Monday, September 28, 2009

Learning Log VIII: Blu-Ray and "Doing Things Right"

While reading chapter 6 of Norman's DOET, "The Design Challenge", a thought popped into my head. Norman rightfully complains that too many computer programs make it impossible for you to forget about the computer and focus straight on the problem (Norman 179). The Blu-Ray DVD technology has taken this common issue and transferred it to movie-watching. Most people who buy a disc to watch their favorite flick just want to watch the movie, but often are encumbered by menu after menu before they can enjoy the film they bought. Blu-Ray DVDs simply start the film, with the menu button on a remote summoning a nice pop-under menu for those who wish to select a scene, watch extras, or change options:

(a screen capture of The Dark Knight on Blu-Ray, courtesy of

Of course, most people don't have Blu-Ray players (myself included). The extra cost is frustrating, especially if a household doesn't own an HDTV required to play these discs. Video gamers could purchase a Playstation 3, currently one of the best and cheapest Blu-Ray players, but what about those of us who already spent 400-or-so dollars on a video game console? This directly relates to another one of Norman's points.

In the section entitled "Forces that Work Against Evolutionary Design", Norman mentions a particularly disturbing aspect of modern design and consumerism. When a product is released with the seemingly flawless blend of features, great design, and usability, that cannot become a standard. Due to copyrights, patents, and business competition, every company is limited to releasing their own fairly unique products (143). This prevents effective ideas from becoming standard. For instance, people should have more of a choice in music players than the iPod or Zune, but Apple and Microsoft have taken hold of so many ideas that all competing products are notably inferior.

Let's jump back to Blu-Ray. Microsoft released an HD DVD player for their Xbox 360 video game console that served as the first application of high-definition movies for such a system. HD DVD is a discontinued format created by Toshiba. Sony followed suit with the Playstation 3, containing their own aforementioned Blu-Ray technology. Seeing as Toshiba's HD DVD was less popular and required a proprietary player to use for the 360, it lost the "format war" against Sony's Blu-Ray. Why won't Microsoft and Sony work on enabling Blu-Ray access for the Xbox 360? Why was there a war in the first place? An answer to the former question can be read below:

Like Norman mentions, this executive thinks he knows what users want, as a result of the designer shut out caused by "corporate bureaucracy" (158). Consumers should be allowed to have a choice. Some of us have no need for a PS3 but would love to watch HD movies. I, for one, purchased an HDTV just for my Xbox 360, so why not let me use it for other things as well?

"These people believe they know what customers want and feedback from the real world is limited by filters they impose." - anonymous designer (158)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Learning Log VII: Unreliable Memory

The parallels between chapter 5 of Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, and material we covered in class last week are fascinating. In chapter 5, Norman discusses the aspects of human memory and how designers must cater to the nuances of the mind. We may not remember the littlest things, but our brains also have the power to retain incredible pieces of data. He believes that memory is like a filing cabinet and thus cross-referential (Norman 115). In 1988 this was a relatively new theory about how we store our memories, but it makes plenty of sense, as this explains how we use prior experiences to make new decisions even with a change in context.

The WNYC talk show Radiolab, however, is recorded in the 21st century and can provide us with a new perspective. As the hosts discussed, memory is a very general thing and can be modified over time by idealizations created by the human mind. Norman even touches on this a bit in a section entitled The Connectionist Approach, stating that our memories are a result of “compromise” (117).

With this knowledge I’ve come to a personal conclusion that memory is a powerful yet ultimately unreliable facet of the human condition. Designers should never rely on one’s memory, unless there is a strict standard on what people are expected to memorize. For instance, nearly everyone knows their phone number(s), but how many people can remember what they ate last Tuesday? It’s unlikely that the latter would be used in a case like this, but the comparison goes to show that memories are both vast and temporary, often disintegrating into a general feeling more so than specific points of information.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Learning Log VI: iPods and Mapping

“Nothing succeeds like a good display.”

The above quote is a subheading in chapter 4 of Norman’s DOET (101). Like many other statements in the book, this sentiment echoes true in 2009 more than ever. Norman lists three examples used by his students in creating more visible interfaces for everyday use (101):

“Display the song titles for compact discs.”
Of course, this has already been handled and then some by another decade of Walkmens and the rise of the iPod.

“Display the names of television programs.”
The idea is currently accessible due to digital cable boxes.

“Print the cooking information for foods on the food package in computer-readable form.”
Now this is quite fascinating, and to my knowledge has never been tried. Norman’s student proposes that an oven read instructions through a scanner-type device and then program itself. How convenient!

But anyway, let’s go back to the iPod. In the field of visibility, Norman identifies the use of sound and a good display as two important and helpful aspects to use in designing an interface (101, 102). The iPod succeeds by using both of these aspects in simple and functional manners. Its clean, efficient display organizes one’s music collection in different categories, allowing the user to choose how they want to browse. In terms of sound, the iPod produces a click by default whenever one scrolls down the screen. This assists the user in getting used to the scroll wheel’s sensitivity…which brings us to mapping.

