What’s the cost of bad design?

I regularly visit a small shopping center which has numerous design issues, but one of them stands out. A busy side entrance has sliding doors which are attached to a motion sensor. The sensor itself is fine, but it’s positioned incorrectly. If you approach the door from an angle, nothing happens. The doors stay shut. If you walk backwards and attempt to trigger the sensor, still nothing. Only if you do a proper double take and walk directly towards the doors, open sesame.

Most shoppers who can’t get in, end up either using another door or wait until someone walks out so the the doors open. The cost for the user is minor stress and irritation. The cost for the business is having staff deal with someone who was just made feel stupid by a door. Stressful interactions lead to more sickdays.

However, some just turn away and go shop somewhere else. For those selected few, the cost of bad design is literal: they will spend their money elsewhere.


Bad design

A great way to stay safe is to include everything in your design. All the data, all the buttons and all the terms. The user not accomplishing their goals is their fault, not yours. I mean, you did provide all the facts.

Bad design is laziness and covering your ass. Good design is knowing what to leave out, what to highlight and taking the risk that maybe you’re wrong on something.

On limitations

Some limitations are actually very useful. They push us to do better with less and get more creative. Comedians who can’t curse on the airwaves have to work around it. Old school demos are all about pushing against very limited hardware. Limitations also offer a safe harbor for excuses when we fail at our goals.

Of course many limitations are just that, limitations. The original 10 minute limit on YouTube didn’t make anything better (people just uploaded several videos). Nor did the 56k modem make early browsing any more enjoyable compared to cable modems.

Next time you blame a limitation for failing, make sure it’s an actual limitation and not an excuse.

Why fire extinguishers are red

I was browsing Facebook and came across a designer fire extinguisher: Phoenix by Jalo Helsinki. It’s sleek, stylish and designed by Oiva Toikka, a Finnish designer famous for working with glass. It blends seamlessly into any designer kitchen. The question is, should a fire extinguisher blend into its surroundings? 

If I buy this fire extinguisher and put it in my kitchen next to the stove, I know it’s a fire extinguisher. But if I’m having a house party, and I’m in the toilet while one of my guests sets something on fire, would they know it’s a fire extinguisher?

One of Don Norman’s user-centered design principles is “making things visible“. The user should be able to know what something is and what you can do with it, just by looking. I’m not saying a fire extinguisher should look ugly and red, I’m saying it should look like a fire extinguisher.


P.S. Jalo Helsinki also makes other designer fire safety related products such as smoke alarms and fire blankets. They look great and I would be happy to have them in my house.

An ode to Apple’s MagSafe

The MagSafe wasn’t the best connector because it saved your expensive laptops from crashing display first to the office floor when that klutz, Pekka from accounting, stepped on the cord.

The MagSafe wasn’t the best connector because when you were late for the 7:45 AM bus to work, you ran out of the kitchen so fast, coffee in hand, that you tripped on the cord and didn’t fall flat on your face.

The MagSafe wasn’t the best connector because it would never snap and break inside your laptop, no matter how hard or at whichever awkward angle you pulled it.

The MagSafe was the best connector because it was fun. It was effortless. It gave you wonderful audible reassurance when you connected it: *klak* everything is OK again. It was that technological wizardry that only Apple can create. It was magical.

The new MacBook Pro is solid and better than ever, but I’m sad to see the MagSafe go.

“Are you still there?”

I use a lot of Skype in my work, both regular and “Skype for Business”. Anyone who has used Skype before, knows that every now and then the connection between callers is bad and the voice cuts out. If it cuts out mid-sentence, it’s easy to recognize as a technical glitch. But sometimes it happens in between sentences and you’re facing total radio silence. After a few seconds you wonder out loud “Are you still there?” to which the other party either responds or doesn’t. You hit the red button and start a new call.

I don’t know exactly when the change happened, but now Skype also cuts out the mic when the line is perfectly good. Once neither of the participants is talking, there’s total silence. Especially in Finnish communication culture, it’s normal to have lengthy silent moments during conversations and I find myself asking again “Are you still there?” to which I get a prompt reply. I feel frustrated and a bit silly.

I’m guessing this feature was introduced to reduce bandwidth consumption, but it has an adverse effect on (my) user experience. A simple solution would be to add an option to Skype which would automatically play faint static noise in the background as long as the connection is good and nobody is talking.


Laptop vs dragtop

Every now and then I find myself defending why I think the MacBook Pro is the best laptop money can buy. People bring up the high price and the seemingly underpowered GPU and CPU. They bring up examples of cheaper laptops and desktop machines with better specs, and in a way, they’re not wrong. If your main concern at the end of the day is raw performance, don’t get a MBP. In fact, if you have a choice in the matter, don’t get a laptop in the first place.

Most laptops sold today shouldn’t be called laptops. When the consumer switch from desktop PC towers to laptops started somewhere in the mid 00s, a new term should have been coined for these devices: dragtop.

In my mind there’s a clear difference between the two:

Laptops are designed for people who rely on getting work done while sitting on a plane or on a train. Laptops have a long battery life, they’re compact and are built to last (this post was typed on a early 2011 MacBook Pro). Laptops manufacturers provide excellent warranties and customer service.

Dragtops are portable computers which mimic what laptops do, badly. Dragtops are heavy, have a short battery life and their build quality and physical design is lacking. Dragtops fall somewhere in between desktop computers and laptops, not living up to either standard. Dragtops have better specs than laptops, but worse than desktops.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate “dragtops”. I used to own one myself and they’re a perfectly good, valid choice for most people looking for an inexpensive computer. I do however feel frustrated at times trying to justify my hardware choices, even (or especially) to other IT professionals. I hope this short post helps to convey my thoughts on the matter.