18 March 2011

...change given

Imagine a world where all vending and ticketing machines were born equal, whatever their shape or size. A world in which the opportunity to perform their task was on a level playing field where any denomination of banknote or coinage was either spent or re-pocketed not by mistake but by rational choice of the user. A world in which every owner of these machines can confidently claim - and know to be one hundred percent true - the catchphrase 'Money goes in, Service comes out'. You may think I'm crazy. A maverick. A silly heart. A utopian fantasist. But this, comrades, is a dream. My dream. Dream no. 47, on a dream list which exists only as a dream itself, to act as the rather wordy and pompous catalyst to tell you how putting money in a slot has become a more usable experience. For a handful of Brightonians. Who drive cars.

So here's the original You May Also Like entry. For those who like nutshells and their contents, the abridged version goes like this:

Brighton City College had a ticket entry machine with some confusing instructions which looked like this:

And I suggested it may help if it looked like this:

Well, I've been back recently and was pleased to discover it's been updated and now looks like this:

Very very close to the labelling and information hierarchy I suggested, which I firmly believe will help people park more successfully.

So, a small victory for usability, and something - should I obtain access to a time machine - I can take with me as I travel back to 1984 and say to me as a kid "Keep drawing volcanoes son (make sure you don't colour over the lines). You don't know it yet, but all this colouring in will one day mean some people will be able to leave their car for a couple of hours without getting a parking ticket".

And with that, my work here is done ... puff of smoke. *cough*

15 March 2011

...compact discs

I had a nice reminder of the beauty of simplicity at the weekend at my parent's surprise golden wedding celebration. A digital slide projector had been set up to carousel through collected photographic memories, and I was asked to get it working. I'd never touched one of these things before, and the guests of honour were arriving in minutes, but all I needed to do was plug in the memory stick full of JPGs, and ... oh dear - the menu system was rather maze-like. After some panicked button bashing, I was pointed to a neat little laminated A4 instruction sheet created, by the owner, to handle the most common scenario: this one (except showing diagrams and spreadsheets rather than snaps of marital bliss). Content aside, it worked a treat and I was thankful for the homemade quickstart guide as the photos rolled on.

A little later on, the slide show needed to be turned off for twenty minutes whilst the band played, so I was summoned. No quickstop guide this time, just more fiddling around with buttons, nested menu screens and the like. "I don't want to turn it off, I just want it to pause!"

Enter band member Pete. "Why don't you just put something in front of the lens?"

So with that, the problem was solved the good old fashioned analogue way, with a CD case propped up to 'hide' the projection.

It was a nice reminder how we don't always need to hunt for the solution if the simplest fix is at hand, regardless of the delivery method. I know I've been guilty of relying on mobile Google maps when a 'just ask' would suffice, or promising to email a hex number when a quick pen on paper note would be quicker. Technology's getting ever-more useful and (arguably) easier to use, but we should remember simplicity and sensibility when we're problem solving, just like I didn't, but wished I had.

Today we learned:
One day, CDs will be gone, and you can't prop up an MP3 in front of a slide show.

07 March 2011

...gate pride

Site gates are great. Pure 'form follows function'. In fact, it's function where form didn't even bother to follow, it stayed in bed and watched The Jeremy Kyle Show (it doesn't get up for less than its day rate). These gates are the perfect emblem of budget constraints, and what can be achieved with a tiny bottom line.

Development in the natural world relies in taking the most from the least, by travelling the shortest distance, by expending the least energy. Behind these functional closed doors lies the heart of a project where the rest of the money's been spent, so these gates need to work to the same laws of nature and perform as the definition of a gate, nothing more, but also nothing less. To protect the rest of the project (both in the budgetary and security sense) and to work to best to their ability, they must be durable enough to withstand constant use and the elements, and secure enough to keep out the riff raff. Because they do the job so well, they command the respect that a rococo door just doesn't for this application. Therefore the viewer is asked to think about a new layer of aesthetics that goes beyond attractive by visual definition.

In your face ornate wrought iron gate. In. Your. Face.

04 March 2011

...designer labels

Behind the scenes at the The Art Café, local establishment of the The Artist and the Tartist,  I stumbled upon a nice little bit of human interface design which, out of function and familiarity, is just another piece of the furniture, but deserves some recognition. It's a bank of switches which control the whole shop's lighting. The location of the switches means the person operating them is unable to see every light turning on in the shop, so without the obvious visual feedback, you wouldn't know which switch operates which light. With 18 buttons all told, it's quite a few to navigate in the dark. However, somebody has already sorted this out, and the switches are helpfully labelled, so anyone can grasp the controls - from a first day starter to a seasoned five-years-in-service employee.

Whether the person labelling the switches was conscious of it or not, they created the labels with information architecture as a guiding principal, using two different mediums to assist clarity of hierarchy; pen-on-paper stickers and Dymo tape.

The label created with the Dymo (nowadays called a Dymo Omega, but for the sake of this piece, I'll use the colloquial 'Dymo') acts as the category marker. Any light that lives either as an Inside Shop Light or as a Main Window Light is marked as such by living beneath the label. The pen-on-paper sticker labels the subcategory, pinpointing individual lights and also handles some instruction - there's three lights to be left on front of shop, and the user is aware.

I could see that these labels had been there a while, and personally knowing some of the premises history (from clothes shop, to book shop, to present day Art Cafe) my educated guess puts the labelling at one or two decades old, or quite possibly more. So the system - time proves - works, and Design is the catalyst. I propose this is in large part down to the Dymo.

There's something special about this traditional label maker, the way it permanently embosses information onto the self adhesive plastic. It empowers the user to create whatever naming label, cataloguing tag or pithy message they desire. But maybe more interestingly, it's a device which asks the user to think in order to operate it. You think about using the intuitive controls. You think about what words to create. But the crux of the process is you think about getting it right. There's no backspace or correction fluid to amend a mistake. You could use scissors to cut and paste erroneous letters, but that defeats the object of its purpose - to make labelling a breeze. Instead, you have to sit there and consider the purpose of the label you're about to create. Let's head to a domestic setting.

Christopher Walken is at his kitchen table, in his shorts, with a glass of lemonade and a Dymo:

"Okay, I need to label this Jar of flower - NO, i mean Flour. Must get that right. Let's see, what flour is it ... It's white flour, not wholemeal. But I NEVER use wholemeal and I'm the only person who bakes in this goddamn house. But I do often use Self-raising Flour. You know what, I'll be helping myself out if this jar's labelled Plain Flower - no wait - Flour ... Gosh! Must get that right. One shot, Christopher. ONE shot".

Christopher Walken is presented a task to perform with the very real possibility of making a mistake. If it's within his control and in his own interest to not make that mistake, he will take caution in his actions. He will work out the most appropriate solution to the task at hand. In this case, by knowing the advantages and pitfalls of using a Dymo and by figuring out the best semantics for his label, he'll create a useful item which will improve his environment. In short, Christopher Walken will design.

Whether used by a kid to name their text books, a DIY enthusiast to label her tins, a dad marking his flask (people STILL do this), or even the world's third favourite character actor making baking easier, the Dymo is a tool of design for everybody. An advocate of clarity and a positive, problem solving machine which makes people engage in creative thought. And for that, I salute it. And so does Chris (I get to call him that).