Posts Tagged 'product critique'

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXIV

Some conventions just aren’t worth messing with.

More often than not, it would seem that analyzing and redesigning a piece of hardware or software to increase productivity would be a good idea, especially if such changes include faster, safer, cheaper or simpler operation. A good example is Leo Beltracchi’s implementation of a graphical display system for nuclear power plants in the late 1980s, eliminating the need to frequently compare numbers to ensure the temperature of a reactor core is within a safe margin. This replaced confusing numerical data with a simple curved line portraying the temperature at which liquid inside the core begins to evaporate, and a dot representing the core’s current temperature. This system, still in use today, is no doubt responsible for a drastic improvement in modern power plant supervision, if not the prevention of fatal accidents that would have happened due to a couple easily missed equations.

Consumer products, such as cars, electronics and appliances, often receive updates when laws or demand calls for them. Airbags, scroll wheels, touchscreens, a fourth razor blade–these are all added features meant to improve some aspect of an existing product. Without improvements like these, consumers would have less reason to replace their products with new ones.

There are, of course, improvements to products that don’t necessarily boost their efficiency. For instance, the Dvorak keyboard, an alternative to the much more common QWERTY layout, shows a decided increase in performance with users who are familiar with its key placement. However, the QWERTY layout has been around for over 130 years, and most computer users have never seen a Dvorak keyboard. The QWERTY layout has become an established standard in computing, and to replace it with the Dvorak layout would not only mean somehow convincing the entire world to give up what they’ve grown to know and learn a completely new system, but the cost of replacing every keyboard with the updated layout would hardly be worth what little increase in typing speed would result in the change.

Similar attempts to update the keyboard have been made with keys other than the numbers and letters. Supposedly, these changes are meant to better the intuitive nature of the keyboard, but to a user who has spent a lifetime working with a specific layout, the outcome is just the opposite.


These six keys–Insert, Delete, Home, End, Page Up and Page Down–are grouped in this order on most modern keyboards. Because of their location relative to the arrow keys, they can easily be found without the user looking down from the screen. In fact, I use the Delete key more than I use Backspace, due solely to its location, and have become used to moving my cursor to the left of a character rather than the right before deleting it. As a user from the days of DOS, I still use the Insert key from time to time, as Copy, Cut and Paste all used the Insert key years ago, and many applications still have that option. The rest of the keys in that cluster are frequently used in navigating many types of documents and browser windows, and the wonderful thing is that I never have to look down to use them.


Here is a keyboard which breaks that established six-button group, eliminating the Insert key and rearranging the rest. Home and End are now left and right of each other, which makes sense when considering the direction a cursor moves along lines of text in a word processor, but not so much in a web browser. The Delete key, for some reason, has doubled in size, and the orientation of the group is now vertically arranged. Even if this layout might prove useful for certain users in certain applications, changing the layout of a conventional, time-tested setup only confuses the majority of users and breaks consistency with other keyboards on the market.


Function keys, used a bit like wildcards in computing, can serve a number of uses. Most of us know that F1 will bring up help files to assist us when we’re stuck, and we know just where to find the key. Packed together in groups of four, the function keys are easy to discern from one another without having to read their labels. As it turns out, four keys grouped together are easy to count internally, so users can quickly find, say, F8 without much hassle–it’s the last one on the second group of function keys.


Here’s how the other keyboard groups the function keys, in sections of three keys each. Even if this turns out to be slightly easier for users to use, the vast majority of keyboards group the keys in fours, and keyboards that break this rule are only confusing users who have grown accustomed to the norm. Even worse, users who switch keyboards often will find more difficulty using either layout smoothly. It’s hard to develop a productive subconscious pattern when you’re forced to break the pattern half the time.

On top of the different layout, the function keys on this keyboard don’t recognize commands that others do. F2 doesn’t rename files, F3 doesn’t search, Alt-F4 doesn’t close applications and F5 doesn’t refresh pages. They don’t even do what their labels say they’re supposed to, unless they’re used in Microsoft Office applications. What good is a new layout when it must be relearned and fights every convention we’ve established in the past?

