An intelligent car that can’t communicate with its driver is a dumbass car.

(image from https://www.tribuneindia.com/2014/20141116/spectrum/motor.htm)

Let’s talk about body language.

DogBodyLanguage.1jpg.jpgA key property of body language is that it is almost always unconscious to both giver and receiver.

Image from: https://talbotspy.org/but-his-tail-was-wagging-understanding-dog-body-language-part-1/

This is not a problem in itself – in fact, it’s actually really good that body language happens mostly unconsciously. Body language is necessarily unconscious. The flood of signals from a talking body is vast, high-bandwidth, high-rate, and highly-parallel. It must bypass the higher-brain in order to do its work. The higher brain is too busy making decisions and trying to be rational to be bothered with such things.

The problem with the backchannel nature of body language is that it is often in competition with explicit, linear verbal language, which is a pushy tyrant. There are too many pushy tyrants in the tech industry that are poor at social signaling. Body language tends to be relegated to a lower priority in many areas of digital technology, including the design of software interfaces, productivity tools, kitchen appliances…and cars. This is just one symptom of the lack of diversity in the tech industry.

High tech culture is obsessed with metrics; seeking to measure as much as possible, to be data-driven, to have tangible results and ways of measuring success. This obsession with data is a mistake. Tossing out what can’t be measured or converted into data is a very big mistake. And the digitally-designed world we live in suffers as a result. Let me try to explain what I mean by all this….

A computer on wheels

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The automobile was invented in the industrial age – an age defined by energy, force, mechanics, chemistry, electricity, and physicality.

We are  now fumbling through the information age.

Apple Inc. has managed to reduce the thickness of laptop computers – they have become so thin that you can cut steak with them. But it should come as no surprise that the surface areas of laptop screens and keyboards have not been reduced, compared to the degree that computer chips have been miniaturized. There is a simple reason for this: human eyes and hands are still the same size. This will never change.

The same applies to communication. The more digital our machines become, the more we have to communicate with them, and they, in turn, have to communicate with us.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 2.15.32 PM.pngAn old-fashioned industrial-age car comes with natural affordances: communication happens simply as a result of the physical nature of knobs, wheels, wires, engine sounds, torques, and forces. There are many sensory stimuli that the driver sees, feels, hears and smells – and often they are unconscious to the driver – or just above the level of consciousness.

Driving is a very different experience now. It is turning into a video game…a simulation. There is a disconnect between driver and car that seems to be growing wider.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s the problem:

Body language between driver and car has become an arbitrary plaything, mediated by cockeyed displays and confusing controls. It is up to the whims of user interface designers – too many of whom have their heads up their asses. Idiots who call themselves designers live under the illusion that they can invent visual language on the fly and shove it into our long-lived lives, expecting their clever interfaces to fall naturally into use.

Or maybe they don’t actually think this – but don’t care anyway, because they are paid well. I’m not sure which is worse.

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According to Matt Bubbers:

There’s nothing wrong with the volume knob. It does not need reinvention, nor disruption, nor innovation. The volume knob is perfect the way it is. Or, rather, the way it was.

Get into a new car in 2018 and you’re faced with a multitude of complicated ways to adjust the stereo volume: buttons or dials on the steering wheel, voice commands that rarely work, fiddly non-buttons on the centre panel, touchscreens that take your eyes off the road, even gesture controls that make you wave your hand as if you’re conducting a symphony.

Cars are too complicated. The volume knob is indicative of the problem. Call it feature bloat or mission creep: Cars are trying to do more, but they’re not doing it all well. These infotainment features can be distracting, therefore dangerous, and they cost money.

A new generation of digital designer is out of touch with nature. It is infuriating, because here we are, fumbling to bake a cake, turn on the AC, or change a channel on the TV: “Now, which of these 2,458 buttons on this TV remote do I need to press in order to change the channel?…”

“Oh shit – no wonder I’m confused: this is the remote control for the gas fireplace! Is that why it’s so hot in here?”

Driving under the influence of icons

Britania Rescue, a firm providing a breakdown service in England, conducted a survey, interviewing over 2000 drivers. The revelations are quite startling. It revealed that more than 52 per cent of drivers cannot correctly identify 16 of the most common symbols.

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Interpreting a bunch of unfamiliar icons invented by out-of-touch dweebs is not how we should be interacting with our technology – especially as technology sinks deeper into our lives.

Just this morning, my 87-year-old mother and I spent about a half-hour trying to figure out how to set my sister’s high-tech oven to bake. To make matters worse, my mother, who is visually-impaired, can’t even feel the controls – the entire interface consists of a dim visual glow behind slick glass. We eventually had to read a manual. WE HAD TO READ A FUCKING MANUAL TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO TURN ON AN OVEN. How long must this insanity go on?

