07 November 2011

...being instructed without being instructed

Instructions are a drag. Nobody reads them. Realistically, they're a last resort. Whether it's a new microwave, smartphone or videogame, the best way to get people to use the damn thing straight out of the box without any hair being pulled out is to make the process:

1: Simple
2: Intuitive
3: Discoverable

And for bonus points:

4: Delightful

If i've just bought a new microwave and I can't heat my sponge pudding within five minutes of plugging it in, I'll be sad and hungry. Give me some simple dials that denote 'time' and 'power'  and I will happily know exactly what these mean, given that they directly correspond to the heating instructions on the back of the packet. If you don't give me these, give me some clear iconography - semiotically understandable so I can jolly well start heating. If I find myself in front of a dial sporting a graphic with which I've no prior experience, allow me to discover its function painlessly - discovery is a rewarding experience, which in turn creates satisfaction. Throw in a 'delighter' - say a good old-fashioned analogue 'ting' rather than the digital beep of the surly robot meal generator - and you're on to a winner, and I'm on to my pudding.

Recently I saw something excellent. My favourite teeny weeny bit of design I've seen for ages. An instructions killer which, if it already exists, I've never personally experienced it before.

Everyone's hooted and tweeted about the Being Henry campaign for Range Rover Evoque, and rightly so. It's a quite beguiling and seamless piece of brand engagement with the sort of rabbit warrens it's a pleasure to spend time down. The campaign is quite straightforward stuff, guiding a guy called Henry throughout his day by making this-or-that choices for him at pivotal moments in the story. You get to act like a God. A God that manages to have time to spend messing about on the internet when He/She has better things to do. But a God nonetheless.

The crux of the interaction within the Henry experience lies not in the user clicking choices presented to them, but rather dragging Henry either left or right in the direction of his next adventure. This action of dragging isn't remarkable or unique (I've worked on an interactive piece myself which used a similar device) but the way the user is introduced to it is clever. Really clever.

Before the user reaches the main bit of Being Henry they face the usual language select gateway. With any other campaign, this is just another fait accompli before the main experience. But in this case, an otherwise dull screen becomes a neat little tutorial without the user even realising they've been tutorialised. Rather than click your language, you drag a slider left or right until your language slots into place. Before you've even started, you're familiar with the navigational mechanism ahead.

For such a little nudge it reaps big rewards. It's simple, it's intuitive, it's discovery. The endeavour of choosing a language may not be the most delightful experience itself, but the invisible goings-on this one action provides at the outset will get users engaged quicker and, with more satisfaction than a page of old waffle about putting tab A into slot B.

Whether or not this delight will register with users is unimportant. An intelligent piece of holistic design has oriented the user and laid the foundations for a piece of excellent user experience.

05 August 2011


Hey you square. I know you're the type who's far too busy to car-jack an old lady, stave off a gang of marauding undead or collect stickers bouncing across a patchwork landscape, but take five minutes to read this and you'll soon see how play is absolutely everywhere in your day and completely, unashamedly unavoidable. Even YOU, the most buttoned-down of all people, the one with the least time for childish fripperies but the most time for hard work, at some point during your day, will get involved in play (and I'm not talking about an illicit bit of Farmville at lunch).

The recent launch of Google+ awoke my halcyon era (#sarcasm) memories of 2007 when everyone clambered aboard the Facebook steam roller as it headed out of town, crushing MySpace, Bebo and any other chubby social network not nimble enough to adapt or step aside. In its infancy, before all the extra features evolved - the apps and widgets we associate with modern Facebook - adding friends was a massive factor of what made Facebook addictive. Who can I get next? How high can I get my numbers? Can I get more friends than my mate Ian? It was the acceptable face of collecting football stickers in the playground, except the rules of engagement meant you had to actually be OUT of the playground to legally take part - 16 years or over. For those who outgrew such childish pursuits the moment things morphed, dropped and broke in the night, it was a welcome invite to play. A common gaming trope emerged: Collecting.

