Tag Archives: Prevention

Design: It’s All About Alarm Clocks

Business writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin throws out product ideas like other people throw out orange juice cartons:

For twenty cents or so, alarm clock manufacturers can add a chip that not only knows the time (via a radio signal) but knows what day it is too. Which means that they can add a switch that says “weekends.” Which means that the 98% of the population that doesn’t want to wake up on the same time on weekends as they do on weekdays will be happier (and better rested.)

But he’s not touting a new alarm clock, he’s making a point: “So why doesn’t every alarm clock have this feature?” he asks. “Because most people in that business are busy doing their jobs (distribution, promotion, pricing, etc.), not busy making products that people actually want to buy–and talk about.”

Indeed, companies are always far too busy doing what they’re doing to think about what they’re doing and wonder whether they can do it better. And, as Seth points out, this is because companies are compartmentalized into responsibilities, and brave is the person who tries to straddle departments.

The weekend alarm clock won’t be made by a big alarm clock company, it’ll be designed by someone like Gauri Nanda, who I mentioned a few weeks back as the inventor of Clocky, the alarm clock that goes walkabout. Gauri, needless to say, was working on her own.

Actually what I suspect happens in companies is that they just ignore the user entirely. This is partly because technical products are built (and much of them designed) by programmers and engineers. I hate to generalize, but these people thrive on complexity, not on usability. For them creating and mastering the opaque is an achievement, not a symptom of failure.

What usually happens is that there are two sides to product development: the people in the company who think it’s a good idea and the people who have to build it. But in my limited experience there’s no one in between who speaks both languages, and, most importantly, can see what the customer might expect and want.

This is the hardest bit: it’s called usability and it seems to be the last thing people think about. If you’ve ever grappled with an alarm clock, to continue Seth’s example, you’ll know what I mean.

My favorite is the alarm clock that makes a beep every time you press a button: not so useful if you’re trying to quietly set the alarm but not wake your loved one. One clock I have, despite being sophisticated enough to tell me the temperature, the time in Lima and how many thous in a furlong, even makes a beep when I hit the backlight button. And no, it can’t be switched off without a PhD in molecular biophysics.

I wish I could say that this is confined to alarm clocks, but it’s not. Nearly every device or program is dumb in its own way. But there are bright spots. One of the things I love about Web 2.0 is that the people designing the tools really seem to understand usability.

Of course, given the fact that Web 2.0 is one big feedback loop, where new versions pop up like mushroom after rain, it’s inevitable. But the result is websites that are easy to navigate and to figure out.

Apple, of course, figured this out long ago, But everyone else seems to be having problems understanding it. I tried out a website the other day which was supposed to help me find the best form of transportation between two places. The search engine was not smart enough to know a building’s earlier name, or even to recommend alternatives if I got the name slightly wrong.

The internal calculator was not smart enough to get the distances right (one walk I was asked to make between bus-stops would have taken me into the sea and halfway to the next country); neither was it smart enough to realize that was an error. All should have been spotted by any usability tests. All undermine the whole point of the website, which is to make it easy to figure out a way to get from A to B.

I won’t bore you with more examples: You are users, and you come across this stuff all the time. What worries me more is that we’re not listened to, at least in a way in that makes sense.

I was sitting in a seminar the other day listening to an employee of a global cellphone operator talking about she and her colleagues have been canvassing opinions about how consumers use cellphones. This is good, and what should be done, but I was surprised by how she went about it: Getting users together and asking them to make collages about how they use technology.

Frankly, I don’t think making collages is the right way to go about things. We need to get out on the streets, into the offices, bars and clubs, into the villages and factories, and observe how people actually use technology. Don’t expect people to fill in forms or do collages for you: Follow them around. Spy on them. I do.

One of the side-effects of the cellphone revolution is that it’s taken technology out of the usual places (office, den) and into every other room in the house (texting in the bath, watching mobile TV in bed) and beyond, into the bus stops, the subways, the village gazebo. Technology is now a seamless part of our lives. Researchers need to get out more.

The sad truth is that we’ve moved on and the geeks need to catch up. Because, lame as the alarm clock that beeps all the time and doesn’t know it’s the weekend is, nearly all our devices are no better: They’re too smart in the sense of feature density and too stupid in the interface that lets us use those features.

So, companies: Hire a usability consultant to tell you about your products and how they might be better. Or just try your own products: sleep in on a weekend or let your spouse try to find the alarm light button in the middle of the night and see how you like being woken up.

Then rub your eyes, get out of bed and head for the design table.

Seth’s Blog: Alarm clocks

A Show of Unwashed Hands

Igene

Ever been grossed out, a la Seinfeld, by someone who visits the bathroom but doesn’t seem to know what washbasins are for? You need the iGene

i-Gene [sic] is designed for washrooms or areas where hand hygiene is critical. It detects movement and after a given period of time (pre-delay setting) will play the following real voice message. “Please wash your hands before leaving this area.”

Usually, I’m not for any kind of nanny-state type stuff, but it does amaze me how few people (read: men) wash their hands after a spell in the bathroom. Now I’m up for not just installing an iGene in every bathroom but of having anti-bacterial handgel guns on either side of the door to fire at miscreants as they try to sneak out without performing any manual cleansing.

Of course, the solution is to fit decent hand dryers so that people a) don’t have to calculate the value of hygiene against the possibility of catching a cold from damp hands and b) can have fun drying their hands in a warm and powerful jet.

The other move would be to either install automatic doors so you don’t have to put your clean hands on a doorknob used by all the non-handwashing Poppys or to at least put a bin outside the bathroom so clean-minded folk have somewhere to discard the paper towel they have to use to open the door to avoid getting all bacterial again.

