Designing for telephobia

Everybody has a phone with them all the time, but they rarely use it for voice calls. For people who’ve always hated telephone calls but wanted a pocket computer, like me, it’s great news. For people who enjoyed (comparatively) high fidelity voice calls, it’s not so great. The best phone I ever owned, from a physical design point of view, was a variation on the Bell Trimline, a classic designed by Henry Dreyfuss in the early 1960s.

Iterative bad design

« Concerns have been raised about intermittent faults when opening the doors of the Class 377 trains at certain stations on the Thameslink route. » The original problem? Engineers decided to use GPS location to determine whether the trains are in a station. Unfortunately, GPS is provided by satellites, so it doesn’t work in tunnels or underground — for example, at stations like St Pancras. The engineers’ solution: Install GPS repeaters in the stations to transmit GPS signals down the tunnels.

New site design

I’ve just deployed a brand new site design. The new theme is Hexa by Automattic. I think it’s a big improvement, given my new link-heavy content strategy™, but let me know if you notice any problems. I’m not wild about the hidden-ness of the menus and search (check out the hexagons top right), but I can probably fix that when I have some spare time.

The Sony Ericsson P900

It’s commonly believed by folk in the US that the iPhone was utterly new and without precedent. I think it’s because before the iPhone, smartphones weren’t very popular in the US. Things were different elsewhere in the world, though. In 2005, I had a Sony Ericsson P900, a smartphone launched in 2003. I found it in a closet the other day, and I couldn’t find many screen captures of the P900 software online, so I decided I’d take a few snapshots.

KDE 4 UI critique

Human beings have different kinds of memory; they remember things in different ways. Three common classes of memory are spatial memory, visual memory and verbal memory. (There’s also chronological memory, but that’s not relevant to my point here.)

I have excellent spatial memory. It’s what I rely on most. For example, if I start to think about how to get to a given place in town, I literally find 3D visualizations of my route flashing into my consciousness. I also have pretty good visual memory; when I make the journey, I verify that I’m going the right way by comparing the visual appearance of buildings and landscape that I pass with the scenes I remember.

My linguistic memory is terrible. If you asked me to name the actual streets on the route, I’d have a hard time remembering them. My mental map of London, for example, only has 6 street names. This makes me a really bad person to get directions from. “You take the narrow road that heads off at a thirty degree angle, right at the place with the green copper roof, over the light colored bridge…”

There’s an upside to my condition. If you rely on verbal memory to navigate, as soon as you step outside your known area you are pretty much lost until you can find a familiar street name. In contrast, I have a pretty good chance of navigating between two known points, even if the area in between is totally new to me.

This hierarchy of types of memory also applies in my interaction with computers. When I want to find my password manager, I don’t remember its name. Instead, I remember that it’s in the bottom hierarchical menu of my KDE menu, positioned near the top, and has a green icon.

I know this experimentally, incidentally: back in the System 6 days there was a joke Mac INIT that removed all the text from the menus. I tried it, and was quite startled to discover that I could still use most of my favorite applications.

With that background out of the way, I would like to talk about why for me, the new KDE 4 application launcher is a user interface disaster of epic proportions.

Design simplicity

There’s an article by Donald Norman that has been stirring up controversy online. Whereas last time I thought he was wrong, this time I think he’s right—mostly.

In general, he’s correct that people don’t buy the simple, well-designed stuff. Instead, they buy the stuff that looks like it has the most features; and they tell what that is by looking at how many settings and controls it has.

Not always, though. The best exception that proves the rule is the now almost ubiquitous iPod.