Category Archives: Interface

When did that happen?

World Clock

It’s the little things that matter in interface design.

For instance, I just discovered this amazing little detail in Mac OS X’s Dashboard. The World Clock widget (by Apple) that is installed by default has always offered a slick little display of the time in a chosen time zone, but at some point between Tiger’s release and now, (perhaps with the release of 10.5 Leopard?)1, they added one of the little details that makes Apple… well, Apple.

Now, when choosing a new time zone from the back, when the widget flips over, it animates the clock hands, moving from the currently set time zone to the new ones, including changes in day and night — and even gently accelerating from the start and decelerating into the finish!

As soon as I can get a decent video screen capture, I’ll post a glimpse of the animation.

  1. No, it was not part of 10.5.2 — it was definitely there in 10.5.1, at least. 

Ready, Set, Hype!

iPhone Calendar Okay. I admit it. I’m obsessed. I’m readying my sleeping bag for June 28.

We, the iPhone fanatics, received our marching orders Sunday night, and we’re pointing our boots in the direction of the nearest AT&T (née Cingular) store. (Uncle Steve told us to avoid his own Apple Stores on Release Dayâ„¢, because that’s where all of the campers will be. Well, until he said that.)

We’ve gotten so obsessed that we’re already spinning out of control with wild speculation based on merely a few frames of one of the commercials.

The three new ads are all truly good — simply, smoothly, and stylishly making the iPhone’s complex set of features look natural, seamless and essential.

Even if you’ve never heard of the iPhone before (Really?), the ads make the device and its powerful, simple-to-use features clear in only 30 seconds (apiece).

As John Gruber points out, the ads sell the iPhone largely by just showing off its interface.

Its interface.

(That bears repeating. In its own paragraph. In its own sentence fragment.)

Yes, it’s the iPhone’s interface that makes it the product that it is. (Jobs: “beautiful software wrapped in a beautiful box.”) Making sure that the software is the driving force behind the product is one of the key reasons that Apple has had such enormous success with the iPod and has garnered such devotion from Mac users.

iPhone’s beautiful interface is definitely worthy of excitement, and the ads’ glimpses of that crystal-clear screen followed by the words, “Coming June 29″ have ignited the passions of the iPhone masses.

David Pogue is looking forward to the frenzy to come, and so am I.

PS: As one hype machine winds up, another is taking a surprising beating from various posts:

“Sometimes Knowledge Is More Important Than Truth”

Subway MapIt may seem a bit contradictory at first, but Signal vs. Noise (37signals) points out an excellent case study of an instance where the essence is more important than the truth itself: mapping the New York City subway system (nothing says complexity like the largest number of subway stations in the world — 468).

Current official maps are geographically accurate, but the maze of different lines makes understanding the map and figuring out how best to navigate through the system becomes a struggle.

Enter Kick Design. Eddie Jabbour, Creative Director at Kick, apparently grew frustrated at the deficiencies of the standard maps of the New York subway system. At least five years of research (finding maps on eBay, among other things) and design work led to Jabbour’s new map, a widely-praised work that eschews the geographic reality of NYC for a cleaner, easier to read representation:

Comparison of Maps

As you can see, the map uses simplified notations, straightens the lines nearly into a grid and simplifies the color usage into more restricted, abstract spaces. Text is now cleaned up, non-diagonal, and less overlapping, and the legend and symbols have been dramatically clarified and improved. (It’s not as dramatic as Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 abstraction, and that may be a good thing.)

As 37signals and the New York Times point out, the map bears a similarity to London’s classic logic-oriented map of the tube system. The Signal vs. Noise blog calls it “helpful distortion,” eloquently and elegantly asserting that “sometimes knowledge is more important than truth.”

Indeed, often, the best way to explain a concept, tell a story, or even interface with a complex device is through trustworthy simplification. Though there are numerous examples, an easy one can be seen in the qualities of a successful interface to a computer or other consumer electronics device.

Often, criticisms of the iPod revolve around the fact that it doesn’t offer this feature or that feature (it doesn’t have built-in radio, it doesn’t have wi-fi — it doesn’t even have an off switch). But, that type of argument misses a critical point and significant appeal of the iPod — it does what it does simply, cleanly and efficiently. That simplicity gives it elegance and attractiveness that has certainly helped it to become the best-selling music player in history (and one of the best selling electronic devices in history).

The subway maps are a great object lesson in this appealing accessibility, and rather than continue to rehash the excellent coverage from 37signals, I’ll simply direct you over there with my hearty agreement, and two last thoughts:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
—Albert Einstein 

…and, consider this: Eddie Jabbour finally met with the MTA about his map and the possibilities for improving the official map, and they rejected it. What do you think about that?

I’d love to read your thoughts and any other examples of “helpful distortion” in the comments!

(Thanks, Daring Fireball)

Signs of Life

Indexed Often, when a presenter wants to express a complex topic, he or she will rely on charts and graphs to express concepts, comparisons, and more.

Statistics, charts, and graphs can help to clarify things, or — in the wrong hands — bore and/or mislead audiences. It’s tempting to lean on these tools too much, or craft them hastily from PowerPoint templates, draining them of their expressive power and value.

Two clever minds have thought about this ‘PowerPoint culture,’ and explore what might happen if life — in all of its complexity — were reduced to simple graphs and charts. The results are humorous, and yet fascinating.

Jessica Hagy maintains a unique blog, Indexed, whose content is expressed through hand-drawn notecards, each bearing a different explanatory graph or chart that covers one of life’s mysteries. It’s a compelling concept, and — best of all — an ongoing blog, so there’s always a new insight to enjoy.

