A paragon of design and user experience — the Spanish parking meter

In the mainstream, we commonly admire the design works of luminaries such as Apple, IDEO, Frog Design and, well, why not — Makalu Interactive. But there are others out there, designers flying way below the radar, who equally deserve our admiration and respect — including the gifted ones (elegantly named, “Grupo Setex”) who designed the Spanish Parking Meter.

Pour a cognac, put on some Vivaldi, and spend some quality time soaking in the inspiration:

Parkingmeter

Grupo Setex designer, Juan Ive, speaking at the 2011 Lowest Bidder conference explained in an authoritive-sounding Spanish/British accent:

When we looked carefully at the common parking meter, we thought, “It’s just too simple. People aren’t spending enough time truly getting to know it.” Thinking outside the box, and inspired by Microsoft, we worked hard to obscure the inherent simplicity, through carefully crafted layers of complexity. Our use of five colors, seven font sizes, obscure symbols (even we can’t remember what that thing next to the “1” label is), repeating sets of plus/minus controls, and the mysterious “A/1” button, work together to ensure that no user will get a ticket out of this device in less than ten minutes (if at all). We’ve heard it’s the talk of the town — I think we nailed it!

Since they installed these monstrosities around Marbella, I’ve been watching, and I’ve never seen a single device able to produce such a fast and consistent response among its users — The Contorted Face of Confusion.

Confused

Although not design related, the kicker is the pricing — 30 minutes for 30 cents or, get this, an hour for 70 cents. Think about that. And, finally, what I just discovered today — these machines will happily take your money on Sunday, without advising you that Sunday is free parking day in Marbella. Brilliant.

User experience and the Nespresso coffee machine

I love the Nespresso coffee system. In fact, Nespresso almost does for coffee what Apple does for electronics and digital. Elegant, well-designed coffee makers, combined with a convenient and clean capsule system, and supported by a fast, online ordering system results in a great user experience, and a near-perfect coffee every time.

But, as with all things, there’s still room for improvement.

Frequently, in our three-year-old “Cube” coffee maker, the previously-used capsule remains stuck in the capsule chamber. About the only way we’ve seen to get it out, is to start the coffee process, and open the chamber while the high-pressure water is flowing, which usually results in the old capsule being ejected and cleared away.

Sometimes, though, we put in a new capsule without having noticed that the previous capsule is stuck. At this point, you can’t close the chamber. Removing the new capsule involves removing the used-capsule container, and with a finger inserted from beneath, trying to pop the new capsule out the top (and catching it in the air before it falls back in!)

Hopefully, Nespresso will solve these problems in their future models.

User experience and the changing room

Alex and I were discussing over coffee at the office this morning the amazing job Apple did in their retail experience, and were imagining the areas in which clothing retailers could improve their shopping experience. One glaring example in which some attention is badly needed is the changing room.

The changing rooms in many retail outlets are surprisingly overlooked, when you consider they’re often the place at which a consumer makes the final purchase decision.

  • Many retailers start off the experience by suggesting you’re an unwanted thief. You have to ask for a key, because all the doors are locked. And don’t think about taking in more than three garments at a time.

  • Some have curtains, rather than doors, which can leave the timid a bit too focused on preventing the world from getting a sneak peek at their backsides. The good places have solid doors, that make a comforting clunk when closing.

  • Often, changing rooms provide nowhere to place the clothes you’re taking off. Who wants to drop their clothes in a big clump on the floor? The good places provide hangars, a bench or a shelf. (And this concept can be extended to other consumer needs we can anticipate — like what to do with the 22 pins evidently required to hold a folded shirt in place.)

  • And last, but definitely not least, there’s the lighting. How do they get such an obvious thing so wrong? We’ve all been there, getting half-naked in a changing room lit by cheap florescent bulbs, casting their light down at just such an unflattering angle that one glimpse in the mirror provokes a quick decision that the more prudent purchase would be a gym membership.

