A few thoughts on “Using the Difficulty”​ in User Experience Design

Introduction

While looking through articles and examples of UI Dark Patterns, I stumbled across a paper titled “Use the Difficulty through Schwierigkeit”: Antiusability as Value-driven Design”. I was intrigued by the title of the paper, and the essay style used by the author.

On an initial read through, the paper felt like a meandering essay, which touched upon various aspects of the “Anti-usability/Schwierigkeit ” school of thought. A couple more read-throughs later, I was able to understand the various nuances within the points presented by the author.

The author really exemplifies the point he’s trying to make with the words used in the first couple of sentences. I mean, wording such as  “This aphorism also encapsulates the raison d’etre…” has to have been a deliberate choice.

Definition and Origins of “Using the Difficulty”

Antiusability is defined as

“…a novel way of design that centers on the finely tuned integration of graduated difficulty into user interfaces to systems in a variety of contexts.”

It’s important to note that Antiusability is not the opposite of usability, it is in fact part of usability and user experience design. Lenarcic makes note of this by suggesting the use of the term “Schwierigkeit” (which means “difficult” in German) as an alternative.

Lenarcic cites the example of Michael Caine, who asked the director of a play he was in, about how to deal with a chair that was on stage. The director told him to make use of the chair in a way that helped him express the nature of the scene (smashing the chair of it was a dramatic scene, or tripping over it if it was comedic). In this way the chair went from being an obstacle to an object that could be used in a productive manner.

Key Points

Here are the key  points that Lenarcic went over in his paper:

  • The usability of a device can modify a user’s behavior.
  • Difficulties can be used in such a way as to have a net positive effect.
  • Choreographing obstacles in a way that allows the users to regain the feeling of being in charge of the interaction process rather than being “madly addicted” to it.
  • “Calibrated difficulty in practical design to accentuate the greater good in system use”
  • How easy should things be? How difficult should things be to enable an end user to feel they have performed a useful task?
  • Regaining control over our lives- “slow” movement and moving away from hyper-efficiency as an end goal for all interactions
  • Exploring “viscosity” in user environments, affordances that allow resistance to local changes.

What follows is my attempt at summarizing and reflecting on some of the points presented in this paper. The paper was written in a meandering essay style and my thoughts tended to meander as I wrote this, though I have tried my best to create some coherent structure.

“Calibrated Difficulty”: Gamification and Homo Ludens

The author talks about “calibrated difficulty in practical design to accentuate the greater good”. My mind naturally went to levels of difficulty in video games. Games are a great example of difficulty being an important aspect of the user’s experience or indeed their enjoyment. Most games have different levels of difficulty to cater to different people’s preferences.

Today, gamification of interfaces has become a buzzword. “Gamification elements” have become synonymous with things you can tack onto an interface in order to make it more “delightful”. Things like leaderboards, scores, achievements, and badges. I feel like the benefits of adding such elements without proper thought is limited at best and questionable at worst.

I believe that this idea of using the difficulty has an application in truly gamifying a user experience. True gamification involves using aspects of the interaction itself, using the “Core Drives” of the user, as this article by Yu-kai Chou brilliantly describes. Imagine if you got a sense of accomplishment on completing a tedious task, rather than exasperation. (Something like, say, editing an image-laden document in Microsoft Word without messing up the layout.) Providing a challenge, timely positive feedback and competition can definitely act as motivational drivers as is described in this paper.

But gamification at its core still aims to improve the user experience with the goals of the user in mind. It is still about getting things done by providing a sense of accomplishment to the user for doing “grunt work”. Lenarcic’s Schwierigkeit is more in line with William Gaver’s “Designing for Homo Ludens”. As Gaver describes, his definition of “playing” is different from “gaming”

“Not only are these forms of ‘play’ fundamentally goal-oriented, but in striving for a defined outcome they impose rules about the right and wrong ways to go about things… Pursuing such an instrumental version of ‘fun’ does not help provide an alternative model for computing. On the contrary, it co-opts play into the same single minded, results-oriented, problem-fixated mindset that we have inherited from the workplace.”

Gaver goes on to provide examples of open ended forms of engagement with no fixed goals, rules or outcomes. He says that scientific approaches to design should be complemented by open ended and exploratory ones.

“It is difficult to conceive of a task analysis for goofing around, or to think of exploration as a problem to be solved, or to determine usability requirements for systems meant to spark new perceptions”

Regaining control over the experience- allowing the user to reflect on their actions

Another aspect of Lenarcic’s paper is about allowing the user to reflect and rest as they use the system, instead of having a singular goal of reducing the time on task and increasing efficiency. The more time you can save, the more work you will end up doing, as Landauer expressed in his book The Trouble with Computers.

He argues that allowing time to reflect over actions may help the user feel more in control over the system, as opposed to being “madly addicted” to the process. He argues that adopting a more mindful and “slow” approach could lead to more user satisfaction. Allowing users to reflect on their actions be used to improve learnability and understanding of the system.

