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.

Steve Jobs on Flash: substandard apps that limit the progress of the platform

We’ve been there before, and intermediate layers between the platform and the developer ultimately produces sub-standard apps and hinders the progress of the platform.

--Steve Jobs re: Flash via taoeffect.com

Kind of interesting. Is he talking about Flash or is he talking about Java? 

I spent a few years writing deeply complex user experiences in Java. Invariably it was a technology tax we had to pay to try to get proper native-like experiences on exactly this kind of thing -- an intermediate layer (Java Swing) between the underlying machine (Win32).

Writing desktop apps in Java was a real pain. Flash, while easier, is still another inefficient layer between you and the underlying metal. You're right, Steve. Lets not subject people to that anymore.

On designer humility

The latest much ado about nothing on the Internet: Blogger Joshua Blankenship has written a pot-calling-the-kettle-black diatribe against Dustin Curtis's apparent lack of humility in criticizing American Airlines. He seems to think that Dustin should be a little more humble in his criticisms of such a large, immovable corporation whose complexity seemingly exceeds that of a very good designer.

I call bullshit.

A humble designer is one who affects no change indeed. Designers should be less humble. When engineers or business guys or management or *anyone* makes a product lousier, they should get up and shout, and raise hell. Designers should NOT 'know their place.' Because if the powers that be keep their power, then we will continue to live in a barely working cesspool of compromises and bad experiences.

Apple wins because the guy who cares the most about user experience happens to run the show. And last I checked, humble wasn’t really a word you could use to describe him.

The iPhone killer of the future needs vertical integration. (Why Android is doomed.)

Google’s dependence on hardware and carrier partners puts the final product out of their control — and into the control of companies whose histories have shown them to be incompetent at design and hostile to users.
--John Gruber via daringfireball.net

Windows Mobile was a failed experiment in relying on hardware vendors, partners, and carriers to build a great consumer device. There were too many cooks in the kitchen. There were too many integration points.

Case in point: Bug fixes from the field. To get a device to market, there was the core device team, then a mobile operator/commercialization team, and finally the carrier's support / deployment team. There was no shared database of bugs. No shared responsibility. When schedules were stretched thin and the device was failing even simple tasks, it was too easy to point fingers. Oh, that's the carrier team's fault. That's the OS team's fault. That's the commercialization team's fault. Hardware's fault. Nobody took the reins to ensure a quality product was being created.

The Palm Pre team is doing it right. Google would do well to take note here. Building cool techie platform toys that let you create nifty Powerpoint decks is all well and good. But it's all a huge waste until there's a satisfied user using your awesome phone that works great.

It comes down to responsibility. Someone has to be responsible. If you're creating a device, and you want it to succeed, it better be you and your team.

Why bad taste rules in business endeavors, and why that's a problem for creative industries.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball spoke at MacWorld recently and gave a brilliant talk called "The Auteur Theory of Design" -- about lessons we as creators of tech products can learn from the film making world.

The quality of any collaborative creative endeavor tends to approach the level of taste of whoever is in charge... whoever has final cut.

John Gruber

Final cut is the last say as to whether or not to ship. And this cuts to the core of how good design and great experience gets delivered in tech. THE FINAL CUT. Someone has final say for when a project is done and ready to go. At Apple, final cut is owned by Steve Jobs, and much has been made of the tyrannical brilliance and attention he pays to the details of the products they create. Final cut is what matters, because the person who makes the final cut can either ensure brilliance or ensure failure.

The leader with bad taste / poor design sensibility will absolutely salt out the great work of brilliant teams. They'll add random crap to something that might already be quite good. Or will allow bad stuff to ship. Or, most likely, force a product out to market when it's not ready. A blind adherence to meeting release dates, for instance, can essentially assure the death of quality in a product. That's why adding product managers or project managers to an already failing project often is like a bucket of gasoline for a man on fire.

In an ideal world, product managers and technology execs should be great designers who can identify and create amazing user experiences. They need to be user experience auteurs, because PMs and execs are de facto in charge when it comes to making final call on when to ship the product. They're the last line of defense against bad taste and bad design. Unfortunately, like Plato's mythical philosopher/kings, auteur studio exec is a rare breed, and the UX designer / tech exec is rarer still.

Gruber closes his talk with an exhortation to the auteur within. Sometimes on teams, final cut isn't something someone will give you. But when you know you're right, sometimes you have to take it.

Conformity is hard-wired into the brain

You're in a room with 10 other people who seem to agree on something, but you hold the opposite view. Do you say something? Or do you just go along with the others?

via CNN on Why So Many Minds Think Alike

Neuroscientists have experimentally confirmed that the brain reacts to disagreements with the larger group in a similar manner to punishment. Groupthink exists, and exists on a massive scale. This makes more and more sense in the mass media age where we consume the same media (NY Times, TechCrunch, and Hacker News for me) and read the same forums and talk about all the same ideas. While the Internet revolution has brought many more voices to the foreground and reduced the role of traditional media (1000 channels on TV instead of 5, 1 million blogs instead of 1 local newspaper), this effect still plays out heavily throughout society. Whenever there is a crowd, there will be group consensus.

The CNN article mentions that groupthink will overwhelm even obviously correct thinking: "The most famous experiments in the field were conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. He found that many people gave incorrect answers about matching lines printed on cards, echoing the incorrect answers of the actors in the room."

This is significant for entrepreneurs. Apple was absolutely on to something when it said: Think Different. Why think different? Because the masses are wrong. (In fact, the masses are asses. =) ) And this is why many startups and entrepreneurs are perceived to be pursuing inane, crazy or irrelevant ideas. Prevailing wisdom isn't, and it takes a crazy dreamer to ignore the massive and overwhelming tidal wave of group think.

Apple's Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter SUCKS. Apple Hardware -- does it really suck, or do we just expect too much?

The reviews are in, and they're not good. On the Apple.com product page itself, there are reports of major failures, which is especially pronounced for a device that a) costs $100, b) was 3 months late to market. The new MacBooks and MacBook Pros all now support mini-displayport, which is a different standard entirely and require adapters to the DVI and Dual DVI standard used by existing monitors. Here's what people are seeing:
  • Flaky performance
  • Flicker, sporadic issues...
  • Doesn't Work with Gateway 30" Extreme Monitor
  • significant drop in frame rate
  • Very Disappointing

This is on top of 37signals's recent post "Every Mac I've owned has failed." I know of many Macbook Pros, including my own and my brother's, have significant fan noise/overheating issues that are chronically problematic.

What is it about Apple that makes their software so good but their hardware just a disaster? Is it a legitimate problem, or is it just that the computers are so close to perfect that any imperfection causes us to judge it far more harshly than computers that are inferior?

We hold Apple to a higher standard. I'd venture to say Every Vista Machine ANYONE has ever owned has failed, big time. And that's far worse.

O Brother Mini DisplayPort to Dual DVI Adapter, where art thou?

It's been over a month since the new Macbook Pros were released, and in that month, we've been waiting with bated breath for word on the new ship date.

Thus far, thorough Google Searches have revealed basically zero information about when this thing may finally arrive. Until then, we remain without our 30 inch monitors.

Poor us, I know. But you know, when you work with computers for a living, a 30" monitor just makes sense. It's kind of like a good samurai needs a good sword, right? These are the tools of our trade, and a monitor is the #1 productivity boost you can have.

 @days.each do |day| 
   if day.items.shipped?(:dual_dvi_adapter)