It's all about looks

Touch is great thing, suddenly you can touch, tap, double tap, flick, pinch and stretch to manipulate virtual object. It really revamped the whole mobile business mainly with the release of the iPhone and the capacitive touch screens, used in most smartphones today. But also in the stuff using infrared matrix screens like the Neonode back in 2004 that had quite good gesture control but never took off.

But let the touch stay there in a virtual interface on the screen. We all know and love what we got there. But if you have a real physical nice button DON'T MAKE IT A TOUCH BUTTON. Physical buttons should stay physical, a touch button is actually just an approximation to the real thing. That was cool in the 80-ties. If you really, really, can't help yourself, at least keep them safe from accidental touch. I’ll give you some example from bad to worse …

The new XBOX 360

This device uses touch to open the tray door and for the on/off switch. Its not a big problem here, the XBOX isn’t moved around much and mostly you don’t touch it by accident. But sometimes, you need to move it. I have it hidden away and I was opening the doors and accidently opened the tray. The sound it made when it hit the wall wasn’t too pleasing but it survived.

My stove

This one is even more annoying. The buttons are placed close to where you normally would have physical buttons and it works well when you and navigate them. But there are a few occasions… If you accidentally cover them they start to do all sorts of crazy stuff until the stove, as a security feature, shut down totally. Also, when you have a big handle cover one panel it reacts,  suddenly you wonder what happen until you realize that you have turned off the heat.

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My Samsung Omnia 7

This is by far one of the worst examples of touch buttons. It doesn’t provide any functionality other than looks (and I think you could have gotten the same look with real buttons, with the right materials). It is constantly in the way and trying to play a game is almost impossible as you have your whole thumb over the buttons. I nearly thrown this out the window…

Are there any good versions?

Well I think my old Bang&Olufsen sound system from 1991 is ok, touch button is not a killer feature but adds coolness to this piece of machinery, not that I know what I’m going to use my CD-player or cassette deck for anymore Smile

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B&O 4500 with the military grade remote - could easily take out any enemy

It’s also good in that it’s easy to keep clean, it does not produce any false taps or clicks (being placed on a wall and all). It’s only a design thing using touch here but it doesn’t make it worse, besides, it’s the massive one pound remote that is used to control this…

The stove, again, is actually also a good contender for touch buttons:

Easy to clean

There is one really good reasons for using touch here and it compensates for the problems. It’s so easy to keep clean.

So, a final plea!

I first thought of this when I moved in and started the fight with my stove. Then there was mockups leaks of the Windows Phone 7 HTC models. Then when I got my Samsung Omnia 7 in October. I think this is THE most annoying “feature” of the Omnia. But now there as a bigger threat - the mockups that Nokia made for the new Windows Phone 7 models. Look here:


This is really scary, touch buttons, and even worse than the Samsung Omnia, the home button is also touch here. This is going to drive at least me crazy. So please forget about touch here!

Don’t steal my screen!

The other day I was un-installing a software package from Telerik and the process was quite long. So I was reading along a few blog posts when I suddenly got a modal dialog in my face, actually it was a monolog as I was not able to act on it. It was just a message to me that the uninstall process felt that It really had to force me to read. So it kicked up the following message on top of everything:


No matter what i did, the windows 7 show desktop (right bottom corner), WIN-D or whatever. The application really felt that this message was so important it had to sit on top of everything for a couple of minutes.

Its almost like the old: Are you sure you want to exit? question. And actually I thought we got rid of that a couple of years ago. But whaddayaknow, it’s still out there in the various shapes and as you can see it has moved to the web… And I got one just the other day but I have already erased and forgotten that application.