A nice introduction, however, can be found in Le Grand Content, a movie by Clemens Kogler, inspired by Indexed.

Both are worth a look (and, in the case of Indexed, an RSS subscription):

(Thanks, Presentation Zen)

…quick clicks…

…quick clicks…

  • Making your own Wanted poster »wanted

    During Topshop’s London Fashion Week Mania, two black Mac Books were reportedly stolen. For the uninitiated, Macs ship with a clever little app called Photo Booth that uses the Mac’s built-in iSight camera to take portraits and add fun-house photo booth special effects (for fun, or to use as login pictures, IM icons, etc.). Apparently, Topshop had equipped these laptops with a special plugin that caused Photo Booth pics to be automatically uploaded to a Flickr gallery in the background as part of an interactive store display demo.

    Apparently, these clever thieves have found Apple’s Photo Booth software so irresistible that they have taken many of their own pictures — which PhotoBooth has dutifully uploaded to Topshop’s gallery.

    They are continuing to take and unwittingly post photos, so if you’re in the London area, take a good look and maybe you can catch a thief! Interesting to think that an Interface could be so much fun to use that it could trap a thief. Link » (Thanks to MacUser)

  • Microsoft is Dead »

    From Paul Graham:

    I didn’t notice when the shadow disappeared. … But it’s gone now. I can sense that. No one is even afraid of Microsoft anymore. They still make a lot of money—so does IBM, for that matter. But they’re not dangerous.

    Of particular interest is Graham’s assertion that “everyone can see the desktop is over. It now seems inevitable that applications will live on the web—not just email, but everything, right up to Photoshop.” Is it really though? If you have thoughts on the desktop model vs. the new generation of web-based apps, leave a comment.

    For my part, I think it’s a little early to make such sweeping pronouncements. I still feel that the future is in apps that exist in both worlds, harnessing both the hooks, privacy, and storage of the desktop and the interoperability, updates, and community of the internet. Something so simple as Mac OS X’s Dashboard (bonus Leopard link), where net content is wrapped in a truly convenient desktop app is an easy example. Link » (Thanks to Daring Fireball)

  • Opening the box »

    You’ve just spent many pretty pennies on your brand new computer, and you eagerly open the box like a child on Christmas morning. You’re excited to play with a new toy, welcome a new friend, but…

    As Walt Mossberg explores, if it’s a Windows PC, your first excitement will be doused by dozens of “craplets” that get in the way of moving into a new computer, take up hard drive space, and — perhaps worst of all — make your beautiful new computer into a sluggish billboard-fest. When the interface is hijacked, it makes the computer a lot less friendly and a lot less pleasurable to use. Is the added revenue from the demo-makers really worth it? Link »

“We Invented The Competition.”

beta I was going to simply update the last …quick clicks… entry, but Roughly Drafted’s latest post (article, really), sparks a lot of further consideration and discussion.

In it, Daniel Eran, in his typically thorough, yet readable fashion, gives an excellent overview of the evolution of home video and the format war that occurred as that industry developed. In the corporate espionage, backstabbing, and hubris, analogies to today’s home entertainment market (especially music) are painfully clear.

Looking back on Sony and its decisions regarding the (clearly superior) Beta format is a fascinating bit of hindsight. Perhaps the kernel of the Eran’s argument is this:

…companies [were given] the opportunity to experience the alternative to standards-based development. Rather than a government-run organization establishing standards, individual manufacturers would all scramble to develop their own proprietary systems, optionally choosing to license their designs to other makers.

In hindsight, this worked out really poorly. While companies were already able to compete in delivering TVs that all worked according to the standard NTSC TV specifications, there were no standards guiding a record or tape delivery medium for video.

Because there were no standards, huge resources were wasted in competing efforts to invent new ones. This same principle was later relearned at considerable expense in the field of software development, in networking, and again in video standards. Open formats and open standards solve a lot of problems for the market.

The lack of an open standard did not actually kill home video, however, and I’m not sure that innovation was truly dealt a serious blow. Interestingly, the VHS juggernaut that eventually squashed Sony’s beloved Betamax was fueled by Sony’s own designs, as they eventually (haughtily) pointed out in ad campaigns – “We Invented The Competition.” JVC, the company that launched VHS shortly after Betamax, was using technology derived from both private demonstrations of the prototype Beta systems years earlier, as well as its experience as a partner in Sony’s earlier professional U-matic video tape systems.

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Introducing the book

Introducing the Book The Interface is, quite literally, where people and technology meet.

I’ll be bringing it up for a while here on this blog, and so for the time being, I have gone ahead and given it a capital I. It’s that important.

Soon, I’ll start to waste some pixels on the Humane Interface, and the essentials of HID — Human Interface Design, but right now, let me point out that there is a second side to the Interface — the technology (the one that is coming into contact with the human…). Before we get too digital or electronic here… keep in mind that technology is not necessarily animated and battery powered. It’s any application of knowledge (science), and so the Interface is not always a blinking button or LCD screen.

Interfaces have been with us since the dawn of human memory, in one form or another. (Picture the caveman refining the smoother, tapered handle for his club.)

So, now, with that in mind, here’s the natural comedy that emerges when we consider users’ modern-day frustrations with Interface design through the lens of a slightly older generation and its struggles with the newfangled Interface of the day: Gutenberg offers In your home support – on Bore Me

(Thanks to the Zinks for the link!)

Update Apr 6 There’s another version of this clip posted here with a few extra seconds of footage and a little bit of a different translation (though it’s a little darker).