Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Aesthetics VS. Usability

On a recent trip to Milwaukee, my partner and I were wandering around the historic third ward, and happened upon the show room of an award winning furniture design company (whose name escapes me now). Since moving to Philadelphia, we have been in the market for new furniture, so we thought we would take a look.

Entering the studio, was like entering into a segment of 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Snobby; Future Edition'. Everything was smooth, and sleek and monochromatic, oh, and did I mention really uncomfortable looking?

The first piece of furniture I tried out was what I believed to be a chair. It was made of white solid plastic and looked like a sideways 'S' with a long tail. They placed a throw pillow in the crook of the 'S' to help illustrate where your back is to go, and then you put your feet up onto the bump. The end result left me sitting in an uncomfortable 'V' like position, and wondering where I was to put my arms. Overall, it was an awful design for those interested in comfort. I didn't think it could get much worse, but then we discovered the couch with nearly no back! Talk about awkward.

The point I am trying to illustrate, as you have probably guessed by now, is that I completely agree with Norman in his statement about award winning design being more so about aesthetics than anything else. My question, is why is this the case?

I understand that when you are the designer, you are putting a lot of yourself into a design, so it maybe hard for you to take criticisms from outside sources. Still, it boggles my mind just how often really uncomfortable, but pretty stuff gets made, sold, and then placed into some lobby or office somewhere.

I guess maybe there is just a larger demand than I realize for uncomfortable designs. I can understand limiting the user-friendliness of a design so as to not attract certain users, (example: bars across benches in order to keep homeless people from sleeping on them). However, I don't think I will ever understand why someone would want to spend lots of money on a design that is incredibly uncomfortable, and actually intended for use. Talk about silly and wasteful.

Segway P.U.M.A

Just in case you weren't quite sure if Segway was totally out of touch with reality, they have come out with a new prototype for a two-person commuter that seems to pretty much seal the deal.

Meet the P.U.M.A!

The P.U.M.A, which stands for Personal Urban Mobility & Accessibility, is the new brainchild of Segway and General Motors. The P.U.M.A is being designed to pick up where the Segway left off, with hopes that the end product will cause a shift in the way we think of transportation today.

Although I applaud them for trying to evolve their design so it can fit a wider audience, I'm afraid that the company still seems just as misguided as they did when they produced the Segway.

Championing new technologies and a sleek design sense, Segway seems to throw comfort and practicality to the side, assuming that everyone will love their device simply due to the sheer geek-i-tude of it, but they are wrong.

I know whenever I saw someone riding around on a Segway I would ask myself, "what if it rains", or "I wonder where the baby fits on that thing"? If I posed these question to the company I am sure their response would be something along the lines of, "we haven't thought of that", and its clear looking at this new prototype, that they still haven't.

Now I understand that when something is a prototype that means they have not finalized the design. However, because I do not have high hope that the design will get much better, here are just a few of the issues I see with this contraption, in list form (because I have a lot of them):

-Again, what if it rains, or snows for that matter? This contraption would be impractical in places where winter is long and cold, (that includes NYC)!

-It cannot exceed 35 miles per hour, meaning it cannot go on the highway.

-Even if it could go on the highway, who in their right mind would take it there? I mean, the crumple zone of that car is nothing but your face.

-Being that the companies target audience is anyone living in bustling urban areas, I wonder if they have thought about where everyone is going to plug this thing in? Since you can't lift it up and bring it indoors with you, I wonder if they intend to have everyone running extension chords out of their windows?

-Oh, and did I mention that it is really, really silly looking?

We shall see what the future has in store for this new fangled contraption and. Personally, I would prefer they just skip this step and get me to a flying car.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Toilet Flusher From The Greener Future.

So don't get me wrong, I am all about making changes to current designs in order to make them more environmentally friendly, but do we have to lose user-friendly in the process?

Recently I was in a fancy new building in Milwaukee for a wedding, and upon entering the bathroom I found something I had never seen before!

This is, apparently, the new toilet flushing mechanism of the future, designed to reduce water consumption! That's great! But how do I use it?

I know everyone has experienced the no-touch flushers they have everywhere that seem to flush all whilly-nilly, and waste a lot of water. In my mind they are also poorly designed, but at least its obvious to you what button you have to press in the event that you need to manually flush the thing. With the toilet flusher from the future I had absolutely no idea, and the toilet wasn't flushing on its own.

So there I was, randomly pushing on parts of the toilet, because the eye in the center that seemed to be the place to push definitely wasn't. Long story short I got the thing to work, but god, and the designers are certainly the only ones who know how I got it to work.

Overall, bad design. Good for the environment, but no good for me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our brains VS copious amounts of knowledge.