As I started adding Friends, Acquaintances and Stalkers to Google+ I soon figured out, with absolutely nothing happening on Streams, adding to my Friends, Acquaintances and Stalkers is, like Facebook before, the most addictive thing about the new social platform. Google+ may be an empty aircraft hangar for most people right now, but the collecting - the gaming element - will drive it forward until it does everything Facebook does, but without the obtuse interface.

In our everyday lives when carrying out work or performing the most mundane of tasks, we engage in micro-games often without realising, either competing against others or oneself. For example, at work I'm writing this piece. I have other things to do. In fact, I have three things on my plate which need immediate attention. But for now I continue to write knowing full well I need to get on with the other jobs. I'm in the throes of time management. My immediate world shows a countdown clock in the corner and I'm halfway through my allotted segment of time before it runs out. My task is to complete this piece or I risk failure to move on to the next task. A common gaming trope emerges: Trial.

You can see where I'm going with this already.

It's like we're hardwired from birth to get the most out of life from play, even when there's work involved; the classic 'see how quick you can pack your toys away' never rang so true. So why stop when we reach adulthood if play can be conducive to a both a productive and positive head state when going about our business? I'm not just talking about tacking a metaphor of games onto our lives, but rather to understand and accept that play is an inherent part of a day-to-day existence. Ever stuck the kettle on in the kitchen and raced it against toasting some bread? (Challenge). Or guesstimated the amount of footsteps to WHSmith? (Puzzle). It's okay. We all have. In fact, I've categorised a shortlist (Collecting) of the 'mungames' which I often play. See if they match any of yours (Challenge).

  • Holding the petrol pump on full and stopping EXACTLY on the amount you want to spend. (Skill)
  • Hoarding £2 coins in a jam jar (Collecting)
  • Blowing fifty £2 coins on treats (Reward)
  • Catching a spider under a glass (Skill)
  • Carrying more than three drinks at once in a pub (Trial)
  • Peeling off sticky labels without tearing or leaving residue (Skill)
  • Boarding a bus/train moments before it leaves (Achievement)
  • Stacking washing up on the draining board (Puzzle)
  • Parallel parking (Trial)
  • Searching for the damn keys (Discovery)

As the human race goes, we didn't get to where we are without competition. It's the catalyst which moves things forward and is at the heart of gaming. So you see, play is unavoidable. Next time you're up against it at work, and you're worried about facing the end-of-level boss with a spreadsheet which looks authored by Duke Nukem, don't worry. There'll be a brilliant cheat you can Google, download and submit as your own before holing up in the kitchen for a coffee (Powerup). If your boss accuses you of playing games, say yes. Yes I have. It's only human (Level up).

01 August 2011

...Now In Lemon

Excitement is like a wheelbarrow. It has one wheel and two handles.


Excitement is like a stretcher. It has a paramedic either end.

No. Still not right.

Excitement is like a rip tide. You can get carried away in it.

Yes. Let's go with that.

With an excitement borne from the impending delivery of a new fanzine, I eagerly pledged to write a piece on it, a review if you will. Dead excited I was. Rubbing hands together excited. Now I sit here, on the bus, the fanzine under my arm, still very excited but also unsure of what to say or where to begin. Apart from this preamble, I mean, where do I start? At page one? Yes. That's a start. Page one.

So I've been sent the first edition of a new fanzine and straight out of the block it's wrongfooted me, all dressed in blue but called 'Now In Lemon'. Already I know we'll be pals. Like all good fanzines, it delivers what the fans want: lo-fi, free badge, served in an earthy brown envelope. It pushes all the right buttons in making NME fanboy nostalgia ping the corners of my eyes.

At this point, I should lay my cards on the table, just in case I want to make a future bid for BSkyB. Someone who sits not six feet away from me at work is one of two people behind the project. A talent. A fellow designer. A friend. Hence my alacrity, then apprehension, at fulfilling my own hurried brief of attempting a nonpartisan review.