Anyways, it really is simple, as the process of installing and uninstalling is something that takes a little time, just make sure it will be executed in the background. I have better things to do than look at a message that  is completely rubbish. Actually it’s not just this little dialog, when installing the toolkit, it places a full screen window on top of everything. This windows have all the controls for maximize, minimize and close but it will not react to them… At least I was able to minimize with the WIN-D keys…

//Håkan Reis

Simplify, simplify, simplify

simple The more I work with interaction design the more I home in on the same mantra – simplify. This works on everything, from the most complex situation down to really basic UIs. Actually it’s a lot harder for the basic situation as they are already simplified. But it always pays off in the usage.

In the current project we have a very complex structure that, currently, are presented to the user. Developing for it, we find ourselves discussing it over and over again and to me this is a big warning sign. When we, that really should understand every detail, misunderstand the concept again and again, how hard will it not be for the user, and this really shout simplify! We should never be allowed to expose this internal complexity our we will end up with a usage nightmare. In the same way you really don’t need to understand every sprocket and spring in an old watch to tell time.

And here I am, working real hard to wrap my head around the end result and the goal  the user want to experience. I focus all my effort to visualize this result in the simplest possible way. I remove redundant and excessive information. For every piece of data, every column, button and link, I ask myself: is this needed to complete the task? If not – I hide and maybe, but just maybe allow the user to reveal on demand. When I think I’m done I go through it again…

But it’s the same thing with everything around us. If you read my post on simplified licenses it’s obvious that this applies to other areas. And it may seem obvious, but how come run into the same overcomplicated situations? Why is the GPL 3 license using 5700 words? Obviously, it cannot hurt to be reminded - make simplify YOUR mantra…

// Håkan Reis

Why time reporting sucks

Dali time Do you think that wasting $150 000 000 of your clients money is ok or have you heard of any companies that does that and get away with it (that are not lawyers)?

Chances are that you are doing business with one of them. But lets start from the beginning here and I’ll get to the $150 million in a while.

This year we got a new time report system at work, and as usual it’s a mess. There is a user experience here but only of confusion and annoyance.  A couple of hideous  problems I spotted in just a few minutes of use were:

  • In this system we are forced to use an arcane time code for each report period. The crypto looks like 208522. If you decipher it you get 2008, 52 and the last is 1 or 2 depending on if it it's the first or second month in that week (when the month is shifting). This is just ridicules, we have been using the roman calendar for a couple of thousands years. The porting period calendar code is not logical for any user (not even the developer).
  • For each cell we have to use codes, and to find out what codes to use a modal JavaScript dialog is presented where you can do a search that lists a few projects and their code. Each time it takes 3-4 clicks to enter the correct codes. But in this system you have project codes, activities codes, customers codes, account codes, etc.

So how about the numbers then? Well, just the two problems on top here will keep on eating up a couple of minutes each day. Our company size is around 150 people so this mean about 600 hours lost each year. I have no idea how many users the system has, but they claim that 2 600 companies are using their system. Taking our company as an average company is at least a start so lets use that figure. This adds up to 1.5 million hours. With an hourly rate around $100 you get $150 000 000 every single year down the drain.

So what gives them the right to cost their client so much? Is it that they have especially lazy developers or did they really think they could come up with a better calendar. Actually, the truth is that there are many more time report systems out there and I haven’t came across a single one that’s much better and a few that are even worse. This micros study of mine revealed a few common facts on time reports:

  • All the reporting systems spring from the economic context. In that context we are often thrown back to entering long rows of numerical data. Codes may make sense in this context as they speed up the entry on a numeric key-pad.
  • The next problem is that they try to solve time reporting for everyone. The average user will not need to list 300 clients to find the right one even if the company might have all those clients. You don’t have a gigantic hierarchy of projects, tasks and activities. Actually, if you have demand that fine grained control of every hour you are probably wasting your clients and employees time and money.
  • The users of the system do not share the context of time reporting. A small group of users are using as one of their main tool, they might want codes and shortcuts as it can speed up their work. But the biggest user group are probably the ones that report into the system. They might use it one time a day on that occasion they don’t want to waste time on searching for codes.

money Actually the solution to some of these issues are quite simple but that doesn’t mean it’s simple to implement. But to start with they could at least get to know their users, and by users I don’t mean customers.