Reservations about Our Choice, and the Push Pop Press vision of tomorrow’s books

Like most people fascinated with the potential that devices like the iPad have to change how we read and learn, I rushed to the App Store to purchase Push Pop Press’s highly-anticipated first interactive book, “Our Choice.”

Continue reading Reservations about Our Choice, and the Push Pop Press vision of tomorrow’s books

Skype for iPhone’s Confusing Settings

Speaking of convoluted user interfaces, check out the Auto-Lock setting in Skype for iPhone:

Take a big breath, and read this slowly — “Don’t Auto-Lock” is “On”. Disabling Auto-Lock will prevent screen locking during a Skype call.

So, do I currently have Auto-Lock disabled by having this setting “On”? Or would I turn this off to disable the enabled “Don’t Auto-Lock”? Jeebus.

Why couldn’t these people have simply labeled this setting “Auto-Lock” and having the default setting to “Off”?

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

This article at 9to5 Mac talks about the number the apps available on each leading mobile platform. To put things in perspective, they show a chart:

What’s the problem here? The wrong chart type is being used.

  1. First, the x-coordinate data points aren’t evenly distributed. March 10 is nine months away from June 09, while March 11 is five months away from Oct 10. That relative time distance can’t be understood, visually, in a bar chart.
  2. What the chart is trying to communicate is relative rate of change, over particular periods of time. For that, a bar chart isn’t the most effective tool; a line chart is, since for any given span of time, a single vertical view provides the relative comparison, rather than four horizontal hops.

A line chart communicates the rate by which Android is catching up to Apple, more effectively.

Interaction design at MarketCircle

Today when I launched Daylite, it alerted me to the availability of a new version. I know from experience, though, that it’s bad news to try updating Daylite, before updating Daylite Server. Since Daylite Server doesn’t have a “Check for Updates” feature, I went off to MarketCirle.com.

Frustrated that I couldn’t find a download link for the server update, until after having made like five clicks — one of which was on a “Would you like to download the Trial Version of Daylite?” box — I tweeted the following to someone in MarketCircle support (who will remain nameless, because I like them, and do appreciate their quick responses):

A challenge: Go to marketcircle.com and figure out how to download the updated version of Daylite Server. Count how many clicks. Does the path to accomplish that actually involve clicking “Daylite Trial”?

No kidding, here’s what I got back:

I did it in two. 1) Scroll down to the Blog section on the home page and click the latest post. 2) Click on the DLS download link.

So if you want to update, you scroll to the very bottom of the website, then go visit the blog. Who on earth is doing interaction design at MarketCircle?

Confusing feedback from the Postini spam service

Postini is a hosted spam service, now owned by Google, which filters your mail before it arrives to your account, placing anything it considers spam into a “quarantine”. When you ask Postini to deliver an incorrectly caught good message, it gives you the option of adding the sender to a whitelist.

Continue reading Confusing feedback from the Postini spam service

The squint UX test — Bank of America vs Lending Club

A nice little UI/UX test is the “Squint Test” — i.e. as you look at a screen or interface, squint or defocus your eyes, and see if you can discern the system’s structure and navigation.

Let’s say you’re a Lending Club or Bank of America customer. You’re probably going to represent one of the site’s more frequently accessing class of visitor, and so it’d be nice if logging in was one of the more efficient workflows.

To simulate the squint test, I’ve blurred both home pages. Have a look, and see if you can quickly identify the login links at Lending Club and Bank of America.

At Bank of America, if you guessed that the login is that big red block in the upper left, you’d be right.

At Lending Club, if you guessed that smallish gray button in the upper right, you’d be wrong; that says “Join Lending Club”. iIf you guessed one of those two big buttons in the middle of the home page, you’d be wrong; those are “See for yourself” and “Check your rate” (respectively).

The login, which is probably the most clicked item on the whole home page at Lending Club, is the small text item to the left of the Join button, which reads “Sign in”.