A car’s manual should be the car itself

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Dan Carney, in the article, Complex car controls equal confused drivers, quotes Consumer Reports:  “You shouldn’t have to read the owner’s manual to figure out how to use the shifter.”

He says, “The BMW iDrive had a controller for functions like the radio and air conditioning that was so baffling that it forced drivers to take their eyes off the road.”

My Prius experience

services.edmunds-media.jpgMy first experience with a Prius was not pleasant. Now, I am not expecting many of you to agree with my criticism, and I know that there are many happy Prius owners, who claim that you can just ignore the geeky stuff if you don’t like it.

I don’t like it, and I can’t ignore it.

I have found that most people have a higher tolerance for figuring-out technology than I. It’s not for lack intelligence or education; it’s more that I am impatient with stupid design. It makes me irate, because these fumblings are entirely unnecessary.

We all suffer because of the whims of irresponsible designers, supposedly working in teams which include human factors engineers and ergonomics engineers, whom I assume are asleep on the job.

I place the blame for my impatience squarely on Donald Norman, whose book, “The Design of Everyday Things” implored readers to stop blaming themselves for their constant fumbling with technology. The source of the problem is irresponsible design. He converted me profoundly. And now I am a tech curmudgeon. Thanks Don.

I once had to borrow a friend’s Prius because my Honda Fit was in the shop. I liked the energy-saving aspects and the overall comfort, but the dashboard was unfamiliar. My hippocampi threw up their hands in despair. What’s worse: after parking the car in a parking lot, I put the key in my pocket and decided to check the doors to make sure they were locked. The doors were not locking. Why? I tried locking the doors many times but every time I walked around to the other side, the opposite door would unlock. I called the owner, and told her that I am not able to lock the car. She said, “Oh – that’s because the doors automatically – and magically – unlock when you walk up to them. Smart, eh?”

Hello? Discoverability? 

Thank you Prius for not telling me about your clever trick. You are one step ahead of me! Perhaps I should just stop trying to understand what the fuck you are doing and just bow to your vast intelligence. You win, Prius.

My Honda Fit is relatively simple, compared to many cars these days. But it does things that infuriate me. It decides that I want the back window wipers to turn on when the front wipers are on, and I happen to be backing up. It took my car mechanic to explain the non-brilliance of this behavior. Thanks Honda for taking away my choice in the matter. My car also decides to turn on the interior light at night after I have parked the car. I have to wait a long time for the light to go out. My car knows how long. I am not privy to this duration. What if I don’t want strangers to see me – because I’d like to finish picking my nose before getting out?

Whether or not strangers can see me picking my nose is no longer my choice. My car has made this decision for me. Sure: I could reach up to the ceiling and turn off the light – but then I will forget to turn it on again when I actually need it. This never used to be so complicated.

Smart = dumb

I have come to the conclusion that a car without any computers is neither smart nor dumb. It has no brain and so it cannot even try to be intelligent. On the other hand, if a car has computational processing then it has an opportunity to be either smart or dumb. Most cars these days are poor communicators, I call them dumb.

The decider

Another gripe: sometimes my door locks when I’m driving, and then I have to unlock it to get out – but not always. There is no rhyme or reason (that I am aware of) for when and why this happens. Yes…I know – some of you will probably offer to enlighten me with a comment. But the fact that this has to be learned in the first place is what bugs me. I would prefer one of two things: (1) My car makes it apparent to me why it is making decisions for me, or (2) it stays out of the way and lets me be the decision-maker.

Am I old-fashioned? If wanting to be in charge of basic things like locking doors and turning on lights makes me old-fashioned, then…yes, I’m old-fashioned.

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(image from http://www.thehogring.com/2013/07/31/10-most-ridiculous-dashboards-of-all-time/

Confessions of a MIT luddite

People confuse me for a techy because of my degree. And then they are shocked at how critical I am of technology. The truth is that I am a design nerd rather than a computer nerd. I have nothing against information technology – after all, I write software – and love it. I just want the technology that I rely on to be better at communicating. For example: why do gas pumps still have a one-word vocabulary? ….

Beep.

Okay, I’m a neo-luddite. There, I said it. And I will remain a neo-luddite as long as the tech industry continues to ignore a billion years of evolution, which gave us – and the rest of the living world – the means to generate signals and interpret signals – the body language of the biosphere that keeps the living world buzzing along.

