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Thought for the Day…

If your design isn’t fully baked, don’t give it to end users and expect them to do anything other than spitting it out while making “gak!” sounds.

The only exception to this rule is if you’re making chocolate chip cookies. If your design can be fairly compared to a chocolate chip cookie, go ahead and show it as early as you want, even if it’s just raw dough.

For everything else, the design usually has to be pretty well cooked before anyone who isn’t a cook themselves will be able to give you constructive feedback on it.


Travel UX Fails: Keyless Car Remote Fobs

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The above picture is the keyless remote for my car rental this trip: A Nissan Maxima. The car itself is superb: sporty, comfortable, and with such an involved set of controls that I actually had to pull over and find the “quick start” guide (about 40 pages of tiny print listing the different controls) in order to get the phone synched up with my Galaxy S8 and get navigating to my hotel.

I’ve noticed that different product classes tend to reward different styles of interface design. Appliance design, for instance, seems to have seen two major design trends in the past ten years:

  1. Remove as many status indicators as possible, while adding exponentially more cycle settings. My dishwasher, for instance, shows only a single LED on its entire stainless steel face, although it does change from a tasteful white to a tasteful blinking white, to an alarming red (I thought, signalling an error–turns out it merely meant it was drying), and finally to a restful blue.
  2. Playing ever-longer long tunes to signal their pleasure at having completed their assigned duties, or alternately a slightly sadder aria if something went wrong somehow. (I first saw this trend on the office printer/fax, which would play an opening tune that was virtually identical to the theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. Every time I turned it on, it would do its “Doodle-ooddle-ooo…” to which my brain would immediately reply “bwa-bwaaaa-bwa!” Talk about ear worms!)Now, ten years later, my new Samsung washer and drier each have multi-stanza theme tunes, as does my Whirlpool washer (of tasteful blue light fame). I figure it’s just a matter of time before LG licenses Inna Gada Da Vida, keyboard solo and all, for its water softener.

On the other hand, car design–once the field where good designers would turn up in once they’d lost all will to live–has seen an absolute explosion of graphical eye candy in this age of tablet-driven Teslas and the proliferation of cheap, bright, touch screens.

My Maxima, for instance, features alternate driving consoles including a red-limned “Sport” design featuring an imposing “Power” gauge, as well as  a perfectly skeumorphic “Standard” console for more “around town” driving, complete with–I kid you not!–wood grain accents behind the gauges.

Beyond that, virtually every car these days interfaces with some version of Apple’s or Android’s car interface, giving access to navigation, a variety of audio sources, as well as phone integration. For the most part, these are decently usable, although there seems to be no end to stability issues for Android audio, no matter what device it’s paired with, which cable I’m connecting with, or which car I’m driving. Clearly there’s a lot of room for improvement on the QA front here.

What the Fob?

The physical part of the car interface, however, is another story. Gone are the days where you could hop into any rental car and instantly know how do to everything from adjusting the seat position, turn down the air conditioning, or to turn on your windshield wipers. The more these functions have become computer controlled, the harder it has become to find and operate the associated physical controls.

And then there’s the issue of that most basic of controls: the key fob. Folks, we gotta talk…

Somewhere along the line, it was apparently decided that it would be really neat if instead of getting out a lowly set of car keys, that you could do everything by keeping a magic key fob on your person. Then, instead of turning the key to start the car, you could simply push the start button on the console.

OK, neat enough, I guess. After almost a week of driving the keyless Maxima, I’m still unsure what problem this solves, but it has given me a new set of counterintuitive juggling motions to make to find the tiny key fob so I can lock the car when I leave. The worst part, however, is the physical design of the fob itself.

Turn back to the picture above, which, at least as close as I can do right now, shows the approximate real size of the remote on my MacBook’s screen. Now picture the same remote with sun glinting off it in the hot Vegas sun. See any problems? For that matter, can you see anything at all?

In addition to some dodgy icon design, the fine folks at Nissan decided that they were going to do the remote for their car in the ever-popular “monochromatic” style, rendering the shiny silver icons all but invisible in anything but perfect lighting.

And, since everyone knows smaller is better, they further decided that the entire remote should be in the form of a tiny, orthogonal lozenge, giving you no way to operate the remote without taking it out, carefully orienting it so that the red button is on the bottom, then remembering that the button right next to the one which activates the shrieking alarm is the one you push and hold to open your trunk, the middle one unlocks the car, and the one above that locks.

And what’s the icon at the top, the one which is identical to the refresh icon on web browsers? In Nissan’s case, it’s the remote start button–a cool feature for those who live in cold climes, but represented with some confused iconography.

Physical Design Matters

Key fobs are like doors: absolutely common objects which should never make you guess about how they operate. If you’ve ever found yourself pushing on a door which needed to be pulled to open, you’re not at fault: the designer of the door is.