A personal reflection on Usability, User Experience and “Delighting” the user

Usability discussions are often centered around ease of use, and when people talk about user experience the end goal is often times “delighting” the user. The end goal of UX design and research is always creating an ideal experience for the user based on their needs and behaviors. Words like simple, easy, desirable, and efficient are the ones that are used, while words like difficult always have a negative connotation.

This paper really got me to think- is making something easy to use, more efficient and less time consuming really the only way to improve the user experience? Can the difficulties inherent in some experiences be leveraged to a positive end?

Of course, there’s a difference between making something usable and making a delightful user experience. I feel like Lenarcic’s idea of “using the difficulty” has a place in discussions about the latter. Some may equate the ideal experience with the most efficient, but reading Lenarcic’s essay made me go back and re-read ideas like Gaver’s Designing for Homo Ludens, and made me realize that there’s a lot more to user experience or human centered design than simply designing for efficiency.

Thinking back to my days as in Grad School, I remember the discussions with professors and peers about ways to “delight” the user. It almost always ended up being about how the interface reacted to the user- beautiful transitions, animations, innovative 404 screens or other ways in which to provide information about system status, and so on.

There’s so much more to user experience and “delighting” the user than a focus on making things easier to use. Exploring, playing around with something with no end goal, some level of challenge, all of these are ways in which we may seek fulfillment. I’m glad I picked apart this paper despite my initial hesitation, because it made me go back and re-read so many things that I had forgotten about or was unable to appreciate because of the stresses of being a graduate student. This in itself is a case in point- I read all these academic papers with a goal oriented mindset, I wanted to extract their meaning, write a summary, and discuss them in class, all with the goal of passing my class, with the incentive of good grades (or the fear of bad grades). My goals were set, and I developed methods to efficiently accomplish the tasks of summarizing and discussing papers. It’s now that I have the time to reflect on these papers that I realize how important and thought provoking they are.

This paper reminded me of my initial wonderment about the human condition. I feel like I had lost sight of the complexities of the things that make us tick, and it’s refreshing to remove the blinders of efficiency and ease of use to look at things like difficulty from a new perspective.

Thoughts and Opinions about Micro Fiction

Social Media has provided a global platform that people use to express themselves. It has also shaped the way information is disseminated throughout the world. Different platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide different ways to share information and communicate,  and at times impose certain constraints on how people communicate with each other. Sometimes, these constraints drive creativity.

Twitter’s 140 character limit for example, helped popularize micro fiction 1. Today, communities like Terribly Tiny Tales and The Scribbled Stories have thousands of followers and contributors. Trying to convey as much information and emotion in as few words as possible has been around since a long time, of course. But the micro tales format, its acceptance and widespread popularity is symbolic of the social media phenomenon and how it affects us all.

The widespread success of these communities and these works of micro fiction got me thinking about its origins, its rise to popularity, and like any massively popular meme or internet trend, and why there are so many people who think it has “lost its touch”.


What is micro fiction, and who are these communities?

The origins of micro tales can of course be traced to Twitter, founded in 2006, a social media platform that allows users to share short posts (140 characters or less) called tweets. The aforementioned “Terribly Tiny Tales” started of as a Facebook page in 2013 2. The about page on their official website, terriblytinytales.com, says

“terribly tiny tales brings together a diverse pool of fantastic writers to create one tweet-sized story, everyday. We invite readers to contribute a word from which the writer picks a word of his/her choice.”

Another popular micro fiction community is “The Scribbled Stories”, which started off in 2015, and seems to have a similar format, but describe themselves as

“… a collective of amateur writers and serves as a storytelling platform for writers across the globe.”

As such, the latter does not seem to be limited to micro fiction as can be seen from their website, thescribbledstories.com. However, their most popular content seems to be in that format, most often shared as an image with white text on a blue background 3.


Why is Micro Fiction so popular?

1. Easy to Share

The character restriction lends itself to the creation of short tales, snippets or even poetry, often with complexity and nuances that force the reader to “read between the lines”. As these works of fiction are short by definition, they are often shared as an image rather than in text format, which makes them easy to share. The combination of being easy to consume and easy to share can often create a snowball effect of viral internet success.

2. Easy to write, and your work gets validated

Writing, and creative writing especially so, is often perceived as being the domain of the creative. It is looked upon as something that you need to have an innate knack for. Terribly tiny tales started with a group of 15 writers, but it has since then been opened to the public. The Scribbled Stories also has a similar system, people can submit their creations via the submit page on their website. They even mention various categories based on word limits.