The system will have to be created with a dual view, of course it has to support the the ones that are using the reported time for calculation, planning and business. But there is not a contradiction in supporting the other bigger user group here, the ones that has to enter data. If the overhead for entering my time were just a minute or two a day instead of 10-15, I might not be that annoyed. I could use their system instead of the simple app in my iPhone that keeps track of my projects and how much time I spend on each.

And for the two problems found in our current system there are two super simple solutions that I give away for free.

  • Let me use the calendar i know and use (you know the one that starts with January and ends with December)
  • Provide me with incrementally searchable dropdowns with real projects and activities names – not the damn codes.

Ah well, I should probably report that time from last week instead of writing up this rant. And I really hope my company will not just lose money on the system, but save a dime or two on the reports and invoices that it produces.

// Håkan Reis

Real world and user testing

key It’s easy to get stuck in old trails. You know, when you first log on you should set you password, change it periodically, blah blah blah, you know the drill. But if you just keep on going in this track you will not simplify it for the user. Reading the post regarding the upcoming Windows 7 and the HomeGroup feature was liberating.

And the reflection that each person in your home is really equal and part of your home group was great. Also when you are at home you are safe and don’t need a lot of passwords to keep safe from family members.

This conclusion wasn’t drawn from computer usage, it was identified looking at the real world:

People don’t allow strangers into their homes and usually lock their exterior doors. People within the confines of the home are typically considered to be trusted.

Within the home, doors to rooms are usually not locked, allowing members of the household to have free access. Books, photographs, magazines, CDs, and DVDs are often freely shared.

Social norms prevent most people from snooping into areas where they shouldn’t and, if needed, adding locks to rooms or drawers is relatively easy.

I love this notion on how reality really affect the computer usage. Another interesting fact was the pre-generated password. It’s really like a key, each family member don’t want to make decisions regarding what type and look the key should have? They want the same key. Also from the post:

You may ask, why don’t we enable people to set their own passwords by default? The answer is actually quite ironic, since that was our initial design. In testing, this concept raised quite a bit of alarm with people. It seems that most people generally have 1 or 2 passwords that they use for all their online or offline activities. When asked to input a user password for their HomeGroup, they gravitated towards using one of those, and then reacted with alarm when they realized that this password needs to be shared with other users in the home! People generally reacted better to the auto-generated password, since they knew to write it down and hand it around. The other interesting benefit we got from this was a reduction in the amount of time people would spend on the UI that introduced them to the HomeGroup concept.

This last issue would not have been identified if they didn’t do user testing. I strongly suggest you read this post. And the others too in the Engineering Windows 7 blog. They are truly worth reading and I am really looking forward to start testing the first beta as it comes out.

// Håkan Reis

From business to buttons

I was at a interaction design specific conference at June 12-13, from business to buttons. I haven't gotten around to jot down my thoughts about it until now. A short description on some of the seminars follows:

Day one

Keynote by the man, Don Norman. And a little plug for his new book The Design of Future Things - I probably will get this book as all the others. Don't get me wrong this was not just a book review, there was a lot good insights and it was good listening.

Next up was a session with Kim Lenox a really good session. A good look on how they are changing their way of work, they are clearly moving towards a more agile and involved process. I mean; whiteboards, post-its, direct communication and collaboration over the borders. This is getting good and fun. This was a new session, as Ryan Freitas had to cancel  his, and a very pleasant surprise.

Next up was a mix containing three shorter session on New interaction techniques.

Most interesting of these was a session on multi touch and gestures. Quite interesting stuff, this also sprung a small fear that Apple et al are doing their patent stuff here. Multi touch and gestures should be open, not locked down by patents. 

There was a quite fun session on clothes and electronics from cutecircuit.

