. As I thought about the issue, it became clear that the context of use plays a critical role in determining the answer. Consider a couple of scenarios:

Scenario 1: Photo Booth is installed in an unmanned kiosk that is visited by one-time users. Typically, such users are in a hurry, especially if there is a line of users waiting behind them. On-screen instructions would save users a lot of time and help them focus on their goal.

Scenario 2: Photo Booth is used in a home often by its residents. While on-screen instructions would help the first time, they would increasingly appear annoying after a while, and make the screen appear busy. Further, since there might be more than one person at home, there is most likely someone to help out a novice.

The choice then is to either not provide any instructions, on the assumption that this is an easily learned, easily remembered application, or provide instructions that can be banished forever when desired. Many risk-averse users, however, tend to play it safe by not removing instructions even when they are no longer needed. Also, a vendor may wish to project a perception of ease of use (zero-length learning curve), and providing on-screen instructions may take away from such a marketing goal. One could also point to other devices that one uses like bicycles and refrigerators that are at least as complex but don't carry instructions on the body of the machine itself -- the presence of such instructions may appear foolish after a while (of course, one can always peel off the sticker).

Pogue vents wrath on vendors

David Pogue is probably the only good read left in the NYT anymore. He speaks fluent tech (unlike the generic, clueless journos out there) and he knows to take Mr. Everyman's perspective. Today's piece (10 ways to please us, the customers) makes at least a couple of points ("commandments") relevant to design:

Thou shalt not entomb thy product in indestructible plastic. Sure, we understand the temptation: you want your packaging to be sturdy yet see-through, so shoppers can see exactly what they're buying. Trouble is, you're caring only about whether people take your product home; you apparently don't care about what happens after that. You don't seem to mind that getting those hard plastic packages open is a dangerous ritual involving scissors, steak knives, band saws and, eventually, blow torches.

Thou shalt not hog the power strip. If a power cord absolutely must incorporate one of those big black transformer bricks, how about putting it in the middle of the cord? When the transformer brick is at the prong end, it hogs three slots on our power strips or both outlets on the wall, and that's just greedy.
Amen to that, Brother David.

Simplicity and warmth in design

I tend to skip over the typical gushy and uninformed tech pieces in the mainstream press (take NYT, e.g.) but it's possible to pick up a few gems now and then. Phil Patton's article (Style meets function and technology gets a human touch, NYT, 11/02/05) has a few:

"Technology at its best is precise, clean, organized, and sometimes even magical," said Dan Harden of Whipsaw, a design consultancy that shapes high-tech products. "Technology is friendly when packaged in forms people like - otherwise it is cold and lifeless ... Design can soften technology, and make it into a warm and friendly experience."
The article also talks about the power of simplicity:
The basic bare lines of the iPod designs and the circle-on-a-square theme of their faces project a message of complexity made simple. They echo the midcentury modernist simplicity - classicism that outlasted the technology - of the radios and phonographs that Dieter Rams designed for Braun ... The iPod has spun off a vast industry of accessories - colorful and protective cases, tabletop speakers and so on ...The spirit of the iPod is evident in simple rubber-coated radios from Lexon or the big-knobbed Tivoli radios.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

"Make mine fun!"

I played around for five minutes, perhaps longer (I lost track of time) with the new iMac G5 at CompUSA yesterday. This is the one with the iSight camera integrated into its forehead, like a third eye. Come to think of it, it is indeed an eye. Trim and elegant like any Apple product, looking like a stretched version of the iPod sans the scroll wheel. They had the Photo Booth application running on the machine and I was instantly hooked. I had great time clicking pictures of myself in different distorted forms. Man, was it fun! Had I not remembered that I needed to pick up my son from school I might have spent the next half an hour or more there.

Reflecting on the experience -- and my other experiences with the Mac, going back to 1986 when I first met Sir Lancelot du Mac -- I realize now that FUN is a very critical ingredient of the Mac user experience. Much of the Mac experience, from the moment you turn on the machine through a variety of activities are designed to DELIGHT, not just please, not just satisfy, not just help you get your work done. There are aspects of the Mac's usability that call for improvement, but the Mac is the King of User Experience. Several elements of the Mac design and experience cause you to smile or even giggle. I think this is a big part of why the Mac has attracted an entire cult around it.

I have never experienced a similar sense of fun while using a Windows machine, even when that machine was not otherwise causing frustration and was in fact actually very effective and efficient.

The idea of a computer being FUN and not just practical and useful (which it should be) must flow from the personality of the designers. For the machine to be actually be fun, it must bring a lot of joy to those who design it, and who are therefore able to infect it with that joy. FUN cannot be an item to be checked off on a design laundry list; for if it is merely an item, then the designer will feel compelled to include a hardware or software component that adds the fun part and then move on. FUN deserves more: it must pervade the entire design and be a consideration at every point of the design process. FUN designs are the product of FUN-loving designers; the design, ultimately, is a manifestation of the designer's personality.

"Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish."

That was Steve Jobs's message in his Stanford U Commencement address, Spring 2005. In hsi address, Jobs tells three stories:

"1. The first story is about connecting the dots.
2. My second story is about love and loss.
3. My third story is about death."
Quintessential Jobs. Tells stories, seducing the listener. The super salesman, a magician spinning visions, creating possible worlds; a Master of the Art of the Possible. But he is also a fanatic with respect to design. Design, for jobs, is not something you slap onto a nearly completed product. Design is the process through which new products emerge out of seemingly nothing. Jobs may not have many original ideas of his own; but he has a keen eye and ear for good ideas, and his standards for selecting from among them are very high.