Once you submit your work, it’s looked at by a team, and shared on social media if it’s accepted. This is the modern equivalent of writing to a newspaper, a radio show, or your school magazine. The convenience of being able to submit your work online, and the validation of your post being read and accepted by someone and shared on social media for thousands of people to see is the ultimate reward in today’s world. The relative ease of writing something in the micro fiction format, combined with the anticipation, waiting to see whether or not your post will be selected, and the reward of having your post shared with thousands of people, and indeed even being “liked” and “shared” by people is a massive validation of a person’s writing capability.

3. In tune with our short attention spans on social media

This post by Mark Manson explains this very well. In the world of social media our attention is at a premium- and anything that grabs your attention is shared, and in most cases, forgotten about soon after. Micro Fiction communities generate so much content that spans across so many different topics, that any given piece of content has a chance of resonating with a certain section of the general populace.

Most people, when asked about why they share certain things, often reply with “I don’t know, it just felt nice at the time…”


If it’s so popular, why do some people hate it?

When something resonates with people, as is the case with internet memes and viral trends, there’s always a saturation point, where the interest begins to wane, or even turn into a dislike due to it being repeated many times. In this post I’ve mentioned only the two most popular platforms for micro fiction, but in reality there are a lot of such pages out there, and while Terribly Tiny Tales does touch upon the problem of curating so many entries 4, there are so many other spin-off communities around which perhaps look only for viral success via post volume, rather than post quality.

I think that this lack of curation is one of the key reasons why some people are annoyed. With so many people getting to post their micro fiction and get published, with little to no curation, these communities become less about getting your work accepted, appreciated and understood, but more about being cannon fodder that feeds the social media machine. This might sound cynical but it does seem like the move away from a small group to an open community with no moderation, no community feedback mechanism and no centralized curation is a deliberate move to gain followers, gain likes, shares, and perpetuate the aforementioned social media machine.

What do the owners of these pages stand to gain from this perpetual social media juggernaut? When you have a massive social media influence, it can be used to make money, and brands have already begun to utilize these communities as a platform to gain some traction.

hotspot

This image shows how blatant the brand tie-ins can be at times.

 


Objectively analyzing micro fiction

What constitutes good micro fiction is highly subjective. What some people might find appealing in a cute, smart or funny way, might not be looked at the same way by others.  Personally, I feel like good micro fiction should have multiple layers of meaning, requiring you to “read between the lines”.

However, looking at a lot of these works, I find that many of these “stories” have simple, linear narratives. They are often simple anecdotes which while a lot of people can relate to, aren’t really very complex. A lot of these are based on common events and are thus regarded as unoriginal. When a lot of seemingly trite content floods social media feeds, it leads to an inevitable negative reaction 5. Anecdotes are easier to write, as they are based on real life events. They are easy to read because of their linear narrative. They are easy to relate to because most of these anecdotes are based on very common events that occur in most people’s lives, such as getting bad grades in an exam, for example.

This brings us back to the broader issue of categorization and curation. The micro fiction communities have broadened their scope, and their definition of what they consider “tiny tales” or “stories”, for the reasons mentioned previously.

What can they do to improve?

I feel like the key component missing in this whole micro fiction “community”, is the lack of any feedback. There is no community moderation. A sign of a healthy community is discussion, and constructive criticism, which I find completely lacking in any of these Facebook pages. People are expected to submit their work, and hope that it is published. There is no feedback from the people who run the pages, and there is no way to garner feedback from the other members of the community 6.

One of the ways to provide constructive feedback is to connect these prospective writers with established ones. Of course, this seems like an idealistic solution, but I do believe that social media is an extremely powerful tool that can make this happen. If a community focuses on the core group of people that actively want to improve, and aren’t just there to feed off its popularity for personal gain, I believe that it could be a great tool for people who want to be better.

A few points in conclusion:

  • The topic of micro fiction and it’s popularity is full of nuances that I wish to capture, and I’ve just scratched the surface. I would love to have a hear from others about their opinions and experiences, so I can see things from all possible points of view.
  • I would love to be able  to know how these pages/communities are run to get a better understanding or appreciation of the challenges involved in bridging the gap between the current and ideal state of the community.
  • Feel free to criticize, but keep it civil. I may even create another post where I respond to your comments.
  • While criticizing, poking fun at  or even hating these micro fiction communities is fine as a personal choice, having a “holier than thou” attitude is not. What I do not like, are people who try to act like the gatekeepers of “good writing”, which may demotivate people. Say what you will about micro fiction, but I like to think that there are at least some people there who want some positive affirmation, some validation of their creativity, people who just need someone to provide feedback and maybe even guidance. Don’t be like this guy.
  • It would be great to look at Micro Fiction in the backdrop of our social media culture as a whole and how it can be used to explain our behavior on social media.
  • Shout out to @thewisecrab and @twatterbaba on Twitter who listened to my ideas and provided feedback.