Fortunately, changes like this aren’t as common as changes that actually improve on the user experience. Users are often reluctant to accept change, which is probably a good thing. Without sticking to a few consistent, global standards, we’d be reinventing the wheel with each new product we develop.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXII

Dangerous products should be harder to engage and easier to stop.

Earlier this month, a four-year-old girl died after being trapped inside a front-loading washing machine which was turned on by her 15-month-old brother. The event stirred up a good deal of discussion involving the design and usability of certain washing machines in households with children.

Childproofing a home is never easy, and often quite expensive. Entire aisles of safety mechanisms are often available at retail stores in an attempt to guard children against numerous potential dangers: electrical outlets, drawers containing unsafe products, closet doors, sharp edges, hard surfaces and choking hazards, to name a few. As soon as a family expects its first child, it quickly becomes apparent just what a death trap some homes can be.

It’s impossible to remove every hazardous element from a child’s life, and attempting to do so only prolongs the encounter for a later time. When dealing with products and environments that can pose a threat to a child’s safety, it’s good to take advantage of the one safety mechanism built into all children: their size. Kids unable to figure out dangerous equipment start out with a very limited reach, and this should be utilized when designing products that can’t be simply kept away from children, such as washing machines.

According to news reports, the controls to the washing machine in question (a Kenmore 417 front load washer) are a mere twenty inches off the floor–well within the reach of a small child–and can be engaged easily. In top loading washers, the controls are usually set behind the door, and require a taller operator with an extended arm to start. With the advent of front loading machines, perhaps because clothes can now be folded or piled on top of the machine, keeping the controls where they were would have seemed like a bad idea, as access to the buttons might be blocked with no need to keep the top of the machine clear.

Years ago, a few medicine companies began advertising bottles that were easier to open, responding to elderly users having difficulties opening their medicine containers. Most childproof bottles feature caps which must be squeezed and forced open, or arrows which have to line up with one another before the cap will pop off. Both took considerable strength, and the arrows were small and hard to notice, making them harder for children to figure out. Obviously, these safety features cause problems for older users, who often have problems with both the strength and eyesight needed to open the bottles. To solve this problem, the new bottles have a long tab sticking up from their cap, making them easier to grasp, but still take a bit of strength to twist off. On these bottles, instead of the standard “Keep out of reach of children” warning, the label clearly states not to allow the bottle in any household with children–which is wonderful for older users, who are typically beyond the stage of having to worry about kids running around their homes.

The problem with this new style of washing machine isn’t only where the controls are placed, but the type of controls they use. As a user, I never really liked the push-twist-pull dial used to select the type of fabric and duration of the wash. Because the dial can only spin clockwise (a limitation I’ve never understood but have found on every dial I’ve ever tried), passing the desired setting means having to turn the thing around another rotation, and it isn’t always easy to know if the arrow is right on the correct setting or one click behind it. I’m always a bit uneasy about advancing an extra click when trying to select my setting, and because I’ve always used the exact same setting with all of my clothes, the fact that I have to turn the dial with every load does seem a bit pointless.

So the dial isn’t necessary, but eliminating it also gets rid of a helpful safety feature. How can a button-driven menu incorporate an equally effective feature? One idea could be to require two buttons, placed far enough apart to require two hands, to be pressed simultaneously. This will make it almost impossible to activate the machine accidentally, and still offer a simple way to get the machine started. Because the contents of the machine move around during the cycle, a release lever or button inside the machine isn’t possible, but in the interest of preventing another accident, unlikely as this sort may be, it would be possible to install a small microphone that halts the cycle if a loud noise, such as a scream, is detected when the tub begins filling with water.

Cases like these make us realize how important it is to analyze every possibility regarding household objects, products and situations, and at least try to prevent accidents before they occur. I wouldn’t say a recall is necessary on washing machines like this, but users need to understand the ease with which they can be engaged, and make the controls harder to reach by keeping the machines elevated or their rooms locked if there are children about. Like with the medicine bottles, manufacturers of these machines should make sure customers are warned of their inherent shortcomings as equipment easily accessible to children, by including printed warnings on boxes and in manuals that come with the products. When accidents like this happen, there is often no one branch of the user experience process the place the blame, as all parties–design, development, sales and even the user–may all have contributed to the unsafe conditions which led to the accident. That’s why it’s important to consider every step of the process when working to prevent future incidents.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part VI

Red and green = stop and go. Red and blue = hot and cold.

