Saturday, June 12, 2004

First Reluctant Post - Rant on Usefulness and Usability

I have resisted BLOGing for a long time for the same reason I resist many such phenomena: they're trendy and popular. Of course, I also tend not to participate in underground fads as I'm skeptical of their longevity. So where does that leave me?

In many things, I am a practical pioneer. I like to be on the leading and even bleeding edge, but do so in a way that's sensitive to the realities of life. So any new phenomenon or technology must follow some simple rules.

Not everyone has tons of money to spend on fancy gadgets. New products have to hit a pricing sweet spot of affordability given the benefit before I'm willing recommend them. Just one example is Tablet PCs (convertible models). Awesome tool. Not generally recommendable until they're available for around $1000 or less (coming soon fortunately) and 4lbs or less (I'm being generous on the weight possibly against my better judgment).

This touches on both ease of use and the fact that complicated designs usually mean more things to break. My typical example is the classic ice-cream scoop with the lever and gears that swoop a thin strip along the inside edge of the bowl to release the ice cream. The gearing makes the lever hard to press (little mechanical advantage provided). The ice cream doesn't doesn't consistently pop out as it just re-adheres to the bowl right after the strip passes. How many presses of the lever does it take you to get the ice cream to pop out? And lastly that strip gets disengaged from mechanism breaking the functionality. On my quest for perfection I finally found an OXO model that has a simple recessed lever for popping out the ice cream. Not yet perfect but much closer. Of course even OXO (which I love for many things) have their version of classic model, probably because of the lemming factor.

Usable in Real Situations:
If something is hard to figure out or use then people won't or can't use it in real life situations. Many car stereos have started using a knob for forward/back type control. The knob doesn't turn all the way around. A twisting motion for a momentary type action is difficult and not intuitive. Furthermore, these are used for functions like tuning which would be far easier if a true rotary control allowed for fast movement. These functions should be buttons or allow for true rotary, continuous increment as expected and usable. Even worse is the buttons for volume control. Cheap and completely painful to use.

Truly Useful:
Many new models of aftermarket car stereos have these cool little Organic Light Emitting Diode displays (OLED) which are bright and detailed. They're about 2.5cm by 10cm in size. Man the useful information you could put in there. However, all of them currently plaster little pictures and even video clips behind the functional information. Plus they don't use all the resolution to display complete information. For example, these stereos can play MP3 CDs. Great, if they provided a multi-line browse view of the contents. The room is there, but alas they fill it with useless eye-candy. This renders these displays hard to read and incomplete. What a waste!

If something is a pain to use it's certainly not going to be fun. But, to be it also needs to be interesting, energizing, involving for it to last in any way. This topic needs much further discussion for another time.

That's all for now.