Last session of the day was by Kars Alfrink from Leapfrog on playful design, how the knowledge from gaming can be implemented on business. There are lots of interesting stuff that can come out of that mix, I'm sure.

Day two

For me the day started out with a keynote by Dr Patrick W Jordan around the four pleasures; Physio, Psycho, Socio and Ideo. This was a excellent session with lots of real world data and anecdotes. Like the clunk of BMW doors and the Heineken psst.

Last out was a workshop on agile methods and interaction design. I think that a few answers came out of that session. Most important though is that developer in agile projects need to get the interaction designers on the right track. Share your knowledge. I think Interaction designers need to learn a lot more on this issue. Many are still stuck in big up front design, and this has got to change.

Sessions, pdfs and stuff can be found at the from business to buttons site.

On a side note, I think that many interaction designers are afraid that they will loose out on the design if not all methods and tools are applied. And some methods and techniques cannot be applied directly in an agile projects. However, the gain in communication and development speed [in agile projects] are  so great that there is no return. They have to learn that you don't need all the answers at the table at the start. And an interaction designers work is not done when the project starts. It has to be done continually during the development.

A little background

So, I sold myself to the space plastic. I got myself an iPhone. After some tricking with the software I got it up and running. There are just a few rough edges left but in all a great experience. It really delivers, a few quirks that you get used to it in no time at all. You have to get used to the keyboard but it only took me a one or two days to nail it.

Most of the basic applications work great, the integration is the best part of it, you can add the address for a contact and from there go to the map and get directions from your home address - real sweet.

The calendar is great but why couldn't it just sync with windows calendar or any iCal file out there? Could it be that they want me to buy a mac? But to be honest, no other phone maker makes it any easier to sync.

A few pointers, the text messaging works great as a conversation but sometimes you need to send to more than one or forward, then there is the SMSD application that handles messages as you are used to. There even is a solution in the works to handle MMS, at SwirlySpace you can have an application that for starters handles sending MMS.

But the functionality, responsively and integration of all other applications are so good it doesn't matter. And the updates the pump out seem to offer more that bug fixes that should have been in place by delivery. But that has to be proved.

So where are all the others?

Why didn't Nokia, SonyEricsson or any other of the mobile companies out there deliver this kind of product?

The main problem here is history. For the past decades mobile phones have been selling on features, the developers are the driving factor, together with marketing. In the beginning you really sold a telephone, just the bare minimum of features (calling, handling contacts and SMS). This was easy, 4-5 items in a menu and you were safe. Add a few extra features and you would sell more, shrink the size, add to battery life. Any other extra feature was a main selling point as there was only so many ways to dial a phone number. But as the feature war went on there was casualties, too bad it was among the users. Marketing locked on to all the features that the techies invented and now they are stuck there. The feature list keeps getting longer and is expected to expand with GSM, SMS, CDMA, Bluetooth, GPRS, MMS, PTT, TDMA, WAP, GPS, 3G, EV-DO, UMTS, HSDPA, EDGE, Turbo-3G, CDPD, GAIT...

Want me to continue? That is what most mobile companies are selling. Not a great phone, web surfing experience, music machine or personal planner. And they are so stuck in selling acronyms that they have trouble to cut lose. Drop all buzzwords and sell an experience.

The only company with a full experience focus, coupled with the marketing money, is Apple. The last building block was the timing, available processing power and hardware to support the UI. They were able to start fresh with no history in what's expected other than a great experience and a fanatic crowd. There are a few players, Neonode is one but unfortunately I think it's too late for them. Another major player here might be Google. They have the muscles to provide a platform, now let the experience guys do something cool stuff with that. Keep the Linux geeks at bay or we will have an interface like Gimp.

Don't get me wrong here I do think that SonyEricsson sell a lot of great phones. I have a few myself and they are my second choice. But I always feel that they have the potential to do so much more. And by the way, if you know most of the acronyms above you’re in trouble, take some user experience and get yourself out of the featuritis.