Hello, and welcome back to part two of this Now In Lemon special review. Coming up: The goings-on of camo-clad Ross Kemp; meta ghosts; fur and mortality; crusifixations; and the number 23. But first we speak to Will Weaver about this snazzy new cottage industry paper, and ask What do you really think about this fanzine?

What do I really think? To be honest, I don't want to spoil anything. Part of Now In Lemon's charm is the surprise, so I can only impart my obfuscated opinion. What I can say is this...

The reader is taken from absurd to very funny to unnerving from the turn of each page. It's a project publication, so you get the makers' heart right there on the page, in ink which appears to be hanging on to the A5 sheet for dear life. A lovely honesty emerges, helped in part by Footprint, the co-op printer of this old-school analogue format sympathetic to the tone of the ideas and art. In turn, a certain fuzzy warmth encircles the whole zine which would otherwise be compromised filtered through the cold, harsh VGA display of an onscreen blog.

A well metered observation of the human soul via black ink and earnest paper stock, Now In Lemon is a brief visit which never outstays its welcome but rather, didn't stop long enough. Looking forward to issue 2 already.

Get it here: nowinlemon.com

28 July 2011

27 July 2011

...a mystery

21 July 2011

...Julian Koenig

If you can't tell a good story, nobody's going to listen. So if your job is grabbing the attention of millions, you'd be forgiven for making everything sound flipping awesome. Something cover star of the latest It's Nice That has no trouble with; George Lois - self professed saviour of both Esquire Magazine and MTV and all-round purveyor of hot shit advertising. He's a captivating voice alright, and as the editorial preface of issue 6 recognises (in more eloquent prose than my own), the colours of a bent truth are often more engaging than the black and white of fact. But like all great stories, there's often more to articulate anecdotal gymnastics than meets the eyes, ears, nose and throat (one for all the doctors in the house).

If you're 'in the business' or enjoy US-centric podcasts, chances are you're already on this like stink on a monkey. Reading the piece on Lois reminded me of a rather fantastic episode of This American Life #383 - Origin Story, in which a second player in the legendary 'Mad Men' period of advertising, Julian Koenig, is given a well-earned place in the spotlight, revealing his important but often overlooked part in the story. It's an amazing listen. I've already said enough.

Download the podcast from iTunes or This American Life's website. And if you're feeling generous, donate here to continue This American's long Life.

20 July 2011

14 July 2011

...Comic Sans

Comic Sans is a funny old typeface isn't it? Throwing grown designers into fits of rage from its mere mention, whilst aunts make 'fun' barbecue invites and feel good about themselves, empowered by the act of design. There are many many many many websites, books, articles, and opinions which cover the subject of Comic Sans in far greater and articulate detail than I have pith for, so I'll present my case and quickly go away.

Oh look over there - a hornet's nest!

I've got nothing against Comic Sans. I used to. I once made a bunch of stickers reading Destroy Comic Sans. I'd slap them on anything that would, my goodness, DARE adorn this DISGUSTING typeface. B.L.E.U.R.G.H! I now feels it was just a little posturing from a younger me wanting to show my design talent, threatened by your aunt's ability to create her own invites advertising her alfresco steak-grilling talent.

I understand the myriad reasons why Connare's typeface is so very hated: it's a Microsoft system font; its colour is a terrible mess; it's horribly misused, to name just three. But instead of letting these things bother me, I've accepted there's very little I, you or even we can do about its proliferation. We can argue and debate in circles until our pointing fingers adopt rigor mortis, but there are far more type culprits out there with bad kerning and ridiculous ligatures to get het up about.

So now when I see Comic Sans, it makes me smile. Not for the reasons that so many people who use it may think it does, but because it triggers fellow designers to get very cross and lose their shit for five excellent minutes. Funny thing is, I probably agree with nearly all that's getting blurted out, but the cantankerous old man inside is thoroughly enjoying himself whilst the typographical shorthand for bad design argument unfolds before me.