To rip off Jerry Seinfeld, “What’s the deal with this scrolling business?” I understand the use with left and right functions, as it feels natural to scroll left or right to turn down the volume. Strangely enough, this mapping applies to the rest of the device. It’s not like the music on an iPod is sorted in a circular fashion, but rather vertically. One artist is listed directly below another. Why not use up and down mapping? I’ve seen several people new to iPod technology mistakenly press the play and menu buttons, puzzlingly mapped to the up and down regions, trying to navigate unsuccessfully. This interface is not natural, but rather learned, and designed for appearance and feel over anything. Strange...

(main menu of a newer iPod model, the iPod classic)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Learning Log V: Talkin' Biometrics

In chapter 3 of Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, the author discusses a supposed “conspiracy against memory” and how the use of knowledge in the head can become overwhelming as we are presented with more and more things to remember each day (Norman 63). Norman lists the codes and numbers he is expected to retain in his daily encounters, and I must agree with him on the troubles generated by this culture. He goes on to cite the importance of reminders in keeping oneself connected to the outer world (72). As knowledge is in both the head and the world, connecting the two is quite helpful.

These observations, made in a book published in 1988, bring to mind a frustrating aspect of modern interface design: how are we expected to remember everything? The problem lies in more than just passwords and numerical codes but computer commands, parameters, and other quirks. The fact that no one has managed to standardize any of these systems in the past 20 years is quite puzzling. There ought to be a way to unify your social security, credit cards, etc. without security issues. At the very least, why aren’t computer commands unified? Apple-G or what have you may do something completely different in one program than another. As I type this in Microsoft Word, I realize that to close a document you must remember to press Apple-W rather than the fairly standardized Apple-Q. Why are these deviations accepted?

A piece of fiction may have unintentionally shown the way. The fantastic movie Gattaca (1997) portrays a society where your fingerprints and individual characteristics allow access to nearly everything you would attain with a code or card. Of course, the film’s world limits access to this new society to a process of eugenics, a rather grim outlook on the future, but the idea is fascinating. I mean, if they use biometrics at Disney World to check your ticket, then why not in other aspects of life?

(screenshot of fingerprint-processing device from Gattaca)

Surely time will tell if this process becomes the norm.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Learning Log IV: The Design of Chapter Two of "The Design of Everyday Things"

The second chapter of Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things disappointed me. With the developments made in this chapter he is starting to violate some of his key principles. Remember that almost anything is an interface if it is a surface that facilitates communication between two bodies or planes. If this is the case, why not discuss a book as an interface?

In chapter 1, Norman discusses the problems that arise when a design becomes “unnatural and complicated”, but he introduces so many terms for the smallest things that I can’t help but wonder if his book will fall down the same doomed path as so many of the appliances he discusses. These terms are clear and helpful when taken individually, but as part of a broad chapter they start to become forgettable. Of course, this is all speculative, but look at how many concepts are introduced in this chapter:

-learned helplessness
-taught helplessness
-Action Cycle
-Stages of Execution
-Stages of Evaluation
-Seven Stages of Action
-Gulf of Execution
-Gulf of Evaluation

Not wanting to leave anything out, Norman even focuses for a bit on Aristotelian physics, and that’s one of the more effective passages of the chapter. Using common misconceptions in comparison to a scientist’s strict view was a great way to make the human condition clearer in relation to using an interface (Norman 36-37).

I was able to understand Norman’s points individually, but taken together as a whole chapter it reads as an intelligent man going off on numerous tangents. Perhaps this frustration arises as a result of my pragmatic and blunt attitude, but Norman himself states that one of the most important aspects of design is the conceptual model (52-53). His conceptual model in this chapter is that explaining all of these separate ideas will help us understand how we act in relation to interfaces, but Norman goes a bit too far off the deep end to neatly tie these ideas back together.

Learning Log III: Washed Up

(washer interface)

(dryer interface)

Some interfaces are terrible due to their frustrating complexity; others just don’t give the user enough information. The washer and dryer interface located on my apartment’s floor is an example of the latter. Although the interface does its job properly most of the time, the lack of information presented by this interface is extremely frustrating to its users.

(I preface the following statements with the fact that I know how to work this interface to its potential due to having used a similar setup last year as a freshman.)

First and perhaps most annoyingly, there is no indicator of how long an operation takes. The washer takes a half hour per cycle and the dryer an hour, but you wouldn’t know that without periodically checking. One would think that if a company can put the price of use on an appliance that they would also include the time you are paying for, but maybe that makes too much sense. This is a simple problem that could be easily fixed, and falls under Norman’s motto of “making things visible” (Norman 17). If the user cannot see that washing his or her clothes will take a half hour, then how are they to know and plan accordingly around it?

Less frustrating but still worrisome are the time constraints presented by a washer and dryer setup. No choice is presented other than to pay for the full half-hour and hour cycles, respectively, so if one were to wash only a small amount of clothes they’d still be forced to wash and dry everything for an hour and a half (and for three dollars!) If the interface recognized amounts of quarters as pockets of time, rather than simply utilizing an all-or-nothing method, people could wash their clothes when it’s both timely and financially convenient.