The Sprint HTC EVO 4G — Sorry Apple, you knew it was coming

SPRINT ARE BRINGING OUT THE BIG GUNS, with this truly powerful advertisement for the, uh — not sure exactly what it’s called, The Sprint HTC EVO 4G? Doesn’t matter, just have a look:

After a moment to catch my breath, my first thought was that forever I’ve been opening the Weather app on my iPhone, never really imagining the day would come when I could instead watch a man talking about the weather in a Flash player.

My second thought was, “I do need a phone with a peg leg.”

Anyway, more seriously, let’s check out this ad.

FIRST ad displaying more than six trademark symbols.

C’mon, Matt, I said seriously. (And it needs to be taken seriously; Sprint probably paid somebody $25,000 for this ad.) Ok, here we go.

First, I don’t get the usage of “FIRST”. But maybe that’s just me.

The main point of this ad is that the EVO runs Adobe Flash. And in case that doesn’t mean much to you, the ad emphasizes that 85 of the top 100 sites use Flash. (In the small print, they point out that they got this data from Adobe, who in turn, got the data from Alexa.)

Does this mean my poor iPhone can only deal with 15 of the top 100 sites? Let’s go check out the Alexa Top 100.

Google (seems responsible for at least 20 of the top 100). Facebook. YouTube. Yahoo. Wikipedia. Twitter. Amazon. LinkedIn. eBay. Flickr. Apple. New York Times.

Hmmm — where is the Flash on these sites? Oh, I see — mostly it’s the ads. The ads on these sites are often Flash.

So what this ad is really saying is that if I’ll switch to a Sprint HTC EVO 4G, in addition to getting a phone with a peg leg, I’ll finally be able to see all those slide-out, content obscuring ads I’ve been missing!

A look at Apple competitor advertising

It seems Apple has no competition these days, and judging just from advertising, I’m thinking we’re a good ways off from seeing any. Why? Try as they may to copy, companies like Samsung just don’t get it. My colleague Alex and I today were discussing the striking difference in advertising, in the latest issue of Fortune magazine (which is full of Samsung Galaxy ads.)

Continue reading A look at Apple competitor advertising

User interface review of the new and improved Securitas Alarm.

A few weeks ago, a Securitas salesman popped into the office, offering deep discounts should we be interested in upgrading our three-year-old alarm system. Given three years of technological advances, my expectations were high, and Securitas certainly delivered. In addition to the old features, we’ve now got magnets on the entrances, and their latest, easy-to-use alarm panel — which you’ll have to see to believe. Continue reading User interface review of the new and improved Securitas Alarm.

User Experience & Software Engineering

I remember, as if it were yesterday.

I was sitting in the ground station laboratory at the European Space Agency, needing to setup a test configuration using the “Monitoring & Control Module,” and staring at a grey screen full of mis-aligned, inconsistently-sized tabs on top of three-dimensional squares, on top of more squares on top of more tabs. The feeling was one of hopelessness and nausea. Who designed this thing? What were they thinking? Was the UI simply given to the most available “resource,” or perhaps the summer intern?

It was at that moment that I decided to start a company—MakaluMedia—in which “user experience” would drive everything we do. Continue reading User Experience & Software Engineering

CapitalOne User Experience

CapitalOne could have emailed me with the following short note:

Due to forthcoming changes in our online banking, please visit the following URL if you access Bill Pay via Quicken: capitalonebank.com/betteronlinebanking . If you don’t do Bill Pay via Quicken, you can safely ignore this email.

I don’t do Bill Pay at CapitalOne via Quicken, and so I could have immediately got on with my day. Instead, CapitalOne chose a process which unnecessarily cost me about five to seven minutes of my time.

Continue reading CapitalOne User Experience

DabbleDB / User Interface / User Experience

A while back, there was quite some chatter about DabbleDB, “a better web database to share, manage and explore your information.” The web application is apparently based on some impressive technology, at least based on a cursory exploration of the demos.