So, if you're interested, here's some loose rules-of-thumb to help overcome the Comic Sans rage:
  1. accept it brings joy and personal empowerment to a lorra lorra people
  2. realise it's not the font's fault, but the 'designer' using it
  3. know that without it, graphic designers would need another face to lambast and from which feel joy and personal empowerment
  4. be thankful Apple's Sand never got a foothold
  5. enjoy its constant middle finger to our community

Linked from the bancomicsans.com site, I saw an interesting Kickstarter project for a Comic Sans documentary by Scott Hutcheson. The teaser trailer states "No pleasure can be derived from using Comic Sans". Well… Just two weeks ago I spotted a plaque embedded in the pavement along Torquay's Princess Gardens. The designer had used Comic Sans, inset in solid bronze. Bronze. That's around for decades. Maybe centuries. Hahahahahaha!

The pleasure's all mine.

11 July 2011

02 June 2011

...post it note

If you were to stick a stamp on a five pound note and drop it in the post box addressed to somebody, what would happen?

Curiosity, if it hasn't already killed the cat, also enjoys walking the dog somewhere new and exciting. The threat of feline death often nips creativity in the bud, but not on this occasion. After passing a post box on a journey into town, my mum Pixie popped a cap in conventional proverbs and let her imagination run away with her. The only way to find out the answer to the 'fiver-in-the-post' question was to do it.

A straw poll of family and friends had the outcome divided, with honesty prevailing on one side, and the worst of human nature five pounds better off on the other. Pixie's creative process involved a small revision of the existing plan. Instead of 'vandalising' a Bank of England note with address and sticky stamp, she would place the fiver inside a transparent envelope. Money in plain sight.

First class and dropped straight in the box, she sent three in total: one to my nephew Jack in Norwich; one to my niece Chloe in London; and one to me in Eastbourne. A handful of people thought she'd lost the plot, others thought it was pretty cool, whilst I sat in wait, maybe a little bit TOO excited by the experiment.

Do you like a gamble? I know I do. We know Pixie certainly does (in fact, my mum asked that if the money turns up, I should buy a scratchcard with it). But would you place £15 on seeing the best in human nature, like my mum has? Or would you bet a person wouldn't steal it from fear of being caught? It's a curious proposition. Even if the package turns up safe and sound, we'll never know what drove the cash along or whose hands moved it through the Royal Mail delivery network. Maybe a similar sense of fun and curiosity could help it on its journey...

Then guess what?

It arrived. They all arrived. In Norwich, London and Eastbourne. All intact and un-tampered with. Except mine. Royal Mail had placed the envelope in one of their own transparent bags, made for when post has been damaged and they want to keep the contents safe.

 It's a little clue as to how staff considered this strange delivery, by acknowledging the best and the worst in people. Basically, We know what's going on here. We'll do our BEST to prevent the WORST. So with the package dropping on the doormat, the worst was indeed prevented, and hopefully, my mum's curiosity satiated, before she starts distributing fifties to every member of an alarmingly big family.

Fun whilst it lasted, now I can go off and get that scratchcard. I bet £5 I don't win.

...eating for two

01 June 2011

...the power of copy

Check out the back of this cereal box. I was enjoying a bowl of Weetabix as the day began and, reading its packaging, was reminded how a little bit of copywriting can go a long way in helping people understand what a product is doing without actually telling you what a product is doing.

What Weetabix want to tell me this morning is they're supporting local farmers. The trouble is, anyone in the UK could be reading the box right now, and locality is a relevant thing. So instead of putting themselves in a tight spot, some marvellously marvelistical words are crafted into positively positive, rustic sentences, to make us feel like we're helping our beleaguered farming brothers just down the road, over there, by the oast house. This Weetabix tastes nice and God, I feel really good about myself.

Just a few questions and I'll be on my way.

Where are the farmers local to?
Where is Weetabix country?
Where is the heart of England?
Would I feel as empowered as a citizen that 'thinks global, acts local' if I thought the cereal I eat was 'British' rather than 'local'?