Footnotes:

A few good examples of micro fiction on twitter are Instant Fiction and @ThePatanoiac

  1. This Quora post talks about the origin story, and it is as follows:

“Terribly Tiny Tales started off as a Facebook page back in 2013, conceptualized by Anuj Gosalia, and later joined in by Chintan Ruparel. The platform consisted of a team of 15 writers who contributed regularly. 3 years later, we are a community of approximately 100 writers who work closely with us as well as over 50,000 writers who share their work with us from all over the world.”

Anuj Gosalia also has a Twitter page in which he describes himself as the “Co-Founder/CEO – Terribly Tiny Tales”, which gives credence to the above.

  1. As such, Terribly Tiny Tales also seem to have a distinct style of white text on a black background, but they have often deviated from that style for collaborations with various websites or for particular topics. This can be seen on their website under collaborations.
  2. On the topic of curation, Terribly Tiny Tales had this to say, to one of the commenters on their website:curationttt
  3. In fact, there are a lot of people who openly poke fun at this trend. One example is Stand-up comedian Sahil Shah who often shares “terribly tatti tales”, like this one.
  4. Perhaps getting feedback from others does not make too much sense in the case of micro fiction, as the amount of words used are too less, and it is not too easy to critique something that is meant to be interpreted in multiple ways. But I am open to more suggestions!

 

PC Build Blog- 2016

A month ago I built a new desktop computer for myself. I have been a PC enthusiast for years now. I’ve written a series of blog posts about the basics of getting into PC gaming before, and when my laptop began showing its age in terms of gaming performance, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and build my own PC all by myself without any help.

Parts and Justification

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Mandatory parts display “glamour shot”.

The first and in my opinion most interesting part, is finding out all the parts you need for your system. I decided that I wanted to build a no compromise 1080p gaming system. I got all my parts at micro center, a local electronics store. They had special labor day sale pricing at the time, and also matched prices with Newegg, which was really helpful, as I was able to buy all the parts that I needed, at an optimal price, without having to wait for them to arrive via mail. Another benefit was that I was able to check whether the CPU, motherboard and RAM could POST (Power On Self Test) at the store itself, and I could be sure that I didn’t have any components that were DOA. Here are the parts that I chose:

PCPartPicker part list / Price breakdown by merchant

Type Item Price
CPU Intel Core i5-6500 3.2GHz Quad-Core Processor $197.88 @ OutletPC
Motherboard Asus H170 PRO GAMING ATX LGA1151 Motherboard $117.98 @ Newegg
Memory EVGA SuperSC 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR4-2400 Memory
Storage Samsung 250GB 2.5″ Solid State Drive $72.99 @ SuperBiiz
Storage Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB 3.5″ 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive $49.49 @ OutletPC
Video Card EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB 6GB SC GAMING Video Card $259.99 @ B&H
Case Corsair 200R ATX Mid Tower Case $44.99 @ Newegg
Power Supply EVGA SuperNOVA G2 550W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular ATX Power Supply $82.98 @ Newegg
Operating System Microsoft Windows 10 Home OEM 64-bit $84.88 @ OutletPC
Monitor Samsung S24D300H 24.0″ 60Hz Monitor
Prices include shipping, taxes, rebates, and discounts
Total (before mail-in rebates) $956.18
Mail-in rebates -$45.00
Total $911.18

For my CPU, I decided to go with a non-overclockable variant of the i5. This allowed me to skip an aftermarket cooler for the build, and use the stock Intel cooler that came with the processor. I went for an H170 motherboard, as that kept costs down. A Z170 board would be overkill, as I’m not looking to overclock the system anyway. For storage I went with a 250GB SSD to store the Operating System (Windows 10 Professional) and some key programs, and a 1TB Hard Drive for the rest of my storage needs.

When it comes to gaming, the graphics card is one of the most important components which determines the overall gaming performance of your system. I had two choices for my intended 1080p goal- the Nvidia GTX 1060, or the Radeon RX 480. This was a tough decision because while the GTX 1060 beat the RX 480 in the benchmarks, the RX 480 has certain features that could lead to better gaming performance in the future. Features, like support for DX12, asynchronous compute and the Vulkan API that could lead to performance gains if developers took advantage of it. I decided to go with the former, because I’m most concerned with how the card performs in the present, and if I did choose the RX 480, the upgrade path would most probably be getting another one of those, and using them in Crossfire. Crossfire isn’t fully supported by all developers at the moment, and I’m not fully sold on that concept. I thought it would be better to go with a single card now, and swap it out for the single most powerful card I can get, in the future. Taking all of this into consideration, I went for the EVGA GTX 1060 SC edition, which is overclocked right out of the box and has 6GB of VRAM, has a small form factor, and was the most cost efficient variant of the 1060 that was available a the time.

