Tag Archives: Design

A New Form Factor for the Phone?

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photo @arubin via twitter

The smartphone hasn’t changed much, at least in terms of proportions, since the first iPhone (the iPhone belatedly adopted the 16:9 aspect ratio most other phones had long assumed in 2012 with the iPhone 5). Yes, Samsung made it bigger, an idea considered dumb at the time but one which has largely become the norm. Phones have gotten thinner — anorexic, in the words of one writer — which has produced its own problems (and may hold back 5G). But the essential dimensions of the phone haven’t changed in more than 10 years. 

That is, sort of, changing, with Samsung’s Fold and the Surface Duo hinged Android phone. But that in itself isn’t that radical — both are just two phones stuck together, design-wise, which is something that designers have been playing with for a while. (I wrote about bendable screens back in 2013 and revisited it a year ago).

Step up Andy Rubin, the former Android guy who left Google over allegations of sexual misconduct (retaining a huge severance package). He now works at Essential, which make a nice-looking but essentially conventionally sized phone. 

The phone, pictured above, seems to be about the same length as a conventional phone, but is maybe half the width. At first that doesn’t seem to make any sense, but looking at the way it sits in the hand, it seems to fit more snugly. I’m guessing the idea here is that most of the time we’re operating a phone with one hand while moving — walking, on a bus, hopefully not driving, jogging, abseiling, windsurfing, under-the-desk-in-meetings — so this form factor makes a lot of sense. I assume that’s why the screenshots are of maps. 

And I suppose that lain horizontal it would make for one pretty cool cinematic perspective. Although nowadays everyone seems to be shooting vertically, so who knows? It’s not clear whether this phone is an Essential one according to Sean Hollister at the Verge.

It’s good that we’re seeing experimentation in this space again. This isn’t a massive leap forward, but it does suggest that some minds are showing signs of thinking outside the box. It also shows that we are probably using our phones in ways we didn’t a few years ago. Certainly navigating the average street these days involves having to dodge people glued to videos or games while in motion. 

Google’s Design Gridlock

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Another hamfisted design effort from Google, I’m afraid: this time, they’ve compressed the links at the bottom of the Gmail page to Google-related services to a grid, which you have to click on to find the service you want to access. 

This is what it used to look like: 

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This is what it now looks like: 

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Not only does this add a step to the process, but it also requires a significant move of the mouse to the services at the bottom (and don’t get me started on why you’d want to go to Gmail when you’re already in Gmail.) 

And there’s no way I can see of being able to go back to the old set of links at the top. 

This was a design experiment dating back to March, according to TNW. Back then Emil Protalinski commented that this seemed to borrow from Chrome OS and be an attempt to align with its mobile interface: 

We can understand Google replacing the navigation bar with a menu button: it saves horizontal space and works well with the goal of keeping things minimal. That being said, it adds a click to every action.

In the scheme of things this is probably no biggie, but it does seem to suggest that the wrong people are running design at Google, or they’ve run out of ideas, or they’re so intent on getting Google+ buttons everywhere that everything becomes secondary. Whatever, every incremental step that reduces the experience of Gmail adds to the likelihood it will start losing users.

How Reliable Is Google Maps?

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Was looking for a Singapore hotel this morning on Google Maps, which would seem to be a good place to start, and was perturbed to find it flagged in five different places, most of them several streets apart (above). These are all links from companies advertising rooms. So you’d think they would try to get it right. (Amusingly, the sponsored link at the top is for a hotel of the same name in Vancouver, which is slightly further down the road and across several oceans):

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So, some ways to go, I suspect, before the era of ubiquitous searchability and and mobile findability, or whatever it’s called.

Catching The Surfer in a Blink

Interesting news for web site designers, bloggers and PR types: Web users judge sites in the blink of an eye.  An article in Nature (thanks, BBC) quotes a study by Gitte Lindgaard of Carleton University in Ottawa in the journal Behaviour and Information Technology, that “the brain can make flash judgements almost as fast as the eye can take in the information”:

Lindgaard and her team presented volunteers with the briefest glimpses of web pages previously rated as being either easy on the eye or particularly jarring, and asked them to rate the websites on a sliding scale of visual appeal. Even though the images flashed up for just 50 milliseconds, roughly the duration of a single frame of standard television footage, their verdicts tallied well with judgements made after a longer period of scrutiny.

This surprised the researchers but is perhaps not that extraordinary. First off, people like to stick with an opinion once made, even if they’re wrong or would prefer to revise it — what’s called ‘cognitive bias’. As Nature quotes Lindgaard as saying, “It’s awfully scary stuff, but the tendency to jump to conclusions is far more widespread than we realize,” she says. Secondly, people will tend to regard the rest of the web site favourably if their initial response was favourable — the halo effect at work, as first impressions create an enduring bias. And of course, anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink will know about all this.

So what does it mean for web sites and web designers?

Most comment focuses on the need for a good first impression. Nature quotes Marc Caudron of London web-design agency Pod1 as saying users will quickly jump back to Google if they don’t engage quickly: “You’ll get a list of sites, click the top one, and then either say ‘I’ve engaged’ and give it a few more seconds, or just go back to Google,” he says.

Other comment focuses on the ‘increasingly savvy nature of consumers’: Internet marketing and design expert Pedro Sostre told the E-Commerce Times that he believes consumers “are becoming more and more design-savvy every day — and they may not even know it.. Just by interacting with various catalogs and Web sites, they are becoming design critics.” He cites an interesting example: the recent redesign of the Sprint web site to yellow, the same color as that of power tool maker Dewalt. This, he says, made users think they confused because they associated yellow with power tools, not with electronic devices.