20 May 2011

...CMYK processing stuff

...shining a light on Dark Patterns

Dark Patterns, if you're unfamiliar with the term, are anti-usability practices which harness UI design in a purposefully unfriendly way to trick and coerce web users into doing things they don't want to. For example, hiding marketing opt-out checkboxes behind double-speak, or subscription services which are simple to sign up for, but difficult to cancel. These manipulative practices are tarred and feathered in enlightening detail at DarkPatterns.org, thanks to User Experience Designer Harry Brignull. He's behind the movement and is helping consumers, designers and the like get empowered with case study evidence. Big companies who should - and DO - know better, are petting, smoking and bombing in the deep end of the pool and Harry's got the whistle.

At this point, I'd like to thank Harry for his skillz and insight which help write this piece. I'd also like to warn you, dear reader, that this is a less pithy post than usual, so you may want to take this opportunity to make yourself a nice cup of tea or perhaps some squash, before settling down. And, taking the advice of my old English teacher, I'll try not to be flippant.

When Dark Patterns occur in an online interface, they're relatively easy to map due to their outward facing nature; anyone with a web browser has the opportunity to experience the same issue. Dark Pattern practices can also rear their ugly head in emails. But due to the individually tailored nature of delivery to users, there are variables which cannot be assumed to be universal: someone who receives a newsletter may have opted out of certain alert services; servers may delay the receipt of an email; pertinent images may not be displayed or blocked, and so on. Emails are, in essence, a two way conversation. However, when cynical themes reveal themselves within the contents of an email, and if one can suppose are part of a blanket mailshot, it's worth flagging up these dubious activities, documenting them, and placing them on the naughty step.

Hands up who uses gas or electricity? That's nearly the whole room. Hands up who has EDF Energy as their utility supplier? Okay, so a few of you may feel my pain. Let me explain...

I'm an EDF Energy customer who chooses to receive paper bills through the post. I can keep track of them easier this way, making sure I'm being billed the correct amount whilst having a tangible reminder in my hand - they are 'pushed' to me. I like the simplicity. It's convenient. But EDF have different ideas. They want to 'pull' my bills, that is, for me to access them online - you know, 'paperless billing'.

So, as part of their drive to make the billing of their services more 'flexible', EDF offered online account management, sending an email to me as a customer already taking part in their online self meter-reading scheme. (With this scheme, the customer receives an email alerting them it's time to login using their unique energy account number to submit a meter reading). The email outlines the perceived benefits of paperless billing opposed to traditional paper bills and encourages the customer - or 'user' - to take up the offer.

Viewing the email in closer detail, it's found that the user has been automatically signed-up for paperless billing without being asked, with a prominent CTA (call to action) inviting the user to click through and register, thus completing the process. It's pledged that your account will be reverted back to its original state - paper billing - if you don't register by the given cutoff point 12 days later (15th March).

Of course you don't have to click and register, but whether you do something or do nothing, the onus is placed on the user; even by doing nothing, you still do something. As long as the user understands these rules of engagement, it's possible to refrain from any online account activity with EDF until that 'safe' cutoff date. But the forced positive is a sneaky way of hiding account conversion behind a smokescreen of convenience, using a similar technique to the Forced Continuity principal. Not wanting to be at the end of a possible Faraway Bill, something which can arise with pull notifications, I choose not to respond to the email.

I received a follow up email from EDF eight days later, 11th March - three days before the cutoff point when my account resumes normal service, and this is when things get interesting. (Remember, I am a paper billing customer who has chosen to not click through, login, or sign up, purposefully to avoid automatically having my account switched to a service I never requested). I'm being alerted that my bill is ready to view online, with a CTA link to take me there. The language used is suggestively very different than before; I'm now invited to 'login' to access my bill online, rather than the invitation to 'sign up' previously received.

Employing the Bait and Switch Dark Pattern and elements of Misdirection, there is nothing in this email acknowledging the aforementioned consequence of logging in - automatically accepting online account management and forfeiting your paper bills. The email's tone is friendly and inviting, again using convenience to coerce the user into clicking through. But the email also preys on the user's fear of consequence for not paying a bill. At this point in the communication, EDF will likely experience a spike in their paper-to-online billing conversion rate, a result of customers, such as myself, following the instruction of the email and unwittingly accepting the automatic sign up to paperless billing.