In chapter three of 'The Design of Everyday Things", Norman really got my attention when he opened the discussion of the way our brains retain knowledge, by talking about the ridiculous amount of alphanumeric information we have to remember for our everyday lives.

As Norman so aptly puts it, "There seems to be a conspiracy, one calculated to destroy our sanity by overloading our memory." I noted that this book was copy written in 1988, so I am assuming that the problems Norman had with memorizing numbers and codes back when he was composing this book were bad, but in this current day and age, I am positive it is far worse.

Being a college student in the twenty-first century certainly has its perks, but there are also disadvantages when it comes to the amount of superfluous information I am required to retain on a daily basis. Allow me to make a list.

- 10 digit telephone numbers, but now that everyone has a cell phone, 10 digits is likely to become 20, plus fax numbers and extensions etc.

-Now that the internet has been fully integrated into nearly everyone's daily lives, we have to remember urls, and it's true that your computer tries to help you with this by remembering past websites visited, but you are given new urls to remember by your teachers almost daily.

-Speaking of the internet, I have 3 different blogs, 2 different email accounts, 3 different social networking site accounts, plus various other assundry web pages that require me to remember my user name and password so I can view my top secret information! This process could be made easier if someone could get around to creating a unversial standard, but a password that is good for one site, may not be good enough for another, and what if someone is already using your common username? Then you are forced to think of something similar yet different which you are bound to forget. Once again, I know that the computer tries to help you with remembering all of this information by "remembering you", but sometimes that doesn't work. Sometimes the system malfunctions, or you are forced to clear your cache, or you are on someone else's computer. In events such as this, it's not uncommon for me to forget the information to some of my less frequently used accounts, and need to email them for help, (that is assuming that I can remember my email information).

Then of course there are the old faithfuls that Norman mentioned; social security, license number, postal codes, birthdays, and so it goes. The amount of seemingly useless crap we have to stuff into our minds for our day to day lives is enough to make my head spin at times, but alas in my head is where it must stay. Being that I am in school, I can't really afford to take the chance of writing all of this information down in a daily planner that I then also have to remember to take to school with me along with the million other books and badges, and readings and what not.

Later on in the chapter, Norman makes a comment about wishing he had a small personal computer that could keep track of all of his numbers and codes. I am fairly sure we have those now in the form of palm pilots, blackberries and iphones, but really, they still aren't as handy as just plain old remembering. Besides, technology breaks. What if you are on your way to an important business meeting and you drop your blackberry in a puddle? Oh no! Unless you have a back up source of information, you better hope you have all of the notes and numbers and emails stored in there committed to memory.

It has been over twenty years since Norman composed this book, and the face of the world has definitely changed since then, which leaves me to wonder just how many more numbers and codes we will have to remember twenty years from now.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

knitted body technology interfaces!

So, upon doing a Google search for the words "interface design" I stumbled across a really strange/interesting website full of knitted body technology interface designs! Being someone who is into crocheting and knitting, I got excited but I have to admit that I don't know if I would ever actually want to use any of these strange contraptions to interface with my technology. Take a look!

A laptop sock which provides, warmth, privacy, and concentration in public spaces! Looks a little bit like her face is being eaten by one of grandmas sweaters gone rouge!
This is a mask you can use to talk on your cell phone when its cold outside. I think this design is actually pretty useful, albeit really strange looking.

This one is a camera sock that fits your hand. I guess so you don't lose your camera? Personally, I think neck and wrist straps work just find, but I guess if you wanted to go for the ultra-nerdy hand-crafted option this would work pretty well too!

That's all for now! You can see the rest at .

My mother VS the learned helplessness of cofusing technology.

My mother has been a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit of the same hospital for about 37 years now, and up until about 6 years ago, most of the paper work completed by the nurses was, in fact, all on paper. My mother had been completing the same routine, every day she worked, for 30 plus years then, new and "helpful" technology finally found its way into my moms working life, and she couldn't have been more distressed about it.

It first began with the introduction of a new hospital "helper" name BUD. BUD was a robot, who was designed to Bring Up Drugs, from the pharmacy and deliver them to each floor. Sounds handy, but he was quickly renamed by the nurses as BUD (Bring Us Down!)

Every nurse and doctor in the hospital had to attend a seminar, that taught everyone about BUD and how easily he worked! You just press a few buttons, put in your password, and VOILA! You've got drugs!

A few days after BUD had been introduced to the hospital, my mom came home spewing hateful four letter words about her new BUD.
"In the seminar they didn't show us, they told us what button to press, so I thought that there would only be a few. NOOOO, of course not! BUD is loaded with buttons! He has a button for every letter of the alphabet and every single digit number for your password, plus about 25 others! We were told to push the green button, but there are about 5, and none of them are labeled. It's so confusing that today, I actually turned BUD off, and couldn't get my patients drugs out for over an hour! I tell you, if BUD was ever codeing in a hospital bed, I would ignore that (explitave deleted)!"