Lesson 1:
Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
Lesson 2:
Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.
Lesson 3:
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Okay, I'm hungry now, gotta go.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Steve Jobs: the man, the myth, the machine

Since we've been covering Apple the past nearly all blogs, it probably makes sense to make at least passing reference to the man who personifies Apple -- Le Pomme Grand hisself, Steve Jobs. There is an article on the mythful man in the Independent that I am too cheap to pay for (it costs a pound), but here are the opening paragraphs (available free):

He's chief executive of two of the most powerful technology brands in the world: Apple and Pixar. But what motivates Steve Jobs? And how does he choose a new washing machine? Charles Arthur investigates

Published: 29 October 2005

Imagine the scenario: a billionaire walks into a mobile phone shop. The sales assistant says, "Can I help you?" but gets the reply "Just looking, thank you." The man tries a few phones, lifting his glasses to look at the detail of the display. He presses a couple of buttons. He shakes his head. He could buy any phone in the shop; in fact he could buy the shop, or even buy the chain. But he doesn't. He walks out, empty-handed.

It sounds like an urban myth but it could be a day in the life of Steve Jobs, who is chief executive of two technology companies that are admired both inside and outside their respective industries: Apple (which makes the iPod and a range of computers) and Pixar (which made the films Toy Story and The Incredibles). Apple made him a multi-millionaire, Pixar made him a billionaire, and the two mean that at the age of 50 he has cemented a unique position as a force in computing, consumer electronics (through the iPod), the music business (the iPod again) and Hollywood.

Wow, gee, that sounds like Harriet Miers talking about her favorite former Texas governor ("the most brilliant man I have met")! I guess there is enough there for you to guess what the rest of the article is like, so for you cognoscenti, here's the Slashdot discussion which tears the issue to shreds like so much taffy. Anyway, the key takeaway here is that there are two Steve Jobs: Steve the Good and Steve the Bad, and they are both true. Enough material here for a Shakespearean drama? You'll find votaries of both in Slashdot. I guess that is what it takes to create "insanely great" designs.

Incidentally, Steve Jobs was born to an unwed graduate student mother who gave him up for adoption. His recent Stanford University Commencement address where he talks about his life and lessons is a worthwhile read. His biological father is rumored to have been an Egyptian Arab student. Jobs is also the inventor of the Reality Distortion Field which he has employed very effectively over his lifetime.

No matter -- the man's a genius. Hats off, Steve.

Rethinking compromise

All design involves compromise, of course. But good design minimizes the compromises made. The first generation (1G) iPod used a scroll wheel which actually rotated and had four clickable buttons around it. (View all the iPod generations here.) In the interest of reducing cost, no doubt, and also reduce the probability of failure, the 2G iPod replaced the movable wheel with a wheel shaped touchpad on which one slid one's finger without the "wheel" actually moving. A sleight of hand -- or finger -- retained the illusion of wheeliness. This was a downshift in usability -- nothing can beat the feeling of actual physical movement to map against changes occurring on the screen. But the shift was not too drastic for users to accommodate.

The 3G iPod eliminated the radially arranged buttons for the same reasons and replaced them with four circular buttons arranged in a row under the screen. Usability took a great hit. The buttons provide no audible or tactile feedback, forcing the user to look at the screen to check for responses from the device. A weak "fix" was incorporated wherein the "buttons" lit up to indicate that they had been pressed. A bigger problem was the layout of the buttons. It was difficult for the user to develop and maintain a mental model of the button layout through some process of mapping. The radial arrangement of buttons was ideal - there was no confusion there. Usability took a dive.

Apple probably knew that and worked quietly behind the scenes for a replacement that would both maintain low cost levels as well as improve usability. The Click Wheel debuted on the iPod mini and was eventually incorporated into the 4G iPod. The buttons went back where they belonged -- around the center of the wheel -- except, now, they were located directly below the wheel. Further, the click was perceptible in both an audible and tactile manner. Usability, though not quite up to the level of the 1G iPod is now pretty close to where it used to be.

Fortunately, Apple seems to employ designers who don't sleep well at night if they screw up, and therefore come back to rectify design problems.

The new video iPod - or iPod video

I checked out the new video-enabled iPod at CompUSA. I believe "video-enabled" is the proper term because the immediate previous iPod is apparently capable of video but the feature has been turned off by Apple who, naturally, are interested in exercising maximum control over "user experience." They certainly wouldn't want you to suffer video on the smaller screen, of the previous (4th generation?) model, right? That's Apple for you -- always looking for the user.

Anyway, the VE iPod is a beauty. It's design is more in line with that of the iPod nano than was the 4G iPod. The screen looks big, although it is just a mite larger than that of iPod 4G.

The top surface of the iPod VE is flat, like the Nano's, and it has relatively sharp edges, unlike all previous fullsize iPods which have always had smooth, rounded edges. The smooth edges made them very comfortable to hold in the palm. The iPod VE is thinner and lighter than its predecessor. Lighter is good, so I have no complaints on that account. It is not, however, quite as comfortable to hold in the palm. Smooth is good, sharp is bad, in this department, anyway. And the thickness of the old iPod was optimal -- there really was no need to make it thinner, or sharpen its edges. I can see why the edges were made sharper -- to accommodate a larger screen.

So we lost something, and gained something in the redesign. Oh, the scroll wheel is a mite smaller too. The larger scroll wheel is easier to use. I found the nano's tiny scrollwheel quite useless for playing games -- I couldn't scroll fast enough. Not that playing games should be the primary function ... but, here again we see how we give up something (a usable scroll wheel) to get something (smaller device).

Design is always a compromise. What compromises do you plan to make today?