In my daydreams, that there’s a special 10th circle of Hell, populated entirely by people constantly smashing their heads into doors which should have opened inward, and setting off car alarms when they tried to open the door via their key fob.

And of course, this special little design hell would be reserved for the sorts of folks who design telephone voice menus… or hardware like the Nissan Maxima key fob.


  1. Contrast is Good. The silver-on-silver design of the Nissan remote may be trendy, but it’s unusable (and frankly, completely illegible to my 50 year-old eyes unless I put my reading glasses on and get the remote to a place out of the direct sun. Other than style, it’s difficult to think what Nissan was thinking here: they clearly could spare the cost of some red ink for the panic button–how about some black paint to trace the outlines of the other buttons?Bonus Pro Tip: Have any of these engraved mono-chromatic devices in your life? Try taking a suitable Crayola crayon and coloring really hard over the indented portion. Then, wipe down the whole thing with a cloth. The colored wax will remain in the indented area, colorizing the icon and giving you far better visibility.
  2. Key Remotes should be navigable by feel alone. The key fob should have a unique directional shape (like the GM or Ford remote fobs shown below) which allows you to instantly orient the fob properly and use muscle memory to use the two most important functions: locking and unlocking.
  3. Smaller isn’t always better. Beyond a certain point–probably a couple of inches long by an inch or so wide–making the remote smaller just makes it harder to use and easier to lose. Remember: the key fob is the primary interface for the vehicle when the user is outside of it. Worse, the most common place to store the fob will be at the bottom of a cluttered pants pocket or handbag. You’re not helping when you make it so tiny the user has to waste time searching for the fob.If you do want to watch space, concentrate on thickness, not length or width. It’s also incredibly common to attach these to a set of house or office keys, so your users will appreciate it if you don’t make the key fob overly thick.


Postscript: And Then, There’s Tesla…

Here’s their remote:


Yup, it’s a toy car.

In case you’re wondering, here’s a helpful diagram which actually explains the thing:


Uhh… points for playfulness, definitely. Also, it is descriptive in its own way: you press on the part of the car you want to operate (mostly). Still not sure how to lock the thing, but then again, if you own a Tesla, this sort of mystery may well be part of the charm.

You guys keep doing you.

Travel UX Fails: Hotel Table Lamps (Or “Professor Layton and the Temperamental Table Lamp”)

As I write this, I’m travelling in Las Vegas attending the National Association of Broadcasters show. To pass the inevitable dull moments that creep into any trip, my son was kind enough to loan me his Nintendo DSI along with a copy of the (quite wonderful) puzzle game “Professor Layton and the Curious Village”.

In the game, you wander around a cute little Miyazaki-inspired village solving all manner of logic puzzles. Little did I know after plugging the DSI to charge one night that the kind proprietors of my hotel would be providing me with yet another logic puzzle: The Case of the Temperamental Table Lamp”

Entering my hotel room for the first time, I was delighted to see that the hotel was equipped with easily accessible power connections at the base of the table lamps in both the bedroom and the front sitting room area. So, experienced traveller that I am, I immediately plugged my phone charger into the bedroom table lamp, and the DSI’s charger into the lamp power outlet in the front room. After seeing that they were both charging, I turned off the lamps and went out to see the sights of Vegas.

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(Above: Sitting room lamp power plug; Below: the similar lamp in the bedroom of the suite; Below: the bedroom lamp with phone charger)


Waking up early the next day, I was surprised to see although my phone had a full charge, the DSi had completely run down. Turning on the lamp to see better, I was able to confirm that the DSi was indeed charging. “Huh…” I thought, “Maybe in wasn’t plugged in tightly?” and left it at that. I then turned off the lamp and left to go to the show floor for the day.

After a busy day spent oogling all manner of unaffordable audio/video gear at the show, my phone had run down to almost nothing, so I was relieved to be able to get it back to my bedside charger. The charger politely chirped, letting me know it was charging. Then, after a bit of puttering around in the hotel room, I switched off the room’s lights and went to bed.

In the morning, I awoke to discover my phone right where I left it on its charger next to the bed–stone cold dead.

Like the fall guy in a bad noir film, I decided to investigate how this strange turn of events had come about in this increasingly strange hotel room. And then my eyes drifted from the lamp to the room’s light switches, and I realized I’d been had–waylaid by a clueless lamp designer and an overachieving hotel electrician.

The portion of the case involving the sitting room and the dead DSi was the easiest part to solve. Since the sitting room had no overhead lights, the way you got light was to turn on the light switch of the table lamp. Unfortunately, the designers of that lamp had decided that the same switch that controlled the light should also control the power outlets built into it. Turn off the light, and you turn off the switches. Naturally, they omitted to include any sort of indicator light to show whether the outlets were live or not.