Much like the annoying oven Norman mentions in his discussion of conceptual models, the washer and dryer setup will either allow you to wash for the entire time or none at all (Norman 14). Considering that most college students have to scramble for change and often put off their laundry until they’re practically out of clothes, it’s unreasonable to expect that type of usage all the time. If the designers had thought about all of their possible users, and not just one demographic, this interface would be more convenient and better tailored to most situations.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Learning Log II: "The Paradox of Technology"

I must say I wasn’t expecting to be interested in Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. In my history as a student, most assigned readings became drudgery due to the instructors’ insistence on choosing outdated works simply for their historical impact and not for true relevance. I can’t really say that about this book, however. Norman’s whimsical writing and humor keep the prose from becoming too dry, and it can be argued that his points are even more crucial in the year 2009 than they were when he put them to paper.

An apt example would be his musings on the advancement of technology (Norman 30). Norman uses the example of a digital watch to propose that there must be a limit on how much is crammed into an interface before its practicality is negated by confusion:

“The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions in each device also complicates life by making the device harder to learn, harder to use. This is the paradox of technology.” (31)

Despite his astute recognition of the clutter that new technology brings, I am afraid that Norman may have overlooked a key part of this debate. Maybe he couldn’t have predicted this aspect: as technology becomes more of a standard, the younger generations (like my own) have adjusted to the often-overwhelming options that are presented by new devices. This shift in comfort leaves older generations behind, especially if their job or everyday activities do not require the more advanced technologies.

I’ll use my mother as an example. She works as a clerk at a DMV near our town, and rarely uses computers for more than surfing the web and checking her e-mail. If she wants to watch a DVD or record a television show, she simply asks my father, my sister or I to do it. If she has a computer problem, we’ll fix it. I must note that we’ve tried teaching her these processes, simple as they are for us, but the sheer amount of controls and options are too much for her to handle. She becomes frustrated and blames herself, a common problem Norman identifies in the preface (xx).

I believe Norman would argue that these devices are too complex for her to intuitively use, and thus their designs have failed. This is likely true, but it also lies in the generation gap. It’s a bit ridiculous for Norman to declare, “The paradox of technology should never be used as an excuse” (31). I understand that logic when speaking of poor designs, but the remote we have isn’t poorly designed. It simply presents the necessary options for film enthusiasts like myself and many others who own DVD players. I can’t imagine having a DVD experience without the option to instantly turn on subtitles, skip the scene, rewind or fast-forward at different speeds to catch certain details, etc.

This seems like a problem with no easy solution, but I found an interesting article about how static interfaces are dying. The author proposes that a flexible interface may remedy the generation gap when it comes to things like remotes, GUIs and even keyboards:

Friday, September 4, 2009

Learning Log I: Rock Band 2 and Affordance

As both an avid musician and video gamer, I noticed the effectiveness of a certain popular device as an interface. The game Rock Band (developed by Harmonix) allows four players to mime their way through a diverse array of songs, and this franchise introduced a drum set controller as part of enhancing the realism. Previous games in this style only had guitar controllers, so the developers of Rock Band were venturing into largely unknown territory. Their first model was met with mixed reviews due to materials used and sturdiness. As Norman mentions in The Design of Everyday Things, feedback, affordance, constraint, and mapping are the four essential aspects of any design (Norman xiv). Unfortunately, the first model lacked in feedback due to the use of hard plastic. No bounce came from hitting the pads, but rather a stiff response. In addition, a loud and unpleasant sound often muffled the game’s audio. With Rock Band 2, the next installment in the series, Harmonix decided to improve their design tenfold.
(Rock Band 2 drum set)


The new kit uses rubber pads that allow the stick to bounce accordingly off of the pad. This material change also helps in decreasing the noise that the set outputs while in play. Feedback is addressed both in game and physically. In Rock Band, hitting the right notes at the right time creates sound; playing the part of the drummer, your beat will drop out and leave the band without percussion should you fail to land your parts. Luckily, the rubber allows you to feel the impact of your stick hits without drowning out the sound of the game, creating a nice balance in feedback. The pads are also velocity-sensitive, allowing you to control the volume of your hits when the game gives you a section to "freestyle" over.

Mapping is simple and user-friendly: the set has four color-coordinated pads and a kick pedal (also color-coordinated) that correspond to the notes displayed on screen.

Affordance, however, is where this kit becomes a bit problematic. According to Norman, affordances are aspects of a design that cue the user into the object’s intended use (Norman 9). In order to navigate the menus, one must either cumbersomely use the pads or stick to the little control section. As seen below, this section of the Rock Band 2 controller does have four buttons (A, B, X, Y), an Xbox Guide button, and a D-Pad, but its lack of color coordination with the traditional 360 controller leaves much to be desired.

(Comparison of 360 controller to RB2 drum controls)

When playing the game with friends, I’ve noticed that even those familiar with the Xbox 360 console seem to completely miss the controls on the drum set. Perhaps coloring the section white or changing the buttons to be duplicates of the regular controller would do something. The game allows players to move up and down with the yellow and blue pads, but this is only indicated in very small text on the bottom of the game screen.