For my power supply needs I went with a 550 W unit made by EVGA. For the case, I went with the Corsair 200R. I liked the minimalist look of the case, the great build quality and the front I/O that includes two USB 3.0 ports. These two parts in particular were something that addressed a greivance that I’ve had with pre-built PCs or ones assembled by third parties. They always skimped out on the power supply and case to keep costs down, going for substandard no-name components. The power supply is a key component, and getting a cheap power supply can lead to performance issues at best, and may cause damage to your system at worst. Finally, the monitor is a 24 inch 1920X1080 resolution Samsung monitor. Other peripherals included a Kailh blue switch mechanical keyboard, a wrist pad, a Steelseries Rival 100 gaming mouse, and a large desk mat.

Assembling the PC

Once I had all the parts, it was time to put them all together. This was the part I was most apprehensive about at first. Assembling a computer seemed like it would be a difficult and time consuming task that requires a lot of specialized tools. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. All I needed was a Phillips #2 head screwdriver, and some patience. I watched plenty of PC build video guides on YouTube to get an idea of best practices and some tips. I would recommend watching Carey Holzman’s videos, as he goes into a lot of detail and answers a lot of questions that others generally take for granted.

Once I verified that the key components did POST, I went about preparing the case. All the screws and bits required to assemble the PC were given inside the case itself, and the hard drives and SSDs didn’t need any tooling to be mounted on to the case. Mounting the drives onto the case was as simple as sliding them into the mounting points until a “click” sound was heard, that signified that they were in place. I fastened them onto the case using the provided screws just for good measure.

Installing the power supply was quite straightforward. I simply had to make sure the power supply was oriented correctly and then had to mount it on to the case.

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Possibly the most time consuming task was to install the motherboard on to the case. After I had installed the CPU with its fan, and the RAM on the motherboard, I had to put the motherboard’s IO shield in to the case. As it is a friction lock and not mounted by screws, it gets tricky at times. An improperly mounted IO shield could lead to certain ports not being properly accessible. Once the IO shield is mounted, you have to make sure that the holes on the motherboard align with the mounting points and standoffs on the case. Once they line up, you also have to make sure the ports on the motherboard line up with the IO shield.

I had to reinstall the IO shield a couple of times before it fit properly, but once it was properly installed, the rest of the process went quite smoothly. After aligning the motherboard, it was just a matter of using the proper screws to mount the motherboard on to the case.

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Installing the graphics card into the PCI slot was also quite simple.

 

Wiring and wire management is another key part of the building process. Although it is easy to route all the wires through the closest routing holes is easy, at times the easiest wire routing option was not the best one in terms of wire management. Thankfully the case provided ample routing holes to route the wires through, which helped spread out the wires rather than causing a giant mess. Wiring the case components required me to refer to the manual. Thankfully, all the wires were labeled. The wires to and from the power supply were also labeled and not reversible, so finding the right wires and the right orientation for the wires was quite simple. For the drives, the angled SATA cables were a godsend.

Installing the Operating System and Drivers

When I installed all the components and went into the UEFI/BIOS for the first time, I couldn’t find the USB drive as an option under boot devices. After messing around with all the options it was a hard restart that did the trick. Once the USB drive was detected, the Windows install went quite smoothly. I ran into another hiccup when I realized that I had to install all the drivers. I managed to use my laptop to download all the required drivers which included the drivers for the Ethernet and the graphics card, which I installed on to the PC using a flash drive.

To install the rest of the basic software, I used Ninite. It’s a great tool that lets you select the software you want, and creates a custom installer that installs all the software you want in one go. I decided to go with LibreOffice for my office suite, and Foxit Reader for reading PDFs. No flash player, no Java, no Adobe Reader.

I then tweaked my preferences for windows which included removing all the hideous app advertisements on the start menu. This video proved to be a great reference.

Final Thoughts

Building my own PC turned out to be a very fun experience, and when I was done assembling and configuring it, I was left wanting to do it all over again. I learned a lot, right from researching for parts, to troubleshooting while building the PC and installing the components. In many ways, the actual process of connecting the physical components was like building Lego- all the pieces were labeled and they fit together precisely. Some things like wire management required some thought. Thankfully, it was not too much of a hassle and the side panel didn’t require any excessive force to shut.

Building my own PC has always been a desire of mine for a long time, and I am glad I was able to put aside my apprehension and build one for myself, all by myself.

What the Indian Spice Box can tell us about optimal menu design

In my two years of living in the US and having to make Indian food for myself, I have learned the importance of the spice box. At first, cooking Indian food seems like a very daunting and labor intensive task. The oil that is used for tempering has to be heated to the right temperature, the spices have to be added in a particular order, and in precise amounts. In this scenario, having a box that contains the right spices at one place is the ideal solution.  As this article in the Boston Globe describes it:

“Timing is key in Indian cooking. Many recipes begin by heating oil first, then adding small amounts of spices in quick succession. The oil’s temperature has to be just right so mustard seeds pop, cumin seeds sizzle, and turmeric and red chile powders lose their raw edge without burning. The spice box is the most efficient and practical way of accessing the required spices easily: Open one lid and everything you need is right there.”