Colors signify a variety of warnings in different cultures. Most commonly, in a majority of the world’s countries, red and blue are assigned respectively to hot and cold faucet handles. This color coding system is quite important, as an unexpected blast of hot water can do some damage.

Red and green, when used side by side, distinguish between two entirely different ideas. Obviously they’re used as traffic signals, but also on appliances to warn when a lock is open or closed, when a user can safely activate, dismantle or perform other operations on a piece of equipment.

I used an electric coffee pot every morning while working in Japan. It quickly heated water to boiling temperature, and had a pump button on top for dispensing the scalding liquid. A sliding lever near the button closed and opened the spigot, signaling its current state with one of two colored dots: red or blue.

I had assumed the blue dot meant the water was cold, and the red meant it was time for coffee (or tea, being in Japan and all). One day I went into the office hoping for a cup, found the blue dot showing, and decided to wait a while. An hour went by, and still no red dot. As I was waiting, a coworker came in, filled her cup with piping hot water, steam flowing from her mug and everything, and walked off. Confused, I took a look at the dot. Still blue! How hot did it have to be to register as hot?

As I’m now aware, temperature had nothing to do with it. The colors corresponded to whether the button could be pressed or not. My coworker had simply opened the spigot, poured her water, and closed it again before leaving the room, further contributing to my confusion.

Of course I was in a different country, but considering the similarities between American and Japan, especially regarding our technology and information systems, this oversight doesn’t make any sense to me. Using blue to signal a closed spigot on a heater that brings water to a fast boil, when users can easily read it as containing cold water,  is dangerous and irresponsible. Designers need to understand instinctual user responses to simple color combinations such as these before releasing a product like this on the public.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part IV

If you hold it like a gun and fire it like a gun, it should be a gun.

On the first of January 2009, during a dispute caught on several video cameras by witnesses at the BART station in Oakland, Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a BART officer who now claims he had mistaken his handgun for a taser. I don’t want this to become a political or personally heated topic here, but regardless of whether the shooter is just saying this for a chance at lowering his sentence, it brought up something that needs to be addressed.

Until the incident and ensuing assertion concerning this bout of human error, I had always thought of tasers in the shape of cattle prods, but with shorter handles. Apparently I was pretty far from the truth.

This is a police-issue taser, despite its resemblance to something I played with as a kid, pretending to guard my space station (bunk bed) from hordes of deadly aliens (army men). Its shape is immediately recognizable, its functionality easily identifiable. There is one huge problem with this: cops also have guns.

This is a gun. It shoots projectiles meant to kill humans.

In fact, the main difference is that the gun is meant to kill, and the taser is meant to stun. So why does it matter that the two have so much in common?

Regarding interaction, sensory fatigue sets in when a product is so regularly used or procedure so commonly practiced that it becomes second nature, and very little thought is given to what’s going on in the background. For instance, I don’t need to consciously think about pressing the clutch pedal when I shift gears in a car, or think too hard about the steps involved in making a sandwich. Because of this, unless something out of place grabs my attention, I don’t give much thought to what I’m doing. Sensory fatigue is generally an asset to us all, as we need to focus our attention on steering rather than shifting, on sentence structure rather than spelling all but the most complex and least frequently used words.

The flaw in the taser’s design is its context. Most police officers carry loaded firearms which share three significant properties with the taser: its location on the belt, the shape and style of its grip, and its trigger.

Aware that the taser is far less dangerous than a pistol, a police officer doesn’t need to be quite as apprehensive about using it, and in this sense, the taser has probably spared a good number of lives on both sides of the law. But this also supplies the subconscious with the idea that drawing a gun-shaped object from a gun-bearing belt and pulling its gun-like trigger is a safe thing to do.

As explained in Kim Vicente’s The Human Factor, the phrase “human error” is often thrown around without laying at least a little worthy blame on the developers of a product who didn’t fully take into account the intended audience. In this case (if the plea is to be believed), a police officer who was used to firing a gun with little consequence has fatally wounded a man he thought he was merely shocking with a little electricity. Two entirely different results from two unfortunately similar weapons.