It's in EDF's interest to move customers to online billing. Paper bills are expensive to produce, and they'll have heavily invested budget and resources into their online account management tool. So it's hardly surprising they engage in such activities, taking advantage of habitual responses to interface conventions internet users have grown to trust.

I must admit, there's also an environmental issue in play here, and online billing goes a little way to help save resources. I can't ignore this. But one gets the feeling that the initiative is small potatoes baking in a multi-national energy supplier's furnace, adding brand value in a wider, more cynical agenda.

So where does this leave me? I didn't respond to the email. Over six weeks passed and I hadn't realised I'd not received my bill in the post. Cue phone call to EDF. A nice chap on the line told me I had been signed up for paperless billing. I explained that I hadn't requested this at all and was worried about the consequence of a payment which was well overdue. Please can I just have a bill posted to me like normal?

"Yes, no problem. I'll set you back up with paper billing now, you'll get your bill next week."

I feel completely manipulated.

I start writing this blog entry.

05 May 2011

...taking charge

Here's a riddle. Which of these two chargers is in the process of charging? The one with the red light which suggests - STOP! Do not unplug - CHARGING! Or the one with the green light which suggests GO! Proceed. Ready. Done. Charged. I give you the GREEN light to use this battery.

The answer is both. BOTH chargers are charging, although each has decided to tread their own semiotic path. The Canon uses years of hard-wired logic to stop you in your tracks, to caution you that it's not ready. To wait. To obey the STOP light; the red a signifier of danger, a deterrent. The Panasonic, however, uses its own special method of telling the user 'Hello, I'm working! Green for GO! I'm moving along here, charging this battery, and once I've stopped charging, I'll show you a red light, to say I've stopped, okay?'

I'd be the first to say the Panasonic has it wrong. But interestingly, as both chargers sat there, simultaneously grazing on electricity, I wasn't able to differentiate the state of each, their separate messages cancelling the other out. And I was in turn reminded of how whenever I use a battery charger - regardless of whether the light is red or green when in the process of charging - I'll ignore the light anyway;  taking the battery out and popping it back in again to get the status feedback I really want. This bypasses the long-winded process of finding the instruction book (wherever that may be) which should show me what light signifies what.

Here's an idea, to stop the doubt once-and-for-all: two lights and some clear semantics.

RED LIGHT: Charging

Problem solved (in Photoshop).

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 CafĂ©, 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).

27 February 2011

25 January 2011

24 January 2011

...my M&S hard-to-selection box

When eating a selection box of chocolates, isn't it nice to refer to the little menu card, or the picture on the side of the box, to let you know what you're about to sink your teeth into? They're fair warning - like those counterfeit pictures of moribund hot food above the checkout at your local fast food joint. So what do you do when you are gifted Marks & Spencer's The Big Selection? You play Russian roulette. And yes, the yellow to brown gamut - six separate varieties therein - contain the coffee and orange creams. Good luck with that.

11 January 2011

...parking ballet

Christmas, if nothing else, is two things; busy and over. It's the former which leads me on to my latest trip to user interface town, via the A27 and into Brighton City College car park. Or rather, nearly not.

I've parked in their Pay & Display car park many times before, and had interesting run-ins with the taciturn little pay box who was often too worthy to accept my pounds (its method for sizing misshapen coins was more accurate than a NASA micrometer, blithely rejecting at whim). So when I got to the barrier this Christmas, ready to park-and-shop, I was rather excited to be sidled up to a shiny, proud new entry machine ready to let me in.

There was a whole pile of cheaply printed ticker-tape plastered all over it, but like any user, I thought, 'I know how this works, DURH, thanks #sarcasm', and promptly started pumping in my coinage - only to be promptly rejected. One by one. Just like old times.

