Monday, February 19, 2007

Unintelligible Design

Awhile ago I perused a book called The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda of MIT's Media Lab, which is a designer's response to new devices that are too complex, like DVDs with multiple menus and nifty little electronics that come accompanied by manuals way bigger than they are. It's not a bad book--I especially liked the chapter on Emotion (you can see the Laws for yourself at but it doesn't really address the problems I have.

It's not that devices are too complex (though they are) but that their most basic functions are increasingly difficult to use. Maeda praises the simplicity of the Ipod dial, but one major problem with small devices is that the buttons and dials that operate them are very, very small, and often the "simple" design hides them. Screen menus, also very small. Plus they are dominated by "simple" icons. My lovely little digital camera has a little thing you move that puts you into "portrait" mode (as distinguished from "image" mode. Because of course a portrait isn't an image.) Then you press Menu and up comes a screen full of row upon row of indistinguishable icons that you need to decipher in order to control light and exposure and focus, pretty important when you're taking pictures. But not only do I need extra-strength magnifying glasses, I require the assistance of perhaps an Egyptologist skilled in the peculiar hieroglyphics of this particular camera brand and model.

The problem of buttons that are too small to distinguish and often to find, plus too small to see, is perhaps more a problem for aging baby boomers than the original target market for these devices, although since there are thirty billion of us (approximately), more than any other age cohort, it might be a good idea to keep us in mind. Devices to hear music everywhere, to edit video and sound, etc.--we've been dreaming of this stuff since the 60s. We're primed. And quite clearly, we're being dissed.

But it's not just age-related. How many of these devices do we use when we're supposed to be looking at something else--car music systems are perfect examples. If you've rented cars you know how insane many if not most if not all of these systems are, and how insane they make you. Just trying to figure out how to turn them on (or off!), change the station, get the station back you were listening to before, or switch to a CD etc. is difficult enough when you're looking right at it, but here's a newsflash for designers--people who use them are quite often DRIVING. Their attention--and their eyes--are needed elsewhere.

And there are other circumstances in which we'd like to turn the volume up or down, or whatever, by touch. I've got a portable CD player (I know, how quaint) that works admirably--good sound, doesn't skip--or not much--when I'm moving. But the various functions are scattered all over it, the play and stop are on top, the volume control is on the side, and is indistintinguishable (even when you're looking at it) from the control that pops open the lid of the CD. It's a nightmare, especially since the controls are very sensitive to touch, and if you brush the wrong one, you're screwed.

But don't worry--I've got a hot design idea for these devices--it may sound radical, but hear me out: How about an actual on/off button that's the biggest button on the thing, and a nice big red light to say it's on? Or even better--a dial that when you turn it clockwise, clicks on with a discernable sound, and as you keep turning it, it increases the volume. And put this dial on, say, the far left of the device. Then on the far right, another dial that allows for manual control of things like radio stations. And if you must, you can put a bunch of other buttons in a row between them. But the real key is, this design is the same on every device, no matter the make or manufacturer, so we all have a clear idea in our heads of how it operates, and we can do the most important functions without looking, even in the dark, even without taking our eyes off that idiot weaving into traffic in front of us.

I know it sounds far out--oh, wait--isn't that exactly the configuration that's been on every audio and video device since the dawn of humanity, until quite recently? I wonder why?

I understand as well that these devices are made for the mass international market, so they come loaded with icons and with manuals providing the same noninformation in six languages. So icons may be a fact of life, but how about a few words here and there? I'm willing to learn the Spanish for "low light" or the Chinese for "daylight." I already know the French for "night."And if you want to work on a real design problem, how about earphone wires and other wires that don't make it their life's mission to tangle up and intertwine? There are times they seem to exhibit the only signs of intelligence these devices can offer: the clear intent to make things difficult for me.

I caught part of a segment on 60 Minutes about this, and they said part of the problem is products being rushed to market without being adequately tested. So people are actually hiring consultants to help them figure out how to run their big screen TVs and turn on their car radios. This is a kind of decadence nothing in consumer culture so far has adequately prepared us for.

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