She later went on to tell me about how it makes her feel stupid, because the man at the seminar had made it sound so easy, but she is still struggling. "I'm too old for this stuff." She said. "I'm a techno-idiot."

Now, my mother maybe somewhat of a luddite, but shes not at all stupid. Besides, I went in a few days later to take a look at BUD, and he was not at all simplistic. There were so many buttons, and most of them weren't labeled, or were labeled with strange symbols, making it next to impossible to form any kind of conceptual model. Really, had I needed to open the thing, I probably would have opted for a crowbar.

As if BUD wasn't bad enough, a few months later the hospital began integrating its new "time saving technology" into every wing of the hospital. They went through another seminar, and lots of training sessions, but this didn't seem to help my mother. At this point in time she was so frustrated by her inability to properly opperate all of the new technology that she almost seemed depressed! She would come home everyday with a new story about how "giving report took me an hour longer than it normally does", or "today I couldn't figure out how to monitor my patients heart rate and didn't realize for a long time that it was too low". " I feel so stupid", she would say.

After about a month or so of hearing her be sad about the new technology, I finally asked her if she had asked anyone of her friends for help explaining the new system. I was shocked when she told me that she couldn't ask anyone, because no one really knew how to use it yet. My mother had been making dispareging comments about her competancy for over a month now, but really it wasn't her who was doing a bad job, it was the design of the new compuer system! It didn't seem to matter to her that no one else could make heads or tails of it. Talk about learned helplessness.

This story does have a happy ending however! It took about a year, but after so many complaints from hospital staff, and system malfunctions, the higher-ups in charge finally agreed to reconstuct the system to make it more usuer-friendly. BUD even got a face lift, cutting his user interface down to just letters, numbers, and one green button! Now my mom was coming home with sucess stories. She felt so emporwed in fact, that she finally decided to try making an email account and getting a cell phone, things she swore she would never do because they were too confusing. Fast forward to the present, and she is an emailing, texting, technology pro! Way to go mom!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dr. Groove 202.

This is the Dr. Goove 202. It is a drum machine used for making "dope beats".

One of my good friends used this drum machine in a band we were in together in Maine. My job was to write the keyboard parts, and he played with the drum machine.

I saw one of these guys in the window of a store the other day, and I remembered how easy my friend had made it seem to use this drum machine, so I purchased it.

When I plugged it in and began to play around with it however, it no longer seemed so easy. Although the set up of the interface appears to be fairly intuitive, it is not at all. It took me over an hour to finally figure out how to record something, even though the record button is very easily found. I thought it would be a walk in the park after I could finally record, but really it was all down hill from there.

Now I know that machines like this usually come with a manual to help you learn how to use it, but I tend to find manuals to be tedious and boring, and generally not all that helpful. When I go to program beats I want to spend approximately 5 minutes figuring out the ins and outs of the machine, and then that's that. Okay so maybe that makes me a little lazy, but it's true that in today's fast paced world, a good interface design is one that is intuitive and doesn't require hours of your time just to figure out the basics.

Usefulness VS. Usability.

So after giving my brain sometime to digest the reading about clarifying affordances, I am still somewhat confused when it comes to the concept of usefulness vs. usability of design. To me it seemed that usefulness and usability are one in the same, but it is clear in the text that this is not the case, as the author talks about differentiating between these two aspects of design.

After rereading I noticed a sentence in the text that said:
"The designer cares more about what actions the user perceives to be possible than what is true."
This lead me to believe that what the article is trying to say, is that usability is related to what you think the object will do, and usefulness is the actual affordance of the object, or what it actually does. As of now, this is the best conclusion I can come up with, but it still doesn't feel like much more than an educated guess.

Even though I feel like I may have wrapped my mind around the concept of these two different aspects of design, I still don't know if I see the point in differentiating between the two. Is it possible that Gibson and Nelson, and all of the other scholarly people who have tackled the concept of usefulness vs usability have simply over thought the matter? Allow me to explain.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines usefulness as "the quality of having utility and especially practical worth or applicability". The same dictionary defines usability as "convenient and practicable for use". Now, maybe I am missing something, but it seems to me as though these two words mean pretty much the same thing! So how is it that you can form to different design concepts out of synonyms?

It is totally possible that I am over thinking things, but I am still interested in discussing this subject with others, and seeing if anyone else agrees, disagrees, or just thinks that I am fixating on a non-issue. I'm not sure if anyone else in the class will read this, but if you do, what is your take?