Dieter Rams: His first Braun design, and 10 principles of good design

Good design is innovative
Good design makes a product useful
Good design is aesthetic
Good design makes a product understandable
Good design is unobtrusive
Good design is honest
Good design is long-lasting
Good design is thorough down to the last detail
Good design is environmentally friendly
Good design is as little design as possible

 

Kurt Vonnegut goes to buy an envelope. Profundity ensues.

[When Vonnegut tells his wife he's going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don't know. The moral of the story is, is we're here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we're not supposed to dance at all anymore.

Kurt had most of this right. But computers can be used to dance too. If anything, that's what the Internet needs.

More dancing, less office supply purchasing.

Scott Adams suggests a panopticon with privacy: Could such a world exist?

In my book The Dilbert Future I imagined a world with cameras in every room, and on every street corner, recording all the time, but encrypted so that literally no one could view the video without a court order. You wouldn't need much of a police force in that scenario because every crime would be on video, along with the entire escape route, all the way to the criminal's bedroom. Maybe that's too Big Brother for you, but if you reflect on how much privacy you've already given up to technology, it's not that much of a stretch.
--Scott Adams via dilbert.com

This sounds like an excellent plot for a sci fi film. Without some colossally amazing improvements in camera and encryption technology, there are major risks. Diebold would probably try to make these cameras, and fail miserably, just as they have consistently failed at creating reliable voting machines.

Only the consequences are far more dire than a stolen election here or there. Imagine a vast network of cameras recording forever the actions of every single human. Yet through incompetence, that data falls into the hands of anyone willing to pay.

Organized crime? Obsessed exes? Those are just the misanthropic ones. The long arm of the law would have access too. A world of no forgetting. Such a world would be a realization of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a place of invisible omniscience. Though a very interesting concept, above all one shouldn't forget a panopticon is still a prison.

And turning free society into a prison is something that should give us all pause.

Bureaucracies don't reward the excellent.

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.
--William Deresiewicz via theamericanscholar.org

This is why small teams with no BS can outmaneuver the big boys day in and day out. This is why we build startups.

Hat tip @johnmaeda

iPhone 4 Antenna issues are a UX issue: What the user doesn't know makes them happy.

Apple this morning is reporting that they've figured out what is really going on with the iPhone 4 antenna. 

We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising.

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately (ed: emphasis mine), providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.

As Gruber reports, this is the best phone antenna ever created. All the lab tests show its amazing. So what's the cause? The antenna does get attenuated if you hold it a certain way, but in a less dramatic way than 4 bars dropping. Perhaps only 20-30%. Not worse than other phones at all. Turns out it is not an antenna issue, but a user experience issue. 

Mark Twain said if you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything. The pithy saying applies here. I can just imagine the wheels turning as Apple engineers and execs scramble to understand the situation. But it starts with a simple, pretty innocent idea: gosh, the bars look so low. AT&T reception is terrible. Lets just add a couple bars, and nobody will be the wiser. Years later, the issue is exposed in a public and grand fashion as a truly unintended consequence.

While truth will set you free, a little fib will make people happy...

When I was at Microsoft, we had a related UX problem with Microsoft ActiveSync. Customers would consistently complain about how awful ActiveSync was, even calling it ActiveStink. But after a pretty comprehensive review of feedback and failure rates, we figured out that ActiveSync wasn't that bad at all. For instance, we'd often show this error:

The server happened to be down at that very moment, but it would sync again and be fine. We put "Attention Required" and we'd call out that they hadn't synchronized against Exchange. 

What did Blackberry do? Nothing. It wouldn't tell you that the server couldn't be contacted. Users just kept thinking they were up to date. And if they weren't? Oh, it wasn't the Blackberry's fault. It was probably the server or the network or something. Everything is fine. They loved their Blackberries. Brand loyalty through the roof.

Is it important that I'm connected? Or that I FEEL connected?

When it comes to communication technologies, there's a unique UX force at work. There are few things more annoying than a communication device (that costs hundreds of dollars no less!) that makes me feel disconnected. So device makers are forced to think about ways to make people happier by hiding errors or pretending things are fine. There is a very real incentive for them to do so, as I saw first hand with the Blackberry vs ActiveSync status issue. Sometimes it can literally make your brand.

But in the case of Apple, sometimes the things you do to make your users happy can come back to haunt you.