This natural flow of communication among organisms is a wonderful thing to behold. It happens on a level of sophistication that makes ovens and VCR’s look like retardation in a box.

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But then again, the evolution of information technology is extremely short compared to the evolution of natural language, which has kept the social ecosystems of Homo Sapiens running for a very long time.

Perhaps I am thrashing in the midst of the Singularity, and I should just give up – because that’s what you do in the Singularity.

But I would still like to understand what the future of communication will look like. This is especially important as more and more communication is done between people and machines. At the moment, I am still a little hesitant to call it “communication”.

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Anorexic Typeface Syndrome

As a design thinker of the Don Norman ilk, I place ample blame for human error on negligent or arrogant design from trend-setters who seem to be more intent on presenting slick, featureless interfaces than providing the natural affordances expected by human eyes, brains, and hands. Take typefaces for instance.

As the pixel resolution of our computer displays becomes higher, the arrogant designers who get hired by trend-setting corporations find it necessary to choose typefaces that are as thin as possible, because…thin is in!

Well, I have something to say about that: Anorexia Kills!

How about people’s ability to fucking read? I kind of like it when I can read. And I don’t like it when I am made to feel like an 87 year-old who needs a magnifying glass (like my mother – who is especially challenged when she has to actually read words on an iPad).

And it’s not just the rapidograph-like spiderweb of fonts that are becoming so hard to read. Designers are now fucking with contrast:

“There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.”

—Kevin Marks WIRED: https://www.wired.com/2016/10/how-the-web-became-unreadable/

Sarah Knapton: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/10/23/internet-is-becoming-unreadable-because-of-a-trend-towards-light/

I was in Boulder, looking for the Apple store so I could by a new MacBook Pro. I had a hard time finding the store because the symbol I was looking for was barely visible from a distance, or unless I was looking straight at it.

Apple is becoming less interested in helping us be productive than they are in being the most slick designed thing in the room – or the mall. Apple originally earned a reputation for good user-interface design. But the capitalist engine of unlimited growth and the subsequent need to differentiate among the competition has created a pathology. It has created a race to the bottom. At that bottom…our senses are being starved.

I have similar thoughts on the way physical Apple products have become so thin as to be almost dangerous – in this blog post.

It may be my imagination, but since buying my new MacBook, this very blog post seems harder to read. Did WordPress go on a font diet? Or is Apple the culprit? Check out this screenshot of this blog post as I am seeing it on my MacBook:

You may have heard the saying: “good design should be invisible”.

“Design should help people and be a silent ambassador to your business. Good designs are those that go unnoticed, that are experienced, that are invisible; bad designs are everywhere and stand out like a sore thumb.”

To say that good design should be invisible does not mean eliminating as many features as possible from a visual interface – causing it to become a wisp of gossamer that requires squinting. The human senses naturally rely on signals – we are accustomed to a high rate and high density of signals from our workable environments.

Okay, the trend away from serif to sans serif was reasonable. But I have a request of Apple and other design trend-setters: please stop eroding away at what few features remain.

Anorexia Kills!

Introducing DataPal – Share It Now!

docpal logo

Sharing your work and your life just got better.

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Fuck DropBox. That’s so yesterday.

docpal logoWith DataPal, all you have to do is sign up as a loyal member (by providing a 128-character Fibonacci-based password, and legally agreeing to the latest Apple and Google Terms and Conditions within two minutes of each official email reminder), and you’ll be sharing status reports, spreadsheets, movies, music, DNA, and subconscious thoughts at the click of a button.

And guess what! With our $575/month VIP upgrade, you can bypass the conscious effort of hitting “send”, “export”, “update”, and “share” altogether. We’ll do it all for you, because we know what you need for your business and your private fetishes. In fact, our venture-backed 10x technical team has already begun processing your Facebook, Google, Apple, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, Vine, and Meetup profiles.  

Do you feel like your work is weighing you down? DataPal will fix that.

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And don’t worry about security. We have implemented a way for you to avoid the common security pitfalls of file-sharing. We’ve got it all under control. Our venture-backed 10x technical team knows their shit. And you don’t.

Now. You may be thinking…

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Well stop now!

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(Oh, and thanks for that password. We’ve already got it :) Check your email inbox now, and…

Let’s get started

Disappearing UI Elements – I Mean, WTF?

I recently noticed something while using software products by Google, Apple, and other trend-setters in user interface design. I’m talking about…

User interface elements that disappear

baby_peekabooI don’t know about you, but I am just tickled pink when I walk into the kitchen to look for the can opener, and can’t find it. (I could have sworn it was in THIS drawer. Or….maybe it was in THAT drawer?)