How should we remedy this problem? First, recall all gun-shaped tasers. Review the shape and trigger mechanisms, and design both to allow the new taser to be easily distinguished from a handgun. Perhaps an overhand grip with a push-button trigger. Then provide a separate holster for the taser, such as on the chest or leg. Somewhere an officer would never think to grab a gun. Make sure the gun and taser can’t accidentally switch places by making the holster accept only one shape.

I’m the last person who could imagine what goes on inside the brain of a police officer, or behind the scenes of law enforcement. But with all the typos I’ve made writing this passage alone, I know well the human capacity to make mistakes, and thankfully there are teams of people happy to find potential problems such as this and fix them before they start. Unfortunately, this one hasn’t been fixed yet, and hopefully this fatality will help the appropriate people realize what needs to be done.

Up with Left, Down with Right.

The jog dial has found its way onto most electronic devices–cameras, computer mice, and cell phones to name a few–with varying results and consumer reactions. My first digital camera, the Sony Cyber-Shot, came equipped with a jog dial for scrolling through pictures and settings, and pressing in on the dial selected images and selected menu options. Nikon cameras make use of their jog dials by combining the scroll feature with various buttons to enable power users to make complex adjustments much faster than a traditional menu system would allow.

I’ve owned quite a few portable media players in the past decade, and one that’s stood out is the relatively cheap Sansa e140–stood out, primarily, because it outlasted most of the other relatively cheap models that decided to stop working with months of purchasing them. The e140 is notable in that it sports a typical jog dial in a less typical location: the corner of the unit.

I’m sure the designers who came up with this idea figured the corner placement would allow users to access the dial in two different ways: with the thumb along the side . . .

. . . and with the index finger along the top.

Seems like a pretty solid concept. But there’s one thing about a rotational input that doesn’t exactly lend itself to this kind of placement.

The jog dial serves two distinct tasks on this player: to navigate the menu system and to control playback volume. Other devices, like the iPod, use this same approach, but here’s where it gets tricky.

When using the menu to find songs and change the player’s settings, the dial acts like this:

As the dial rotates downward, the selection bar moves down the menu. So far so good. Now let’s take a look at the same dial’s behavior when changing the player’s volume.

Why does it do this? It really seems out of place for the dial to be playing Opposite Day when it comes to volume control, but acting perfectly normal with everything else. There’s only one reason I can come up with to explain it. Perhaps the designers decided that most users would be holding the player in a pocket, or at least in a different position, when adjusting the volume. If you think about it this way . . .

. . . it makes a lot more sense. And here we find the inherent problem with corner-mounted jog dials. They violate an unwritten yet important rule in ergonomics:

Up goes with Left; Down goes with Right.

Sure, turning the dial to the right increases the volume, which makes sense, but that’s also turning the dial downward, which makes no sense at all. At the same time, the entire dial is rotating to the right, so if you view it as a volume knob, it’s doing its job properly. But without being able to view it like a knob, who’s going to imagine it that way?

It’s most likely different in other cultures, but because we read top to bottom and left to right, we want to equate those directions respectively. Moving up and left are typically regressive movements in menu navigation.

There are several exceptions to this rule. Television remote controls, for example, either display the channel buttons as left and right or up and down, and in this case, up goes with right, down with left. But in most other cases, it’s the other way around. Not just with navigation, but displaying information as well. Take a look at how both Windows and OSX arrange files within a folder. In both environments, a horizontal view will place the first file on the left, while a vertical view places it at the top.

I don’t know why the e140’s jog dial bothers me so much. I’m the sort of person who can remember the idiosyncrasies of a system and use it just as easily as if everything were perfectly consistent, but the whole idea of putting the dial in the corner, while apparently offering more access to the user, does nothing but add confusion.

If Sandisk, the manufacturer of the player, still wished to place their jog dial in the corner of the device, there are two corners more sufficient for the job: the upper left and the lower right. This way, an upward action and a rightward action would match. However, putting the dial along the lower right would cause a completely different kind of confusion: viewing the dial like a volume knob, if a user could visualize it that way, you’d then be rotating the knob to the left to turn the volume up.

