Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Some Thoughts on Design

I'm not a great software engineer. Quite the opposite. I don't get much time for development and many of my projects are quick and dirty hack jobs. I simply wear too many hats in my work to devote myself completely to any one aspect. On a daily basis I get to be the IT guy, software developer, photographer, designer, telephone repairman, technical writer, and guy who does whatever the hell else needs to be done.

Admitting that, I do have some advice for anyone developing software or designing just about anything:

1) Use your own shit.

2) Have somebody else use your shit, and actually listen to them when they tell you what's wrong with it. Chances are, they're right.

A remember reading a blog post a while back about the world's worst toaster in which the author described a toaster that is overly complex -- a sure symptom of poor design. This post really spoke to me. Not because the message is terribly enlightening, and not because I disagree. It's stuck with me because I happen to have a toaster that is considerably worse than the one described in the blog post!

My toaster does not suffer from excessively complex design. It's your standard "pop-up" toaster with a knob that goes from "light" to "dark", and a single lever used to start the toasting process. An elegant, time-tested design that should be pretty hard to screw up. Well, "Chefmate" managed to screw it up pretty well.

Here's what I have to do to make toast:

1) Adjust the "light to dark" knob to somewhere between 50 and 75%. It doesn't really matter where, because anything under 50% is essentially untoasted (dried bread, really), and anything over 75% is burned-to-a-crisp.

2) Insert bread and push the toasting lever down.

3) Wait until the bread pops up.

4) Yay, the bread popped up! -- Not so fast, we're not done. Although the toasting process took about as long as one might expect, the bread at this point is somewhere between hot and barely-toasted. So what we need to do is push the lever down again to re-toast our bread.

5) Wait until the second toasting process "feels" like it's about half way done.

6) Pull the plug. Why pull the plug? Because an anti-safety feature built into the toaster will not allow the user to push the toasting lever up to manually pop the toast. The only way to get the toast to pop up before the toasting cycle is complete is to disrupt the power.

7) Inspect "toast" for done-ness. If it needs to toast a little longer, repeat steps 5 and 6 but vary the amount of time in step 5 as needed. Do not be tempted to adjust the light-dark knob to assist you in selecting the correct amount of time for subsequent toastings -- you will either burn it, or the bread will untoast itself and you'll have to start over (no, you simply won't be able to start toasting if you select "light").

Whew. It sucks to start the day pissed off at a toaster, but that's what I get for only spending $10. Or is it?

It amazes me that this toaster even exists in our world. It was clearly never *used* by anyone at the toaster factory to make toast, or the design would have been modified such that it could actually make toast. The anti-safety feature by which the user cannot manually pop the toast without unplugging the unit is another example of complete usability oversight. This has nothing to do with cheap components, necessarily, but shoddy design. The mechanics of a toaster are not complicated and thanks to plastic, a fairly featureless toaster is easy to mass-produce on the cheap. I have a hard time imagining the guy who was tasked with creating Chefmate's 2007 entry-level toaster -- how low can his self-esteem be?

Whenever I make toast, I think about MP3 players. The reason I do this is so when I write this blog post, I'll have a way to transition into my next example of crap design: cheap MP3 players.

My old 256MB Creative Muvo MP3 player finally died after years of faithful service. It didn't actually die, necessarily, but the "up volume" button broke off so like a racehorse with a broken leg, I had to put it down. I decided that I wanted to get another cheap MP3 player that took a single AAA battery. I've got a lot of rechargable AAA's, and I think that they're more convenient than built-in rechargable batteries. If my battery dies while I'm mowing the lawn, I can simply swap in a fresh one.

Unfortunately, nobody wants to make an MP3 player that takes AAA batteries anymore. The reason for this, I believe, is to make players that are smaller than they need to be. This is an example of a design choice that is of little benefit to anyone, but helps will player sales because for some reason "thin" is "in." Once a device reaches a certain level of "smallness", it doesn't need to be any smaller -- but on the display shelf the smallest gizmo wins.

There are only a few MP3 players being produced that take AAA batteries, and they're all on the cheapo side. I tried out a couple recently but had to return them because they lacked certain software features that they simply should not have been missing. They weren't poor because they were made cheaply, they were poor because the designers didn't care to think about the devices actually being used by real people. Granted this is certainly a symptom of keeping down costs, but just a tiny bit of effort would have saved these devices:

- Nextar MA566 (or similar model).

This is a standard MP3 player with no frills. It plays Mp3s. What more do you want? Well here's the problem: it plays the MP3s in order not by filename, but by file modification date, and THEN filename. Clearly this is a big oops, and whoever wrote the software didn't do enough testing.

I use MyPodder from Podcastready on my MP3 players to download podcasts and audiobooks. When MyPodder downloads new podcasts, it launches (as far as I can tell) about 4 download processes at once. This means that if I'm downloading 10 chapters from an audio book, they don't necessarily arrive in order. Chapter 3 might come down before Chapter 1, etc. This shouldn't be a problem because usually audio book chapters have names like 01_BookName, 02_BookName, such that any DECENT player can play the chapters back in the correct order.

Unfortunately the MA566 isn't smart enough to do get this right, and if Chapter 3 is downloaded to the device before Chapter 1, it plays Chapter 3 first. This means that at the end of any given chapter, I have to stop mowing the lawn and use the player's crappy controls to look for the next chapter (hopefully I haven't forgotten which chapter I was just listening to or I have to listen all the way through the chapter intro to decide if I'm at the right place).

One workaround was to use various filesystem utilities to reset the file modification dates. Eventually I tired of this and literally bit the player nearly in half in a fit of disgust.

- Phillips GoGear

The next cheapo MP3 player I picked up was a Phillips GoGear. Ok, so Phillips is a slightly better brand, and the unit takes a single AAA battery. Shouldn't have any problems then, right?

Much to my complete shock, this player was missing a feature that is so common that it's more of a given than a special feature: the ability to resume playback. How in the hell does this happen? When you turn on the GoGear MP3 player it doesn't start playing from where you left off, it starts you over from scratch. I went through all the options and could find no way to modify this behavior. This little oversight makes the player completely useless for listening to podcasts and audio books!

Recalling the bad taste of the Nextar player as my teeth crunched through it, I decided to return this piece of crap pronto.

- Sansa Clip

Feeling quite discouraged, I gave up my quest for an MP3 player that uses AAA batteries and ended up with a 4GB Sansa "Clip". I'm mostly satisfied with this player and have promised myself to keep it plugged in to my USB charger when I'm not using it. There's nothing worse than mowing the lawn without headphones because of a dead battery. (You may have noticed several references to lawn mowing. Yes, my lawn is very large. Yes, I am clearly so cheap that I use a pushmower. It takes hours and hours. Someday I'll tell you about trying to buy a cheap lawnmower that doesn't suck!)

The only problem I've had thus far with the Sansa Clip is that the clip comes off. That's right. The "clip" is such an important feature of this unit that the model number is literally CLIP, yet the clip falls right if you twist it just so. Way to think it through fellas.

I've gone on long enough. To recap: it doesn't matter how cheap or expensive the software or gizmo you're creating is, remember that human beings are going to spend their money on it and actually use it. 1) Try using it yourself. Does it work? 2) Consider more than your own personal use case. Does it work for others? Sometimes it's just a minor change that stands between usable and useless.

1 comment:

iPhone5 ,A6, said...

Credit for your excellent entry.