Sometimes I come BACK to the previous drawer, and see it right under my nose…it is as if an invisible prankster were playing tricks on me.

Oh how it makes me giggle like a baby who is playing peekaboo with mommy.

An open male hand, isolated on a white background.

Not really. I lied. It makes me irrational. It makes me crazy. It makes me want to dismember kittens.

Introducing: Apple’s New Disappearing Scrollbar!

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According to DeSantis Briendel, “A clean and uncluttered visual experience is a laudable goal, but not at the expense of an intuitive and useful interface tool. Making a user hunt around for a hidden navigation element doesn’t seem very user friendly to us. We hope developers will pull back from the disappearing scrollbar brink, and save this humble but useful tool.”

It gets worse. If you have ever had to endure the process of customizing a YouTube channel, you may have discovered that the button to edit your channel is invisible until you move your mouse cursor over it.

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I observed much gnashing of teeth on the internet about this issue.

One frustrated user on the Google Product Forums was looking for the gear icon in hopes to find a way to edit his channel. To his remark that there is no gear icon, another user joked…

“That is because “the team” is changing the layout and operation of the site faster than most people change underwear.”

…which is a problem that I brought up in a previous blog about the arbitrariness of modern user interfaces.

There are those who love bringing up Minority Report – and claim that user interfaces will eventually go away, allowing us to just wave our hands in the air and speak naturally, and to communicate with gestures in thin air.

Bore hole

In Disappearing UI: You Are the Interface, the author describes (in utopian prose) a rosy future where interfaces will disappear, liberating us to interact with software naturally.

But what is “natural”?

What is natural for the human eye, brain, and hand is to see, feel, and hear the things that we want to interact with, to physically interact with them, and then to see, feel, and hear the results of that interaction. Because of physics and human nature, I don’t see this ever changing.

OK, sure. John Maeda’s first rule for simplicity is to REDUCE.

But, by “reduce”, I don’t think he meant…

play hide and seek with the edit button or make the scroll bar disappear while no one is looking.

Perhaps one reason Apple is playing the disappearing scroll bar trick is that they want us to start doing their two-finger swipe. That would be ok if everyone had already given up their mice. Not so fast, Apple!

Perhaps Apple and Google are slowly and gradually preparing us for a world where interfaces will dissolve away completely, eventually disappearing altogether, allowing us to be one with their software.

Seems to me that a few billions years of evolution should have some sway over how we prefer to interact with objects and information in the world.

I like to see and feel the knife peeling the skin off a potato. It’s not just aesthetics: it’s information.

I like seeing a person’s eyes when I’m talking to them. I like seeing the doorknobs in the room. I like knowing where the light switch is.

yy

Apple, please stop playing hide-and-seek with my scroll bar.

-Jeffrey

We Need a Revolution in Software Interaction Design

restaurant-kitchen We need a revolution in software interaction design. Apple and Google will not provide it. They are too big. They are not the solution. They are the problem.

This revolution will probably come from some unsuspecting source, like the Maker Movement, or an independent group of people or company that is manufacturing physical goods. Here’s why: as computers increasingly inhabit physical objects, as the “internet of things” grows, as more and more computing makes its way into cars, clothing, and houses, there will come new modalities of interacting with software. And it will be dictated by properties of the physical things themselves. Not by the whims and follies of interface designers, whose entire universe consists of a rectangle of pixels and the touch of a user.

Let me explain what I mean when I say that software interaction design needs a major paradigm shift.

Affordance

I hate having to use the word “affordance”. It’s not a very attractive or colorful word. But it’s the best I’ve got. If you’ve read my other blogs posts or my book, Virtual Body Language, you have heard me use it before. The word was given higher currency in the user interface design world thanks to Donald Norman, whose book, The Design of EveryDay Things, I highly recommend. (He was forced to change the name from the “Psychology of Everyday things”. I like his original title better).

ava-coon-2Affordance, originally used in J.J. Gibson’s theory of ecological psychology, refers to the possible ways an animal or human can interact with an object (which can be another animal). We often use it in reference to the ways that one interprets visual, tactile and sonic features of a thing, be it an egg-beater, a frightened dog, or a new version of iMovie.

Sensory_Feedback_in_Brain_Computer_Interfaces1A “natural affordance” is a property that elicits an understanding or response that does not have to be learned  – it’s instinctual. In reference to industrial design: a knob affords twisting, and perhaps pushing, while a cord affords pulling. The term has more recently been used in relation to UI design to indicate the easy discoverability of possible actions.

