Failure and Recovery – an Important Concept in Design..and Life

I have observed that good design takes into consideration two important aspects of use:

  1. Failure Rate
  2. Recovery Rate

Well-designed products or software interfaces have low failure rates and low failure amounts. This is related to the concept of fault tolerance. A well-designed product or interface should not fail easily, and failure should not be complete.

“If its operating quality decreases at all, the decrease is proportional to the severity of the failure, as compared to a naively designed system in which even a small failure can cause total breakdown.”

A well-designed product or interface should also be easy to recover from failure.

81oCqPfe5wL._SX522_I recently bought a set of headphones. These were good headphones in most respects…until they broke at the complicated juncture where the ear pieces rotate. Once these headphones broke, there was really nothing I could do to fix them. But I decided to try – using a special putty that dries and holds things into place.

 

photoIt took a long time to figure out how to do this. When I finally repaired the broken part, I realized that the wires had been severed inside. There was no sound coming through. I had no choice but to put them into the garbage bin where they will contribute to the growing trash heap of humanity. Bad design is not just bad for consumers: it’s bad for the planet.

While most people (including myself) would claim that Audio Technica headphones are generally well-designed, we are usually not taking into account what happens when they break.

13687716887463pSometimes the breakdown is cognitive in nature. There’s a Keurig coffee machine at work. It uses visual symbols to tell the user what to do.

As I have pointed out in another article, visual languages are only useful to the extent that the user knows the language. And designers who use visual language need to understand that natural language includes how something behaves, and shows its internal states, not just what kinds of icons is displays on its surface.

The Keurig coffee machine is a nice specimen in many respects. But I had discovered that if I apply the necessary actions in the wrong order, it fails. Namely: if I add the little coffee supply and press down the top part before the water has finished heating up, it doesn’t allow me to brew the coffee.

So…after the water finished heating up, I saw the buttons light up. “Cool” – I said.

But nothing happened when I pressed a button to dispense the coffee. “WTF” – I said. Then I decided to open up the lid and close it again. That did the trick. The lights started blinking. But I was not satisfied with the solution. The discoverability of this bit of behavioral body language ranks low on my list.

Hint: “Blinking Lights” Means “You Can Press a Button”

I have to say, though: I have experienced worse examples of undiscoverability with appliances – especially appliances that are so simple, sleek, and elegant that they have no body language to speak of. This infuriates me to no end. It is not unlike the people I meet on occasion who exhibit almost no body language. It makes me squirm. I want to run away.

Now, thanks to YouTube and the interwebs in general, there are plenty of people who can help us get around these problems…such as this guy who has a solution to a related blinking light problem:

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 12.04.09 PM

I realize there are not many people who are bringing up this seemingly small problem. But I bring it up because it is just one of many examples of poor affordance in industrial design that are so small as to be imperceptible to the average user. However, the aggregate of these small imperceptible stumbles that occur throughout our lives constitutes a lowering of the quality of life. And they dull our sense of what good design should be about.

Tiny Rapid Failures and Tiny Rapid Recoveries

148159580_GeneralBicycleNow consider what happens when you ride a bicycle. When riding a bike, you may occasionally lose balance. But that balance can easily be recovered my shifting your weight, turning the wheel, or several other actions – many of which are unconscious to you.

Think of riding a bike as a high-rate of tiny failures with a high-rate of tiny recoveries.

Taken to the extreme: a bird who is standing on one leg has neuromuscular controls that are correcting the balance of the bird’s center of gravity at such a high rate and in such tiny amounts, that we don’t even notice it (and neither does the bird).

flamingo-on-one-leg

Natural Affordance: Perceived Signifiers

User interfaces (in computer software as well as in appliances) should use natural affordances whenever possible so that users can make a good guess as to whether something is about to fail, whether it is failing, how much it is failing, and how to recover.

The best design allows for rapid, and often unconscious correction while using the product. Good design is invisible!

Donald Norman brought some of these ideas to the fore when he wrote the Design of Everyday Things. We still have a lot to learn from his teachings.

Design is a way of life. If you design your life with resilience in mind – with the ability to recognize failures before they happen, and with the ability to recover from those failures, you will live a better life. The same goes for designing the technology that increasingly fills our lives.

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A Modern Phone Booth

Here’s one of the new phone booths installed at WORK Petaluma.

(Hey…what is that strange creature lying on the desk?)

Phone Booth

Why…it looks like something from my remote past. Something I used to press up against my head when I was younger.

I decided to try out this retro phone handset for my weekly Skype call with John. He totally cracked up when he answered my video call to see me with an old-fashioned telephone handset.

me on phone

So he pulled out his old rotary phone for a photo-op:

me and John

High tech meets low-tech.

Ossum.

-Jeffrey

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!

scrollbar-exhibit-300x226

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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invisible

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