So today a friend of mine created an application at DabbleDB, and shortly thereafter an email arrived in my inbox inviting me to participate. I clicked the link, logged in, and was greeted by the following screen. I was left speechless. Regardless how good the technology is, in my humble opinion, the chances of this (or any product’s) success in the marketplace are severely handicapped by such disregard for the importance and critical roles that user interface and experience play.

Continue reading DabbleDB / User Interface / User Experience

Four Elements of Design

My first real job was a co-op position with the Georgia Power Company back during my university days. The company bought us all Macintosh computers (Mac IIs), and I was introduced to desktop publishing with the Aldus PageMaker application (which, today, is known as Adobe InDesign).

I started using PageMaker and the office LaserWriter to prepare and print documents for school — reports, essays, anything really. Like most desktop publishing novices, my documents attempted to use every font, sizing, coloring and positioning option the program offered. The resulting documents were technically amazing (given the common technology of the day — monoface font editors and dot-matrix printers), but somehow were nauseating to look at.

I always wondered what was it that made professionally designed documents look so much better, and then I came to discover the realm of design. I bought two books by Robin Williams (the author, not the actor): “The Mac is not a Typewriter”, and “Design for Non-Designers”. These books changed my life! It’s amazing how simple concepts can have such powerful, dramatic effect.

After reading these two books, the aesthetic quality of my documents improved dramatically, and I soon discovered that a well designed document, even with weaker content, could achieve better marks than a difficult-to-read document, with stronger content!

Anyway, in the book “Design for Non-Desigers”, Robin introduces the reader to the four simple cornerstones of design — known as the “CRAP” principles — which, when applied, almost always produce a better looking document, layout or screen:

  1. Contrast. Strong/weak, big/small contrasts create emphasis and flow.
  2. Repetition. Repeating design elements supports consistency.
  3. Alignment. The eye likes to find lines of alignment.
  4. Proximity. Related things should be grouped together.

Today I was reading a book Alex ordered, “Designing Interfaces”, by an interface designer working at the Mathworks (makers of Matlab). It was very interesting to read about some of the psychology principles underlying UI design. In particular, the work of the Gestalt group theory psychologists, who concluded — interestingly enough — four principles:

  1. Closure.
  2. Similarity.
  3. Continuity.
  4. Proximity.

I find it interesting, and exciting, to see such common denominators between disciplines.

Live365, example of poor user interface design.

This, in my opinion, is an example of quite poor user interface design. The image on the right (click the image for a larger version) is a screenshot from Live365.com’s web page that users evaluating their Radio365 product are taken to when they click the “purchase” button. Notice that the only element that appears “clickable” is a button to “Try VIP for Five Days Free.”

Amazingly, there’s no “purchase now” link! (Turns out that you have to click the image of the credit card to be taken to the purchase screen.)

This kind of problem appears frequently these days (possibly in some of our sites as well, though I hope not). Links are being assigned to practically any visible element on the screen, leaving the poor user to explore the screen space waiting to see their mouse change shape (indicating that something’s clickable). What’s worse in this particular screen, is that a precedence is established through the presence of a button, that embossed elements are what the user should interpret as clickable — implying indirectly that non-embossed elements should not be clickable.

Tihs Mkeas Snese?

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A Model of Usability

The plane arrives late. We wait 45 minutes for the baggage to arrive in the terminal. The airport staff try to place a living room table on the belt, and of course it jams up the whole thing. Ashtrays are logically installed under No-Smoking signs and everyone, even the airport staff, are smoking. (Rules in Spain, especially as regarding traffic, are to be interpreted as suggestions.)

And the final touch of the day, trying to figure out how to use the latest in industrial design and usability — the airport’s new and improved parking ticket machine. 🙂 Let’s have a look:

  • The icon of the parking ticket is located below the credit-card slot (right and down from the middle step 2), not the ticket slot (under the video screen). You can imagine the confusion this causes.

  • As my buddy Niall said, the layout was obviously designed by a lunatic on crack.

  • Not a single color or font was excluded.

  • There’s not a single axis of alienation.

  • There are three step 2s.

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p>Welcome to Malaga, Spain! 🙂