The Hot Air War

Are the days of the wet hand over? A few months ago I wrote in the WSJ about the Mitsubishi Jet Towel (subscription only; I did a version of the piece for the BBC World Service which you can download as a podcast here), which has been drying hands effectively around Asia for some time, now arriving on U.S. shores:

I spotted it when I was gorging in a food court — a plastic-cased, cream-colored, wall-mounted device that looked like an attractive waste-disposal unit or, possibly, a mailbox. The only clue that it was actually a hand dryer was its proximity to the wash basins. Using it was like a glimpse of hand-drying heaven. Instead of sticking your hands below a single air jet, you put them inside a sort of trough inside the unit, between two jets that start blowing automatically onto both sides of your hands.

Instead of searing blasts of hot air that shrivel the skin and give your hands a weird burning sensation, the Jet Towel envelops them in a strong but muted cushion of air, circulating within the trough. Instead of rubbing your hands together vigorously in the vain hope of dislodging the damp, you just move the hands up and down slowly. Instead of the water dripping off your hands onto the floor, it falls to the bottom of the trough and down a pipe into the base of the unit. Instead of the usual half-minute or so of frantic hand-rubbing, followed by some pant-wiping, pull out your hands after a few seconds and they’re dry. Really.

Now it looks like it has a rival, in the form of the Dyson Airblade. Right now I’m not quite sure what the difference is between the two devices — they both look remarkably similar. I’m still waiting for word from Dyson’s PR people. But anything that gets our hands dryer quicker and more hygienically can only be good news. Coverage at engadget and The Guardian.

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Indonesia’s Quake

For anyone interested in helping the victims of the Yogyakarta earthquake, in which thousands of people have been killed inside their heavy stone and slate homes, here’s Indonesia Help – Earthquake and Tsunami Victims.

Sadly, this website was originally set up for the tsunami, now 17 months ago, but has been quickly resurrected to provide news and information on how to help. Even the website of the administration of the town of Bantul has updated its site with some news and photos of the quake. More information can be found at the airputih media center. The tsunami has clearly made local organisations and individuals aware of the need for rapid disbursement of information, especially on missing persons and where to give your aid. I noticed Saturday night folk walking around traffic in Jakarta with donation boxes, but we also know from experience the prevalence of scams during such times. Better to give your money to an organisation recommended by one of these sites.

Well-Meaning Pressure Group Or Sleazy Promotional Gimmick?

Maybe I’m getting too wary, but when I received a press release from something called the Internet Security Foundation, I wasn’t convinced. And I’m still not.

The email was provocative enough: The headline ran “Microsoft’s Policy Leaves Millions Open to Identity Theft; Internet Security Foundation Releases Free Protection Tool”. An explanation followed that users were vulnerable because they erroneously believed that their stored passwords in Windows were safe because they appeared in asterisks. “The truth is,” the release said, “that such passwords are not normally protected in Microsoft Windows and can be easily reviewed by using software like SeePassword (www.SeePassword.com).”

This is true. And a good point. But who is the Internet Security Foundation? The email suggested that I visit their website for more information about the foundation. I did, and all I found was one page, which was a virtual re-run of the press release. No ‘About’ page or anything, at least when I visited it. The only couple of links led to a download file, and to SeePassword, the software mentioned in the release and an external webpage which didn’t load at the time of visiting. So who are these guys, and is this for real?

I checked their whois data, which will at least tell me who registered the site. It was KMGI Corp., a New York-based advertising agency whose website design bears uses distinctive fonts — indeed the same fonts as the Internet Security Foundation. KMGI, I read elsewhere, is also a software company (although no mention is made on their website) and are the guys behind SeePassword, the software the ISF website suggests I use — “If you first need to look up any forgotten passwords, you can use SeePassword software available at www.SeePassword.com“. SeePassword, according to the PCMag article, costs $20.

Now I’m suspicious. Has KMGI set up a spurious foundation to try to sell a product? The only online references to the Internet Security Foundation I can find are in the NYT. But if you look closely at the story, there’s a correction at the bottom which corrects the reference to the organisation. “The group is the Information Security Foundation, not the Internet Security Foundation.” (If you do a Google search, such references are all to the NYT article.) So now I’m getting very suspicious. What is going on?

I tried calling the public relations number on the press release and left a message. If I get any clarification I’ll post it. But my feeling is: If this ISF is kosher, it should make clear who it is and its interest, if any, in a company that sells a product it recommends. And while pointing out the asterisk security issue is a good one, it’s not exactly a new problem. To me the whole thing smacks of promotional gimmick, rather than a clean and well-intentioned issue-raiser. But maybe I’m getting too wary.

Update: One Of Microsoft Security Report Authors Fired

 One of the authors of the security paper (PDF file) that said Microsoft was a threat to national security has been fired, according to CNET. Cambridge, Mass-based @Stake, where Dan Geer worked as chief technical officer, said in a statement Thursday that the researcher had not gotten his employers’ approval for the study’s release, and that he was no longer associated with the company. Although independently financed and researched, the study was distributed by the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a Washington-based trade association largely made up of Microsoft’s rivals.
 
A Microsoft spokesman said the software maker had not pressured @Stake to make any decision on Geer’s status. Bruce
Schneier, a security expert and co-author of the report, saw things differently, according to CNET. He said the idea for the report had come from Geer and the other researchers, not from the CCIA or other Microsoft rivals. The group had found it hard to find other researchers to sign on to the idea, even if those approached agreed with the study’s premises, he said. “When we were conceiving and writing the report, a surprising number of researchers said ‘No,’ because of the fear of Microsoft,” Schneier said. “Dan was not talking for @Stake. We were speaking as researchers. The fact that @Stake couldn’t get around that shows the pressure that Microsoft brings to bear.”