Google finally nails Google Apps sharing settings

Finally, a sharing UI that makes sense. Previously, when using Google Apps for our posterous-inc.com company domain, we would *routinely* have problems where people wouldn't be able to see documents without a link because the item was 'shared with everyone' and everyone had 'access' but it didn't show up in their document list. There was a disconnect between whether it was 'in your list' and 'accessible.' Thankfully, these unnatural modes (modes are the enemy of understanding) have been removed.

The Google Apps team has nailed it by making the visibility options top-of-mind. They did this by flattening the option of 'in your list' vs 'accessible' into one set of choices.

They've also added visibility options prominently to the top bar. This is a good move that makes it a lot easier for people to immediately know what level of privacy they've chosen.

Note also how it contextually changes and becomes more useful depending on which setting is chosen. At a glance, this turns out to be incredibly valuable.

This is an example of really well done and well-thought-out UI. Kudos.

The ongoing scourge of link spammers

Does it make any sense to you that these search terms have been searched for heavily?

  • the surveyor observed the use
  • the rivals shattered the farm
  • the link entitled the names
  • the trolls ambushed the dwarfs
  • the dwarfs ambushed the trolls

Hal Daume doesn't think so. He's analyzing a Google database of words known as their 5gram corpus. This is the list of most searched for sets of search terms that have only 5 keywords in them. None of them seem like they should be common search terms. They don't return very many web documents -- for some of them, none at all.

Hal can't figure out what's going on, but he asks his readers to leave comments if they have an inkling. Bob Moore writes:
I think there is link spamming going on here. When I searched for "the surveyor observed the use", Google returned the following as the fourth ranked search result:

e-Commerce Writers and Academician | XING1 101500 the surveyor observed the use 2 30619 the rivals shattered the farm 3 27999 the link entitled the names 4 22928 the trolls ambushed the dwarfs ...

Notice that the first four of Hal's weird 5-grams show up just in this small snippet. When I checked the cached copy of the page that was pointed to, Google told me that the search term occurred only in the referring pages. Probably someone has created a link farm using these 5-grams to boost the rank of the pages they point to when these terms are used as search queries

Whoa, what? Someone just uncovered a cool trick of link spammers. By making elaborate spam pages (the kind we ban and kill with relish at Posterous) that contain this obscure set of terms, they can just get ranked signficantly higher. Makes you realize there many dimensions to fighting blackhat SEO link spammers... not just URL, and not just referrer. Anything is a weapon, even a particularly obscure turn of phrase.

Technology hysteria on the web: Leave the foil helmets at home.

Last Friday at Posterous we launched a major feature, Pages. We got some really great coverage, including an article from the folks at the Blog Herald. We're always thrilled to see our features being covered, but we were a little surprised at the title: Are Posterous Pages potentially dangerous?

The answer of course is an unequivocal NO. They're no more dangerous than normal HTML pages, or links, or redirects that happen every single day on every web browser on the planet. Yes it is possible to link to any kind of content on the web, even spam or malware. But that's our job to keep it off our network. That's a job we take seriously. And when you report it, we take action immediately.

Some commenters suggested that we show an interstitial page similar to the one Facebook shows for external links, like so:

We don't want to do that if we can help it. If anything that just reinforces this idea that the web is an overly dangerous place. Showing interstitials does not absolve your service of any possible problems from visiting scammy or spammy links. The real solution, and the solution we take at Posterous, is that we shut down scammy and spammy sites and those Posterous blogs that link to them. And that's the right kind of solution that doesn't ruin the web experience that we believe in.

The web, as in real life, can be a dangerous place. But it is our duty to police it and leave it a better place than before.

No, the aliens aren't trying to read your brain waves. You can leave your foil helmets at home.

"Acceptable industry standards"

WSJ provides us with a much more detailed account of how BP and Halliburton caused the worst manmade environmental catastrophe since Chernobyl.

In an April 18 report to BP, Halliburton warned that if BP didn't use more centering devices, the well would likely have "a SEVERE gas flow problem." Still, BP decided to install fewer of the devices than Halliburton recommended—six instead of 21.

BP said it's still investigating how cementing was done. Halliburton said that it followed BP's instructions, and that while some "were not consistent with industry best practices," they were "within acceptable industry standards."

If your compliance with acceptable industry standards can cause such a huge disaster... obviously the industry standards are utterly unacceptable.

Putting your finger on your nose and saying it wasn't you is not going to help you here.