So the only remaining option would be to place it in the upper left corner. Sure, most users are right-handed, but the player’s small enough to reach each corner no matter how you hold it. Still, it would be more ergonomically awkward to put it there, so the only conclusion should be to ditch the corner-mounted jog dial, at least until a better application arises. But a music player just doesn’t need it.

Closing Arguments

User intuition develops over years of using a product with consistent results. In this post, I’m analyzing several applications that offer the user the option to save a file upon closing.

I love open source applications, because they provide alternatives to many programs I’d like to avoid using, such as Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer. But the developers of these programs need to acknowledge and accept a few norms that have crept into most users’ expectations, especially regarding common key functions.

When a file has been changed in a document such as Notepad, the user is prompted to save the file before before closing. After the question is asked to save changes, the three options are Yes (Y), No (N), and Cancel (Esc key, not explicitly told to the user, but fairly obvious).

Just to prove there’s a pattern beyond Microsoft applications, Adobe programs use the same Y/N/Esc options, but without the helpful underlined letters:

I should mention that I can’t afford to show an example from Photoshop CS. This is Photoshop 7’s closing dialog box. Adobe may have changed the box in more recent versions, but aside from adding underlines to specify keyboard input, I don’t see a reason to.

This format has been consistent in most of the programs I’ve encountered since the DOS ages. As such, when I’m about to close a document, I’ve instinctively got my finger on Y or N before I hit Close. The underlines help remind users that the keyboard can be used to make the selection, rather than the often more time-consuming mouse click.

OpenOffice, however, has ignored this ages-old tradition and uses completely different options for its closing dialog box. Instead of the Y/N choices, the user is given three different but ultimately equal options:

The question remains the same, but now our options are Save (S), Discard (D), and Cancel (also Esc). One argument for this change is the proximity of the S and D keys, but I’d see that as a reason not to use them, as they might cause a user to discard important changes. But the biggest reason is the blatant disregard for an established set of options, for no apparent reason I can think of.

Now to look at Mozilla Firefox, which not only goes against the grain concerning user intuition, but uses different options depending on the number of windows open. Which is why we add another usability icon for Firefox:

Firefox uses tabbed browsing, which allows a user to open multiple pages in the same window. Because of this, a user may forget that several tabs are open, close the window and lose his or her place in every page being visited. To help fix this, Firefox gives a simple warning when multiple tabs are about to be closed at once:

This makes it much easier to tell if several pages are about to be closed, and it’s been very helpful to me on many occasions. However, starting with Firefox 3, a new feature has been introduced. For the first few days after updating to version 3, I got this seemingly random dialog box when I went to close the program:

This box is confusing for a couple reasons. First of all, it uses a completely different set of options from the above Y/N or even S/D. The Esc key will cancel out of this box, but now the C key will also. But it’s the presence of the dialog box, which took me a while to understand, that really got to me.

This box only appears when there is only one Firefox window open. It doesn’t explain why we’re no longer given the option to close the tabs, and for users like me, who are used to hitting ALT+F4 and immediately pressing Enter to close all the open tabs, now we’re unknowingly saving our tabs by default. This inconsistency causes our previous browsing history to automatically recall itself the next time Firefox opens–and the next user will know what we’d been doing just before we closed Firefox.

Also, there’s the much smaller gripe about the checkboxes in both Firefox dialog boxes. The first box, the one that displays if multiple windows are open, is checked by default, and will continue to warn the user if multiple tabs are about to be closed. The second is unchecked by default, and must remain unchecked if the user wants the option to save his or her place upon closing. Ideally, a program that offers helpful features such as these would be consistent in its use of checkboxes. Since Firefox has always used the first example I discussed, my suggestion would be to keep boxes checked to enable these features.

I’ve sent emails to the developers of OpenOffice and Firefox, but the option to conform to the standard options after having established their own set of choices poses another consistency problem: changing now would only further confuse users who have grown accustomed to these options. Once a product has been released, it’s hard to change subtleties in features like this, which is why it’s good to acknowledge and understand certain time-tested aspects of human-conputer interaction and stick to them whenever possible.