It seems it had not occurred to the designer of this particular hotel table lamp to wonder what sorts of things they thought weary travellers would want to plug in next to their couch or bed. To me, things like alarm clocks and phone chargers come most readily to mind, although one could easily add in all manner of assorted other electronic devices to the list. The next obvious question would be, “Is it a common use case to want these types of devices to stay powered on, even when the light is off?”

Granted, I haven’t conducted a detailed user study of the matter, but at a first approximation, I’d venture that the answer to this question is a rather resounding, “Duh!”

The bedroom situation was a bit more complicated. Like many bedside lamps, this one had a three-way bulb, so pressing the silver switch on the lamp would cycle the light between low, medium, and high light levels. A fourth push of the switch would turn the lamp off. This was all fine, as was the fact that the outlets of this lamp were left “hot” no matter what level the light was set to.

Unfortunately, this is where the second culprit, the hotel electrician, came in. He decided (or was told) to wire the outlet the bedside lamp was plugged into to be controlled by the room’s main light switches. This meant that it was basically a coin flip as to whether pushing the light’s switch did anything at all: if the room’s main light switch wasn’t turned on, the whole outlet was dead. Only by checking both the main switches then fiddling around in the dark room to try to find the lamp’s button would you actually wind up with light in the room. And then, if you happened to turn off the lights using the wall switch, you powered off any devices plugged into the lamp.

So in the end, I managed to crack the case. But seriously, this sort of hotel room switch puzzle has got to stop.

Guidelines for Design: Hotel Room Lamps and Outlets

  • Know how the room is to be furnished, and only use wall switches to control devices which will not have their own power switches. Avoid setting up situations where the users of the room must ensure that multiple switches are engaged in order to turn the device on.
  • Table lamps with outlets should always be wired so that the outlets are “hot’ at all times.
  • If for some reason this can’t be done, a visible power indicator (e.g. a small LED) should be added to the switch to indicate whether it’s live.



Ikea’s BookBook: Pure Genius

The stylish, low-cost furniture folks just one-upped Apple. Along with having some fun, they also make some excellent points about the innate advantages of ink on paper.

It reminds me a lot of a conversation I once had with a designer on the Newton project who was seriously jazzed about the ability to (usually) be able to record a written note, as well as look up old notes later. What advantage this had over a 99 cent notepad was not at all clear.

iOS 7 – Side by Side with iOS 6

Yesterday was the day most of us were informed that our iPhones and iPads are ready to download the latest software release from Apple. Before jumping in and pressing that “Upgrade” button, have a look at Business Insider’s side-by-side comparison of what’s in store:


My take: I guess I go back to John Dvorak’s old advice that whenever confronted with a “next big thing” proposition, weigh its validity by imagining that the roles of old and new were reversed. I.e., if we were all living in an iOS 7 world you see on the right, how would we greet the “next big thing” announcement of the interface you see on the left?


The Magic of User-Created Ratings

Apparently, a little hard to match with food, but perfect for the hot tub.

Source: Ratings


A Timely Post from Five Years Ago re: Font Smoothing and the new iPad

With the new iPad (formerly known informally as the iPad 3) in my hot little hands, I can testify personally that the screen is gorgeous. What’s more, the near print-quality resolution has a real possibility of reshaping an old debate between Mac and PC users–namely, which platform made the right decision when it comes to font smoothing.

As Joel Spolsky nicely summed up here, the two platforms made some stark choices when it came to the algorithms they employed to render type on LCD screens. Microsoft, with their ClearType technology emphasized harder “snapping” to the physical pixel boundaries, resulting in a generally chunkier, but crisper look. Apple, however, hewed closely to the original type designs, resulting in a stylish appearance with type styles clearly differentiated from one another–but at the cost of a certain blurriness to the rendered text.

On a typical 100-ish pixel-per-inch (PPI) desktop screen, it’s easy to make either argument in light of the trade-offs involved. After all, style matters, but so does the raw human mechanics of line and edge sensing which make up so much of readability. If one switches back and forth between a Mac and a PC on the same monitor, it’s common to be left with the feeling that the Mac looks better, but that the PC involved less effort to read.

With the new iPad’s stunning 264 PPI screen, however, the legibility compromises that Apple forces in the name of faithful typography largely vanish. Ars Technica has a nice set of blown-up images which demonstrate the effect.

In the example above, pay particular attention to the edges of straight verticals such as the “t” in “these”: although a subtle anti-aliasing shadow appears on the right of the stroke on the retina display, the pronounced smudging of the left side of the stroke that so degraded the letterform on the original iPad is replaced by a faithful, dark rendering on the new iPad, changing the legibility dramatically.

After a weekend spent playing with the new iPad, I honestly haven’t been able to detect an earthshaking difference in network speed, overall performance, battery life, or virtually any other technical aspect vs. my trusty first-generation model. But to my eyes, at least, the screen alone has been well worth the upgrade price.