The spice box is a mainstay in every kitchen in every Indian household. The design is quite simple – a steel or wooden container (generally round) with smaller containers inside it. This simple design has been in use for generations, and it’s easy to see why. In its relative simplicity the spice box shows the importance of user-centered design.

The spice box holds the optimal amount of ingredients. The square or round box contains about seven inner containers, plus or minus two. Add more containers, and each individual container becomes too small, requiring frequent refilling. Too large, and there aren’t enough spices in the box, reducing its usefulness. The box was designed keeping the user and the aforementioned cooking process in mind, and that is one of the things that makes it such a great design.

The spice box is customizable. The user can add the spices of their choosing. Although some of the spices are common, there are certain differences in regional cooking styles, and the box allows the user to add the spices that they may require based on their preferences.

The spice box is easy to maintain. Replenishing ingredients is simple, and the frequency of replenishing the ingredients is not too much so as to dissuade the user from using the box.

What I like specifically about the round variants of the spice box, is that the shape both communicates and facilitates rotation- the user can move the inner containers around, or order them in a way that makes it easier to remember the order in which the ingredients are to be added. A square or rectangular box does not communicate or facilitate that as much, although I can see how even the rows and columns can help the user remember the order in which spices are to be added.

What struck me about the timelessness of the spice box design is that in many ways it is a triumph of user-centered design. It is a helpful to the user, and makes the task at hand, in this case cooking, easier by reducing cognitive load. One does not explicitly have to remember the order of adding ingredients- a quick glance at the box and the way the ingredients are ordered acts as a memory cue. It increases the ease of cooking, and the user does not have to read a manual, or remember complex steps before having to use it.

Imagine if someone were to design the spice box in today’s age- I would imagine designers and engineers getting carried away with the prospects, and potential affordances that modern technology brings. That would lead to “features” like a freshness indicator, a rotation device to hasten access to the spice you require, voice commands, recipe suggestions, and so on. It would have IoT connectivity options, a companion app, and perhaps even a crowd finding campaign. I digress.

While designing a menu based solution to a design problem, designers tend to get carried away with the design of the menu itself. The menu is meant to be a means to find the right tool or option to complete the task. It is thus imperative to understand the user’s workflow and identify potential breakdowns before adding design elements like micro-interactions. Of course, modern interfaces tend to have a multitude of features, and it is not always possible to make menus simplistic. But that’s not the point. The spice box isn’t just ubiquitous because it’s simple – it is because it was designed with the user’s needs and wants in mind.

The Ideal E-Reader User Interface

 

I recently got the new Kindle Paperwhite for a relative. Before I handed it over, I had the chance to use it for a few days. It uses a touch based interface on an e-paper display. However, there are no buttons and the interface is navigated entirely using the touch screen. After I handed the Kindle over, I also got a chance to go hands-on with an older variant. This used buttons for navigation. After using both, I felt like I should juxtapose both these experiences and talk about what in my opinion would be the ideal user experience when it comes to interacting with e-readers.

Feedback and Reliability

I personally felt that the older Kindle’s button based interface was much easier to use, and also much better in terms of user experience. As to why I feel like the experience is better, the answer is simple- physical buttons have certain affordances that a touch screen only system cannot provide. Affordances are aspects of an object’s design that suggest what you can do with it. This comes into play especially while using the page turn buttons that are mounted on the sides of the old Kindle. The buttons provide a tactile feedback that is reassuring. Tapping on a touch screen does not provide such feedback, unless there is a vibration or haptic feedback from the screen, which the new Kindle does not have. Another issue with the touch screen is that it is not as responsive as smartphones or tablets these days. Tapping to go to a new page does not work sometimes, and at times pages are skipped. The buttons not only provide reassurance and feedback, but they are also more reliable in this case, as the user can be sure that they have gone exactly one page ahead or behind based on the button pressed.

Faster Interaction

Another issue with the touch based interface on the new Kindle is that the navigation options are hidden by default in the “reading mode”. The top of the screen has to be tapped in order to access the navigation menu. In comparison, the old Kindle’s buttons are always out of the way of the screen, and are accessible at all times. This means that the button based UI has one less step when it comes to navigation. For example, if a user wants to navigate to the home screen, on the old kindle he/she just has to press the home button, while on the new Kindle they have to tap the top of the screen to make the navigation bar appear, then tap the home button to go to the home screen. This may seem like just one more step, but it can add up really fast in terms of user frustration.

One handed use

Side mounted buttons to turn pages on the old Kindle make it easier to use it with one hand. Having to tap the screen with one hand while holding the device in the other hinders and in many cases completely eliminates one handed usability. As this blog post says, one handed usability allows one free hand to eat popcorn or chips without leaving grease on the screen, for example.

