fox@fury
I know who Fake Steve Jobs is
Thursday, Aug 02, 2007

Anyone who follows Apple's comings and goings has heard about (if not hung on every post of) Fake Steve Jobs. The biggest mystery in the Valley nowadays is 'who is Fake Steve Jobs' and some rumor sites have become downright fanatical about uncovering FSJ's real identity.

Others have abandoned the search, preferring the mystery of a supernatural Fake Steve Jobs to the mundane reality of a mortal person with a knack at showmanship. What do you think? Is the world better served by unmasking FSJ, or should the mystery live on? I have yet to re-incorporate spamproof comments on the redesign, so if you've got an opinion, drop me a line. For the RSS subscribers out there, my email address is on the web page, so click on through.

Sidelining usability is a path to failure
Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007

Todd Wilkens, a design researcher at Adaptive Path, wrote a dubious piece today on the AP blog titled "Why usability is a path to failure".

The post, which claims that usability is not a differentiator and is a sinkhole of energy for minimal benefits, is so buried in completely bungled comparisons that it can't even serve as a starting point for a debate.

Witness:

When talking of a great writer, how often do people talk about how amazingly legible they are? When talking about a great photographer, does anyone ever talk about the fact that his prints actually developed and thus are visible? Obviously, the answer is no. Legibility and visibility are the bare minimum of requirements for a successful piece of writing or a photograph.
This comparison is fatally flawed on several levels. The most glaring problem is that artifacts with good usability are usually not perceived as having an interface at all. The modern book has superb usability, the result of centuries of iterative design. Advances in binding and folding, printing techniques and, above all, typography and layout, have led to books that are so usable that the idea of a 'book with a bad UI' is silly. Seven centuries ago your book would have been three times the volume of your laptop, have awful scanability due to tight leading and low contrast paper, not to mention that it would have been handwritten in Latin. Sure that was a long time ago (let's not even think about the usability of papyrus scrolls and tablets) but it's ridiculous to point to books as evidence that usability is a path to failure.
Any person who focused most of their efforts on legibility or visibility would probably have almost no chance of being a successful artist.
Nobody is suggesting that the 'creative' source must be the person who also manages the usability of the finished product, but it's silly to assert that websites don't need usability because writers don't. (Also, they do. They're called 'editors'.)

The photographic print analogy is similarly flawed. 'Usability' requires 'use' which implies 'interaction'. The act of gazing at a photographic print requires little to no interaction and consequently usability doesn't play a major role. If Todd believes this analogy stretches to new media or other tools then I would encourage him to unplug his keyboard and mouse, remove the steering wheel from his car and toss his remote control to the dog because the argument that usability is unimportant falls flat when you try to apply it to products that actually rely on interaction.

The important bit is that books and photographs are static pieces of media, while the same can't be said of most artifacts that undergo usability research (the notable exceptions being critical reference materials found on aircraft, submarines, spacecraft and hospitals, which undergo a large amount of usability research because they're intended for situations where the inability to find information as quickly as possible can have dire consequences). Books and photographs are essentially 'solved problems'. Most books and photographs are bordering on 'maximum usability' because the media has been so thoroughly iterated.

Digital media, along with almost every other tool devised in the past century, is not a solved problem. Some sites and products get it better than others, but the space hasn't yet evolved to the point where there are accepted paragon exemplars of usability, where any site that's not perfectly usable simply hasn't copied from the platonic ideal yet. That's still at least 200 years away, if not much further.

Praising usability is like giving me a gold star for remembering that I have to put each leg in a *different* place in my pants to put them on. (Admittedly, I *do* give my 2 year old daughter a gold star for this but then she’s 2.) Usability is not a strategy for design success.
As my co-worker Kerah Pelzcarski notes, "Yes, but Todd, it's not your daughter that's being tested -- it's the pants. If both legs had been sewn shut, they wouldn't have been very usable."

Todd is right about one thing though: Good usability is not to be praised. It should be expected and go unnoticed. Unusable products are quickly shunned by users, creating a Darwinistic model which means that even if we don't design around issues like comprehensibility and ease of use, given sufficient time and new designs we'll eventually evolve better products. However, since I don't have 4 billion years to spend, I choose to make my products better before they fail and are replaced.

The efficiency you create in your interface will be copied almost instantaneously by your competitors. Recently, I’m even coming to believe that focusing on usability is actually a path to failure.
Usability testing is a means to make your product better than the mediocrity of the competition. It's ridiculous to cite design plagiarism as a reason to not bother making your products better than the competition. The same argument could be applied to any aspect of the process of invention, and by applying it thusly you're saying that any attempt at innovation is the quickest route to failure through the squandering of resources. This may be true if you're making a sandwich, but not if you're more ambitious.

Despite Todd's sensationalistic claims, there are countless examples of products and services that have thrived against competitors due largely to a superior user experience generated through usability research. The Palm Pilot over the Newton, Southwest Airlines over United, the iPod/iTunes over countless mp3 players and music stores with lower costs and longer feature lists, Amazon over every other online book retailer.

