I finally budged and bought a Kindle.
Being an iPad owner, I couldn’t see the appeal of paying for another tablet-like device for the longest time. I also find it wrong on both business and service design levels for Amazon to charge people for a device in a highly commoditized category. I didn’t want to support a bad idea. However, as my work travels became more frequent and longer, I found myself needing a screen that offers better readability than the iPad. After few months of on and off research, I ate my humble pie and placing an order for a Kindle. To my surprise, that led to a revelation about Touch UIs.
Amazon announced the new Kindle Fire just a few days before I made the purchase decision. Along with Kindle Fire came a low-end Kindle and the Kindle Touch. The last-gen Kindle with Keyboard was still available at a reduced price. Because I was buying readability, I automatically weeded out the Kindle Fire. I picked the Kindle with Keyboard simply because it was cheaper. After just one week into read on my daily news and e-books new toy, I felt very happy about my purchase. In additional the display being miles better to read from than my iPad, I felt more confident and relaxed while navigating through the contents. With just about every type of consumer devices moving toward Touch displays, that observation begs for a deeper understanding.
I used the Kindle for a few more weeks. I deliberately slowed down my activities to self-observe and reflecting on my experience with the device. I can explain my joy with navigating contents with the Kindle down to one reason – physical hard keys are better, by far, for controlling single-dimension, linear contents.
We read text forward and sometimes jump backward to reference. Dedicated hardware controls arranged linearly provides better detectability, higher active-feedback compatibility and ultimately simpler user experience. Whenever I tap on the paging keys of my Kindle, I feel more connected to the content. The click of the keys revive the tactile quality of reading a book that digitalization took away. The same goes with scroll wheel on my iPod, zoom ring on my SLR lens and volume control knobs on my hi-fi receiver. Mapping control of linear contents onto virtual buttons or even worse, artificially link 2 linear controls into a 2-dimensional Touch UI* quickly degrades the experience.
*The VLC video player on OSX allows the user to control volume by scrolling left/right and scrub the video by scrolling up/down. The feature works and it is certainly better than nothing. However, the better scheme is to move the volume control to the dedicated volumes keys and leave the touch pad for scrubbing the video only.
This wireless, mind-read headset only costs a few hundred dollars. The training task in the demo feels very much like speech recognition in its early days. Motion control intantly looks antiquated.
About 2 months ago I resigned from Motorola. During the last 5 years, I gained tremendous amount of experience and worked with many immensely talented people. There is never a good time to end such a great relationship but personal life and new prospects call for a shift in direction. It was my time to turn a new page.
After reflecting on my past 5 years, I found my perspective on interaction design to be very different than when I left DePaul University in 2003. Here’s what I learned:
Interaction Design is an exercise to define context
One of my recent favourite quotes is Alice Rawsthorn’s comment on the new generation of products in ‘Objectified‘, to which she thinks “the form bears absolutely no relation to the function.” If that is a trend in product design, it is a tradition in digital interaction design. Most digital UI controls lack volumetric and tactile properties. Many designers, including myself when I started my career, seek arrangements of controls that ‘make sense’ and to create ‘affordance’ in the design. What I have come to realize is that correctly and efficiently communicate a context of use with the user is a much more reliable path to a usable and engaging design.
Generally speaking, users perceive an user interface in aggregate, not by individual component. If all the components on the first few screens efficiently and coherently communicate what type of application it is (e.g. an media player with online contents on my mobile) and the rest of the application also aligns with that character, usage is generally clear and fluid. Focusing the on the arrangements and placements of controls along is not enough. In fact, being overly stringent in building and applying usability guidelines put undue restrictions to the designers and leads to interaction designs are that overly instructional and non-engaging. Usability and rationality in design are of course important, but letting them lead the creative process is like letting a carriage lead the horse.
About 2 weeks ago, I presented the first draft of this deck in UXCampLondon.
The idea of considering user’s emotions in mobile UI design came up while I attended Judith Gregory‘s class at IIT Institute of Design. Since then, I have been researching and crystallizing thoughts around the subject. The opportunity to present it to a group of UX design experts in London was both exciting and a little nerve-wrecking. I put together the structure of the deck in Chicago and finished this draft within a few days in London (mostly in a neighbourhood pub because of their free WiFi :P).
The feedback and questions from the UXCampLondon crowd was tremendously insightful. At the beginning of the deck suggests the general affiliation between users’ emotional response to designs and consumer trends. One of the audience responded and advocated for a more sustainable approach to create long-lasting products and customer relationships. On my example from Apple’s Logic Studio, Tom Hume insightfully pointed out that the seemingly un-usable UI may target advanced users (or aspiring novices) want to gain the satisfaction of mastery on complex controls. Complexity of an UI leads user satisfaction, what an exciting new concept! 🙂 I am sharing this early draft here. Please post any question you have. I will update and add content to this deck in the weeks to come. Please stay tuned.
Last but not least, I want to give credit to companies for the materials that I used as examples. Dave Armano’s illustration on Experience Design is illuminating.
Update 18-Sep-2009: Cool notes from one of the audience posted on Flickr. 🙂