On the flipside

Buttons do have disadvantages though. They might add to the overall expense of the device. As they are physical objects, they are subject to wear and tear over time. They also add to the overall bulk of the device and may be undesirable for people who value sleekness of the design over ease of use.

The best of both worlds

With the exclusively touch based interface of the new Kindle, Amazon seems to have decided to go button-free for the future. There is a way where both approaches can coexist. Amazon could include Bluetooth connectivity with the next Kindle. This opens up the possibilities of connecting keyboards and other devices to the Kindle and allow the users to use a button based navigation over the touch screen. A Bluetooth enabled case that adds the side mounted page turn buttons would be a great idea. Allowing the user to choose their preferred way of interacting with the device would be the best pro-consumer way to make sure Amazon can retain their sleek button-free design without un-solving a problem that was solved by the buttons in the first place.

 

Microwave Ovens, product design, and human factors

I recently got a new microwave oven in my apartment after the old unit gave up the ghost. I wasn’t a big fan of how terrible the controls were on that thing, and the newer “better” model has an even worse interface. I began reading up on this online, and I saw some very good points being raised in various discussions.

First I came across the post “Why do most microwaves have such a terrible user interface?“. It does a good job of stating the problem. To summarize:

  • Most microwave ovens have too many buttons on them
  • These buttons have little to no tactile feedback
  • As a result, microwaves are difficult to use quickly

The blog post gives plenty of examples of good and bad user interfaces, which I suggest you should look at. The blog seems to suggest that the old system of having analog dials was much more elegant and simple. I also agree with the fact that a lot of the buttons on microwave ovens these days are superfluous and the most frequently used functions are very few. The writers argue that the rotary dials solve the problems of too many features confusing the user, and the lack of tactile feedback.

2015-11-17

I only use 5 of the 25 buttons on this panel.

A valid counter-argument towards having few buttons and/or dials, is that while they make the interface more simple and elegant, it may come at the cost of appearing to be too simple. “What if the user does not buy the product, if he/she perceives the product as not having as many features as the other microwave ovens out there?”. That is, feature discover-ability. Marketing teams and Engineers come up with and implement various ideas, to make their product seem unique, as they are all vying for the attention of prospective customers.

Another point to be noted, is that there is often a difference between what a user says they want, versus what they actually look for while buying a product. Sure, people may say that they prefer to have simple and elegant user interfaces for their appliances, but when it comes to making a purchasing decision, they will surely look at the different features that every product has to offer.

The argument that dials are better than buttons itself needs to be examined as well. Let’s take the example of microwave popcorn. A microwave oven may have a popcorn button, or it may have just a rotary dial. Microwaves vary in power levels and specifications, and there’s no set standard when it comes to how long it may take for your particular oven to properly heat the bag of popcorn without burning it. More often than not, this leaves the user with the option of trial and error. One or two bags of popcorn may have to be sacrificed before the user understands the time their particular microwave takes to heat a bag of popcorn.

So, the popcorn button isn’t exactly reliable. But what about the dial? Suppose the user wants to heat the bag for 90 seconds, but the dial does not allow finer grained time settings, that restricts user choice. The user is left with performing extra operations like constantly monitoring the time elapsed, and stopping the oven at a particular instant manually, supposing that a manual stop function is available.

There are clearly some important discussions that come up from this:

  • Simplicity of Controls vs Discover-ability of features
  • Simplicity vs Functionality

The blog post titled “A Lesson in Control Simplicity” has a great comment thread about these discussions.

To summarize, there seem to be too many steps involved while using a microwave oven these days, which makes one think that perhaps a simpler approach is what’s required. The buttons are flat, and give no feedback whatsoever. A dial seems to be very simple, but it may over-simplify.

flow_man_machine

The Human-Machine interface. How much should the user do, and how much should the machine do? That’s the important consideration in every case.

Perhaps there’s a need to put more thought into it. Maybe we shouldn’t try to design a microwave oven interface that does absolutely everything for the user. To go back to the popcorn example, most people just hear for when the popping slows down, to turn off the oven. It’s not all bad to involve the user here. What if the user was just given the option to start, stop, and set a particular cooking time, and for flexibility, an add 30 second button.

The microwave oven made me think quite a bit about the factors that influence modern interface design. There’s a marketing side, an engineering side, and a design side. Clearly, there needs to be a significant human factors side as well.

Person with painted hands

Peeple, Self Presentation and Redefining “Weak Ties”

Peeple is an app that’s been in the news recently. It’s an app that would let people rate other people, publicly. There has been quite a bit of outrage about it on the internet, because of what it stands for, and the potential of disastrous things happening to people and their reputations. Let’s peel back some of the layers and try to see the implications of this concept.

What is Peeple

Peeple as I mentioned before is an app that would let you post reviews and rate other people that you know. You can post about others, and others can post about you. Just about anyone that knows you, your neighbor, colleague, etc. could simply give you a rating and write a review about you, like you would on Yelp.

