I came across a really nice example of human-oriented design recently (*). Nothing terribly special – just a simple choice made by someone somewhere that reveals a refreshing humanity in an otherwise technology-oriented domain – and makes the product all the better for it.
Although Taming the Turing Machine is about avoiding confusion in the digital world, broken mental models exist in the physical world too. Here's a favourite example.
What do you think the UK road-sign on the left (the rectangular one) means? If you're like me, you have to think hard every time you see it. It actually means, "You have priority over on-coming vehicles." It's used at one end of a piece of road that's only wide enough for one vehicle. Its complement – used at the other end – is the round sign that means, "Give way [yield] to on-coming vehicles."
It seems I'm not alone in finding these signs hard to understand. In fact, they're often installed with an extra plate underneath explaining in words what the graphics are supposed to mean. That's tremendously helpful, but additional explanations are almost always the sign of a broken mental model. So what's going wrong with these signs? Let's take a look.
I love writing To Do lists. They're definitely one of my main productivity tools. But always on paper – never on a machine. It's not that I haven't tried. Over the years I've used all sorts of mainstream and niche applications, but never found one I can stick with. They're all too – how shall I say? – "feature rich".
I just don't need 16 levels of priority, folders, categories, tags, and so on. I need a nice clear list of things I have to do, so I can easily see them and tick them off when I've done them. That's it. Nothing more. As a result*, I've always gone back to paper lists.
Now – at last – it looks like someone has built the electronic To Do list I've been waiting for. Realmac's Clear app for iPhone is a breath of fresh air. It's just a plain, simple, To Do list with virtually no other features. And the result? It's number 1 in the US App Store, and number 2 in the UK.
If you need encouragement to try making your digital product simpler, or you need to persuade other people that your customers will love you for doing so, this is it. Take courage fellow simplifiers. The worm is turning.
[* Of course, there may be other reasons I prefer paper lists, such as the fact that they’re in my visual field all the time, they’re easy to write and modify, and my handwriting tells me subtle things about the content. Also, the very act of writing them may be part of the reason they work.]
"Turn around when possible." … "Turn around when possible." … "Turn around when possible."
I love my TomTom. SatNavs in general must be among the most rapidly-adopted consumer electronics innovations. The best are not bad when it comes to usability either, but I suspect their rapid adoption is down to something that trumps ease-of-use when it comes to consumer interest – good old fashioned value. I don't mean price (although prices have tumbled, and you can't complain when you can buy a basic model for less than the price of a tank of fuel). What I mean is user-value; what it does for you. Never get lost again, and never have to read a map. That's some offer, and it's no wonder that the first workable technology to deliver on those promises has pretty much cleaned up in the market.
But that's not to say they're without niggles when it comes to usability, and I'd like to share a couple of my pet peeves.
Sometimes you come across something that just feels right. Wonga (www.wonga.com) is one such something for me. I don't mean the business model of lending people small amounts of money at relatively high interest rates over short periods. There are arguments both ways on that one, and I'm not going to express a view one way or the other on the merits of such "pay-day loans". What I mean is the way the Wonga website presents that idea and lets you immediately interact with it.
You can try it for yourself. Two sliders let you change "how much cash you want" and "how long you want it for", and you immediately see the resulting interest, fees and total repayment change before your eyes. There's no form to fill in. Not even a "recalculate" button. It works in real-time as you slide the sliders back and forth. The result is a three-fold benefit.
As readers of Taming the Turing Machine know, I'm a big fan of the product editing process. I believe some of the best designs come from relentlessly stripping away the functions of a product until just the essence is left. In the digital world, it's so cheap to add extra features that we have to be constantly vigilant, lest they somehow creep into our products without our noticing and crowd out the good stuff. In the physical world though, every feature costs money, so if you want to sell something cheaply, you'd better make it simple. I came across a great example of both at my local DIY shed when I bought a new set of Christmas lights this week.
There's a great example of the power of simplicity in the sitting rooms of nearly half the homes in the UK. It's lurking under the TV in the form of the Sky+ PVR box. Sky+ has been around for over ten years now, but it's still one of my favourite examples of restraint in product design.
What I think is especially great about the Sky+ design is not how easy it is to record a programme by highlighting it in the on-screen guide and pressing the record button. That is great, of course, and it's become so natural now that most of us have long-since forgotten what a nightmare it was to program our VCRs. It's also not the near-magical ability to pause live TV that I especially like. Wasn't that a "wow!" feature when you first saw it though?
I'm well aware that writing a book and a blog about good interaction design (including a healthy sermon on aesthetics) is setting oneself up for – what shall we say – friendly critique? I've worked hard to make this website and the book look and feel as smooth and friendly as I can (within the meager available resources, of course). But sometimes it's astounding what one has to contend with. I mean, come on WordPress!