It is no doubt true that certain colors are associated with certain kinds of products (although yellow is also the dominant site of Symantec, which despite the imagery on their product boxes, sells computer software, not power tools). Or perhaps it is more subtle than that. As Australian associate professor of psychology Bill von Hippel, quoted by Australian ABC as saying about the report that “this may be because we have an affective or emotional system that [works] independently of our cognitive system”, the point really is that we learn new environments quite quickly. We quickly familiarise ourselves with new menus, new shower heads, new traffic systems, new faces at parties. We shouldn’t be that surprised we’ve now gotten used to the web. Color is part of it but only a small one.

Several interesting points emerge from this. Web site designers and PR types still think about web site design in terms of “design” — filling a page with appealing colors, images and movement. (Check out the plethora of web site design books in a bookshop if you don’t believe me). But in fact the web is moving in the other direction — just look at how blogs have emptied the page of clutter and, because they focus on speed and content, have really caught on. (Google has also helped spur this ‘white space’ momentum.) So while a lot of designers are going to draw the conclusion from this study that they need to pack a lot in to make those 50 milliseconds count, perhaps they should take a lesson from blogs and head the other way.

Another interesting implication is for Google and search engines. There has been a move towards search engines that include small thumbnails of the web page itself (I can’t actually recall off the top of my head which ones, let me get back to you on that), allowing the user to preview the site before actually clicking on it. These haven’t really caught on yet, but this research opens up all sorts of possibilities there. Cluttered websites are not going to look as good in such thumbnails as clean, simple ones. But not necessarily blog-like structures, because they will all end up looking the same. There’s definitely a business opportunity there somewhere.

Finally, there’s one more implication that I can think of from this: Why are people learning to form impressions so quickly? Is the experiment something that doesn’t reflect normal behaviour — glancing at a site and forming an impression — or is it exactly what we do? My guess is that it is, and I think that has to do with three things: firstly, we still regard browsing (in the sense of looking at websites without any specific goal in mind, or only some vague idea of what we’re looking for), for the most part, to be a frivolous activity, whether we’re at work or not. So we tend to move quickly from page to page, as if that somehow reduces the overall time we’re wasting.

Secondly, I think reading on a computer screen is still not a natural or pleasant experience for most people, so we tend to move more quickly from page to page, If our subconscious is telling us anything, it’s “move on, I don’t enjoy reading at a screen and I want you to move on.” The fact that our hands are poised over the keyboard and mouse make this kind of decision an easy one to make, possibly bypassing all our smarter, more intellectual responses to what we see. It’s like holding a tennis ball in the hand: It’s virtually impossible not to try to juggle it, throw it, bounce it or otherwise play with it.

Finally, there’s a contradiction between what lures us somewhere and what makes us stay. We move quickly through the web because the bright lights that attract us to a page don’t encourage us to stay. Call it the McDonald’s Effect: Bright lights, yellow and red color all welcome us, but don’t encourage us to linger or relax. Same with a lot of web pages. What would be interesting to see is research that explores whether users are draw to those same bright colors in web sites or more soothing colors, nice fonts, quiet layouts, which may not catch the eye but are likely to encourage the user to stay.

Bottom line: Interesting research, but the conclusions to be drawn are more subtle than

The Lego Scam

A man after my own heart: AP reports that a man has been arrested accused of stealing a truck full of Lego:

A 40-year-old man is behind bars, accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of a toy geared toward the 6-and-up crowd: Legos. To haul away the evidence, agents working for the U.S. Postal Inspector said they had to back a 20-foot truck to William Swanberg’s house in Reno, Nev., carting away mountains of the multicolored bricks.

Swanberg was indicted Wednesday by a grand jury in Hillsboro, a Portland suburb, which charged him with stealing Legos from Target stores in Oregon. Target estimates Swanberg stole and resold on the Internet up to $200,000 of the brick sets pilfered from their stores in Oregon as well as Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California.

When no one was looking, Swanberg switched the bar codes on Lego boxes, replacing an expensive one with a cheaper label, said Detective Troy Dolyniuk, a member of the Washington County fraud and identity theft enforcement team.

Target officials contacted police after noticing the same pattern at their stores in the five western states. A Target security guard stopped Swanberg at a Portland-area store on Nov. 17, after he bought 10 boxes of the Star Wars Millennium Falcon set. In his parked car, detectives found 56 of the Star Wars set, valued at $99 each, as well as 27 other Lego sets. In a laptop found inside Swanberg’s car, investigators also found the addresses of numerous Target stores in the Portland area, their locations carefully plotted on a mapping software.

Records of the Lego collector’s Web site, Bricklink.Com, show that Swanberg has sold nearly $600,000 worth of Legos since 2002, said Dolyniuk.

Interestingly, folk seemed to have been quite happy to deal with Swanberg on Bricklink.com. He’s been registered on the site since 2002, earning praise from more than 6,000 users, and getting complaints from only 11. He was still shipping up until the last minute: Eight folk posted praise about dealing with him on the day or after he’d been indicted. Only one person seemed to harbour doubts: That person wrote on November 19, four days before Swanberg was indicted: “Wish I knew where these came from…”

Actually, this kind of scam is well documented, and may be a copycat theft. Eagle-eyed readers may recall a piece I wrote a few months back about Douglas Havard, a phisher who was jailed in June for conspiracy to defraud and launder money. According to an earlier piece in the Dallas Observer Havard used to steal expensive Lego sets by switching price tags on Lego boxes. The only difference was that Havard was printing his own price stickers.

What is it with Lego that turns people into criminals?

News: Draw Your Own Website

netomat, “a pioneer in communication software and network-based art”, has just released its new personal multimedia communication service. The beta (for both PC and Mac) is now available as a free download.

netomat allows anyone to “create and publish or send multimedia websites, emails and blogs using any combination of digital pictures, audio, voice, text, free-form drawing and animation — all in just a few minutes”. Looks intriguing.