You cannot opt out of this, meaning that if someone decides to post a review about you, it will be on the system. On the other hand, you would get 48 hours to contest any review that you have received.

And the internet responded

There has been considerable backlash on the internet over this app idea. (Not to mention they stole the branding of another legitimate business.) When it comes to presentation of self, nobody wants other people to control it. Our self image is something we are very conscious of, and we take immense care to maintain a particular public image. This image changes based on the context, or group of people as well. There are a lot of dynamics involved in social communication.

Presentation of Self in the age of Social Media

These days, most of us have profiles on numerous social networking websites. We use them to connect and communicate with other people, but that is a secondary purpose. The primary reason for these profiles to exist is to “claim your name”, to project an image of oneself on the web, via posts, communications, messages and so on. We connect with other people, and affiliate with groups and other such entities as a statement of intent. On a surface level, it is a communication platform. But beyond that, it is a means of generating and projecting a certain image of yourself on to others.

To this end, we are often careful of what we post, what we “like”, what we share, and with whom. We delete or modify posts in order to keep a certain image intact. We carefully curate our profiles, to varying degree. Some people take this more seriously than others, of course. But at some level, this curation of social profiles takes place.

Weak ties and Networking

Another purpose of social media is to create and maintain “Weak Ties” – as the name suggests, these are acquaintances, friends, etc. that are not “close friends” or family, etc. but are affiliated to you, often via other people. Friends of friends, acquaintances, people you’ve met at social events and so on, that you may not really know a lot about, but have heard of or met a few times. The “friend” metaphor on Facebook lost it’s significance a while ago, in this regard. We “friend” so many people on Facebook at times, that it is generally more like an extended network of people. Even LinkedIn is a connection based social network, which directly uses such metaphors as first second and third connections.

The significance of weak ties is that they are often very useful when it comes to gaining professional opportunities, or being a part of social and cultural events. Even more so than strong ties. The more people you know, the easier it is for you to “get things done”, so to speak. That’s why there are so many networking events and meetups where people meet new people and get acquainted with people for professional or personal reasons.

Peeple as a threat to Weak Ties and Self Presentation

Of course, the concept of a People rating app has obvious negative connotations. Most importantly, people that do not like you would be free to post negative reviews about you. People who are in competition to you might use it as a means to slander. Personal attacks could gain an even more potent dimension.

As I mentioned before, people spend a lot of time maintaining and worrying about their self image. The Peeple app would mean losing control over this deeply personal component of social engagement. There would be some that like the idea of things being thrown into chaos, and the added layer of tension that the proliferation of such apps would bring into society.

In the professional world, this may not seem to have a direct impact, however it may come up in employee and candidate background checks.

Creating new “weak ties” could thus become very difficult for people if there are certain ideological or preferential differences between people that would not have mattered if not disclosed. If your “character” defined by a star rating becomes public knowledge, it could lead to losing out on networking opportunities.

Peeple as an opportunity

As all of us have learned how to make social media work for us when it comes to presenting ourselves to the world, in time, people could also find ways to leverage apps like this for their own benefit. Tacit agreements between people regarding reviews is one way. Using these apps to heap praise onto prospective employers or other groups to influence their decisions could also be possible. This app could also be, therefore, assimilated into the pool of ways in which you project your own self image. Today we curate social profiles to create a self image, maybe in a future where these apps exist, we would have to curate these profiles through other people. People who know how to influence others directly or indirectly could use tacit agreements or discussions to mitigate the negative effects of any “bad reviews”. For example, if someone posts a bad review about you, you could ask someone to counter it by posting a good review, or posting a counter-review on the other profile. Perhaps, a reply to the negative review with some context, and leaving the viewer of the profile to make conclusions.

This is the side that the co-founders of the company would want us to see- a means of getting feedback from people you know, so that you can improve upon it and be the “best person you can be”. I personally don’t buy it, because it’s a pathetically simplistic solution to a complex topic of social interactions, which is inherently nuanced and contextual in nature.

Of course, this could get very messy very fast. This does have a “he-said-she-said” feel to it, kind of like some kind of high-school drama. If apps like Peeple do get into the collective mind-space of society, there would have to be tacit agreements as I mentioned before, not to use such applications. People could decide not to use this app, or to disregard any reviews left on them.

The idea of the Peeple app is inherently invasive. It could lead to proliferation of gender biases, race biases, and so on. It could lead to creation of inequality – an “elite” class and a “lower” class separated by their star ratings. It goes against the very fabric of modern civilization – the fact that there are certain unspoken rules, often called the social contract. A part of me really hopes people don’t fall for this obviously terrible idea of reducing a person to a number value, but another part of me is really intrigued to see how society would adapt and react to this if it were ever to see the light of day.