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In your article on good design, I think there's a valuable design story that you missed. The 1950's telephone had to deal with a lot of complexities that were taken for granted after that first design came out. How could I have a machine take the job of the switchboard operator? How can I ensure that the phone doesn't hang up if I drop it? How do I modulate my voice so that I'm not yelling at the person on the other end? That first telephone had answers for all of those questions.
The television had the same evolution. Stuff that we think is basic (color management, antenna management) is either solved or not applicable anymore.
After those "fundamental" design problems were solved, then designers started adding features.
Why do I rant about this? Because we have the same evolution of our products. Once an elegant solution comes out that solves a design problem, it just means that it's time to climb the next mountain.
Good product design is no more the result of voodoo and wearing black turtleneck sweaters than good software design is the result of stacks of empty coke cans and wearing black t-shirts.
Bell labs did extensive usability studies on a dozen different layouts to determine the optimum designs for both rotary and touch-tone phones (I believe the number two competitor for the touch-tone layout was two columns of five buttons, 1-5 on the left, 6-9+0 on the right, I forget what the contenders were for the rotary designs). That's in stark contrast to calculator companies, which organized their number keys "upside down" compared to phones. When digital calculators came out, Bell labs contacted Texas Instruments and HP Labs to try to understand what was different in the usability implications of calculators and phones to drive those divergent oucomes. It turned out that there were no usability studies done on calculators. The buttons were just placed where they were "looked right that way."
Nothing about out phone system was an accident - it was the carefully researched product of one of if not the greatest corporate research departments of all time.
In his essay, Joel says "the easy to use phone will outsell the hard to use phone," but history has a different lesson. History shows that what matters most is the weight of the phone. When the phone system was deregulated in the 80's, you could suddenly buy a perfectly good no-name landline phone for $5. The market was clogged with indistinguishable cheap Japanese phones. About two years later, Panasonic completely owned the landline phone market. What did they do? They put an iron weight in their phones to make them feel more substantial. Aesthetically better design? No. Functionally better design? No. Exceptional product research to determine how consumers perceive quality? Yes.
Great product design is no accident and it's not voodoo. I think everyone on these forums would be insulted if a bunch of guys in black turtleneck sweaters started pontificating about how random good software design was.
That reminds me of when Microsofts first line of optical mice came out. For a buncch of people I know the MS mouse just felt better than cheaper alternatives. The biggest reason we found to be because there was a weight added to the mouse to make it feel more substantial. I think this was initially done because with the ball removed it became a lot lighter and people were accuston to mice with some weight to them. Also similar to people having a hard time adjusting to quiet keyboards because there's not enough of a tactile response.
"no usability studies done on calculators. The buttons were just placed where they were "looked right that way."
I think the straightdope article on this gets it mostly right when the say that telephone keypads were carefully 'designed' with 1,2,3 on the top row as its more intutive to rotary dials users (and English readers who would generally work top-left to bottom right anyway).
The cash register/calculator one though is simpler if you have ever been trained to use a cash-register... or are totally rows of dollars values; '0' and '00' are some of the most used keys & are thus placed closest to the total/enter key.
A while ago I was paying by debit for something, and the keypad they had was for some reason the opposite layout to every other debit keypad I had ever seen. It took me several seconds to re-order my thoughts and actual think through my number to locate each individual digit on the pad.
Friday, February 10, 2006
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