Of course, first impression was that it's broken. Second impression was it can't be. It's new. The stickers on it, however, held the clues. And by the state of their positioning, they really were more like clues than the intended instructions. It took a little de-constructing, but I got there in the end, made my entrance and parked up. I was surprised at how empty it was for Christmas - in contrast, the car park opposite had two queues for entry. But soon I understood why. I witnessed the next happy customer run the gauntlet with the new pay machine, their coins being rejected, and saw them give up, assuming it was broken. I went to tell them it was working, but they'd already driven off.

Dear reader, do you want to see why they drove away? Of course you do. Pretend you're in your Datsun Cherry, window wound down, Lady GaGa (ironic remix) playing on the stereo, coins in hand, and drive up to this...

If you didn't know where to look first or what to do next (apart from use instinct and start throwing coins in the slot) I'm hardly surprised. It's information overload. Many messages all jostling for your attention, with differing type treatments set at disparate point sizes. The machine is simply asking to be ignored. It's like the audience shouting at a contestant on The Generation Game, a cacophony of guidance drowned out by the collective hubub. It needs the game show host, one constant element of authority, to step in with a clear unequivocal message and help guide you on to the prize.

Messages need order for them to successfully convey the point they're making, and the more complex the message, the more room there is to fall over. Enter our friend information hierarchy.

You will have already met her. She puts large headings in newspapers, captions pictures, numbers pages, and helps you know what to read next. She also puts navigation at the top of a Amazon.com, and guides your eyes through a page of merchandise, the info about a product, and nudges you to an easily spotted 'Add to Cart' button. In fact, she's everywhere. When clear, she's helping us on our way up motorways, through airports, down shopping aisles, and on to parties. For example, the information hierarchy on a flyer for a party can be as simple as:

Gary's Awesome Party
6th June
Room7, Town Hall, Colchester

However, things can get trickier when Ms hierarchy isn't being totally clear. Lets go to a different party:

Fancy dress!
Marek's SURPRISE Pixel Party
MARIO BROS  s p e c i a l   g u e s t
7 til late, BRING BOOZE
8-10 Food served
RSVP to mark@email.com
T h e    K i n g ' s   A r m s ,   L o n d o n

Now we face some variables which need explaining and instantly uncertainty creeps in:

Does Marek know it's a surprise?
What's the fancy dress code?
7AM or PM?
What is late?
Will there be veggie food available?
Which King's Arms in London - is that actually the party location?
Is the 'mark' email address a spellcheck of Marek?

With homespun creativity thrown in - different point sizes, colours, fonts - it starts to read rather tricky, the recipient not knowing which details are most important or indeed relevant. A good hierarchy of information is our friend.

Back to the car park entry machine, and you can see how the instructions came to be so confused. I imagine the owner realising the machine wasn't signed properly out-of-the-box, so placed some of their own directions on it. Then came some on-the-fly results of user testing (car parkers), with follow-up stickers being placed to re-enforce what users (car parkers) were missing. One example of a skewed instruction is a duplicate sticker placed larger to try and compensate for the previously placed smaller version, creating an unnecessary layer of visual noise.

To be fair, there ARE some complex messages to explain in a very tricky space - the customer's eligibility for parking outside of college hours being the most confusing. But even so, whenever an instruction is being created, the designer must be able to remove themselves from the task, and look at it dry, see it from the user's perspective, and ask themselves 'Can I understand this?'.

I've created a version that I, as a driver, would like to use myself, putting all the information in a logical hierarchy which I think any driver can decipher quickly and easily. I've taken into account the tools the designer had to work with, using the same sized stickers, typeface, font point sizes and colours, and retouched the original photo with my version of how the entry machine instructions should, in my opinion, be marked up. Here's the result...

If this version was employed by the owners, I'd be willing to bet a year's free entry that they would have more happy parkers.

I used the car park again on Saturday and the machine's stickering was unchanged. Sad to say the confusion remains; I helped on person enter as I was leaving the car park on foot, and another as I was returning to my car.