UPDATE…

Bruce Tognazzini pointed out to me that Donald Norman has more recently been using the term “Perceived Signifier”. And this article explains some of the new semantic parsing going on regarding the word “affordance”. Personally, I would be happy if all of this got subsumed into the language of semiotics.

I believe we have WAY TOO MANY artificial affordances in our software interfaces. I will repeat the call of many wise and learned designers: we need to build tools with natural affordances in mind. Easier said than done, I realize. Consider a common modern interface, such as the typical drop-down dialog of the Apple that allows one to download a file:

dialog_2 As a general rule, I like to download files to my desktop instead of specifying the location using this dialog. Once a file is there, I then move it to the appropriate place. Even though it takes me a bit longer, I like the feeling of putting it there myself. My muscles and my brain prefer this.

Question: have you ever downloaded a file to a specific, somewhat obscure folder, and then later download another file, thinking it was to your desktop, and then not being able to find it? Well, you probably didn’t think to check the dialog box settings. You just hit SAVE, like you usually do, right? It’s automatic. You probably forgot that you had previously set the dialog box to that obscure, hard-to-remember folder, right? Files can get lost easily, right? Here’s the reason:

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Software files are abstract concepts. They have no physical location, no mass, no weight. All the properties that we associate with files are virtual. The computer interface is just a bundle of physical metaphors (primarily desktop metaphors) that provide us with affordances so we can think about them as if they were actual things with properties.

The dialog I showed you doesn’t visually express “in” in a natural way. The sensation of the action is not like putting a flower in a vase or drawing a dot in a circle.

Herein lies a fundamental problem of software interface and interaction design. Everything is entirely arbitrary. Natural laws do not apply.

Does the natural world present the same kind of problem as we have when we lose files? Sometimes, but not so often. That’s because the natural world is full of affordances. Our memories are decorated with sensations, associations, and connections, related to our actions. If I physically put a rubber band in an obscure bowl on the top shelf, I have reason to remember this action. Muscle-memory plays a major part in this. With downloading files on a computer, you may not know where you put the file. In fact, sometimes you can’t know!

In fact, it’s not fair to use the word “put”, since “putting” is a deliberate, conscious act. An accidental fumble on the keyboard can cause a keyboard shortcut command that deletes a file or opens up a new window. When this happens, the illusion breaks down completely: this is not a real desktop.

Am I getting too esoteric? Okay, I’ll get more down-to-earth and gritty…

My Deteriorating Relationship with Apple

Bruce Tognazzini says: “While Apple is doing a bang-up job of catering to buyers, they have a serious disconnect at the point at which the buyer becomes a user.” 

urlMy recent experiences with Apple software interfaces have left me worse than disenchanted. I am angry. Apple has changed the interface and interaction of one too many of its products, causing my productivity in some applications (like iMovie) to come to a screeching halt.

At the end of the day, I’d rather keep my old computer with my trusty collection of tools than to have a shiny new, sexy, super-thin Macbook that replaces my trusty old tools. There are years of muscle memory that I have built up in learning and using these tools. My career depends on this muscle memory. When Apple changes these interactions with no clear reason, I become very angry. And so should all its customers.

And then…there is iTunes.

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Let’s not talk about iTunes.

Apple’s latest operating system disabled many of the interactions that I (and many others) have been using for decades.

One annoyed user said: “I wish Apple wouldn’t change the fundamental functions of the Finder like this. First, they reversed the scroll button directions then they changed the default double-click to open a folder in a new window function. I’m just glad that they don’t make cars otherwise we would have the brake and accelerator pedal functions reversed (with a pull on the wiper lever to revert to the original)!”

And from the same thread… “If a company cares about users, it doesn’t make a change just for the sake of change that wipes out thirty years of muscle memory.”

Am I saying that a company like Apple should never change its interfaces? Of course not. But when they do, they should do it carefully, for valid reasons, and gracefully. And they should ALWAYS give their customers the choice of if, when and how to adapt to these changes. Easier said than done, I know. Apple is like most other companies. They feel they have to constantly make NEW products. And that’s because our capitalist system emphasizes growth over sustainability.

Will the Maker Revolution Cure Us of Arbitrary, Ephemeral Design?

This is why I believe we need to return to natural affordances that are as intuitive as putting a spoon in a bowl or carving the bark off a stick. The more natural the affordance, the less arbitrary the design. Designers will have to be less cocky, more reverent to human nature and physical nature.

When real physical things start dictating how we interact with software, the playing field will be different. And software interaction designers will have to fully understand natural affordances, and design for them. That’s a revolution I can get behind.

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