Usability is too low level, too focused on minutia. It can’t compel people to be interested in interacting with your product or service. It can’t make you compelling or really differentiate you from other organizations.
This is a fallacious argument. By scoping the broad concept of 'usability' down to just those parts which are 'low level' and 'focused on minutia[e]' Todd seeks to justify his assertion that it can't make your service compelling or differentiate your product. What Todd misses is that usability isn't about arranging the furniture into the most pleasing configuration. It's making sure that people can find the bathrooms and that the doors are tall enough that people don't bump their heads.

We're lucky if usability on a product gets to the 'fit and polish' stage. Before it gets that far, usability has to identify and repair the blocking errors in a design. Usability isn't about making products exceed their design potential; it's about making sure that as much as possible of that potential is met. Usability is about making sure that users can figure out how to accomplish the purpose that the product or service is intended to facilitate, whether it's buying a book online, sending an email, or safely using a nailgun.

In closing, Todd writes:

Or put another way, there’s only so far you can get by streamlining the shopping cart on your website.
If 'only so far' is increasing task-completion by 23% (go ahead, ask Amazon about the impact of their 2001 shopping cart redesign, and then ask them about Amazon Prime). Usability alone isn't a substitute for functionality, but in a competitive environment it's a requisite for a successful product, and I'd expect a design researcher to know this.
MIT helping the Real World catch up to 60s Sci Fi
Monday, Jul 16, 2007
MIT team designs sleek, skintight spacesuit. One step closer to the 60s view of the future!
Douglas Adams - Is there an Artificial God?
Sunday, Jul 15, 2007
"The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away, and think this to be normal, is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be." - excerpt from Douglas Adams's talk, 'Is there an Artificial God?' [mp3 recording]
Unchecked enthusiasm
Friday, Jul 13, 2007
Sometimes I have so much inspiration inside me that it just bubbles and shakes and doesn't know where to let itself out. Tonight I have an inner core of greatness just trying to make its way out, but it's 1am (I always seem to post at 1am of late) and it's time to read Harry Potter so I can finish it and see the movie. I wonder how the Potter books tilt the scales of inspiration vs lost time...

BTW it's come to my attention that the redesign is utterly b0rked in IE (if it is, please drop me a line). That's what I get for not having a Windows install at home or work. Time to get Parallels I suppose.

Update: I'm going to give VMWare a try. It turns out that VMWare's Fusion lets windows apps coexist better on the desktop with Mac apps. Parallels Coherence does the same, but confines all Windows apps to the same layer, bringing all of them forward when you activate one. I thought it was the other way around. Go go VMWare!

Bugs McBuggy
Friday, Jul 06, 2007
A couple links in the redesign seemed to have problems yesterday, but everything should be working now.

Hit list for future development:
  • Related posts on single-post pages
  • Bring back category and archive pages with post summaries
  • Integration of some sort of quick feedback system (ideally within the feed as well as the site)
  • Despamify everything
  • iPhone-friendlier version (minor meta-tag changes mostly)
  • Interesting content.
If you've got any suggestions or notice any problems, please let me know. Also, for you long time readers looking for a bit of nostalgia, here's your hit.
Fury redesign is live!
Thursday, Jul 05, 2007
The redesign I've been tinkering with for the last month or two is finally live. The goals of this redesign were to simplify the content and layout, and to optimize the post pages for those coming from referrals or search engines.

I did away with a lot of things, not the least of which are my flickr photo stream and comments. Photos may make their way back in some fashion later and comments, while extremely valuable, need to be rethought before I add them back in. In all likelihood I'm going to re-cast comments as 'feedback' where readers can follow up with me about a post and some of those follow-ups may make their way in to the post in the form of updates. A nice side-effect of this design is that people who read Fury via RSS will be able to see updates to posts they've already read. Updates won't be so frequent as to become annoying to the RSS crowd. I'm using BoingBoing as a model for this.

Another change is that, with rare exception, the RSS feed will have the full content of posts instead of just the first two paragraphs.

I hope you like the changes. If you have any feedback you'd like to give, good or bad, please use the email link on the right-hand navigation on the site. Thank you!
There's a bug in iPhone's calculator
Monday, Jul 02, 2007
First off, I love, love, love my iPhone. That said, I found my first actual undeniable iPhone bug yesterday. There seem to be a few unresolved issues with the iPhone's calculator. If you have an iPhone, you can follow along at home.
  • Open the calculator
  • Press 'C' if there's currently a number in the register
  • press '4', '+', '5', and '='. As you might expect, you get '9'.
  • Press the 'home' button on the phone to return to the phone's launch page.
  • Now say you want to add 3 and 8. Re-open the calculator. After a moment you'll see the '9' return to the register. Nice, and expected.
  • Press '3'. Instead of clearing the register and showing '3', it appends the 3 to the existing 9 and now you have '93'. This means that every time you launch the calculator you have to clear the current entry before doing a calculation.

This is a strange issue so I had to go to Apple's desktop widget calculator to get a few facts straight. The desktop widget, like a conventional calculator, treats '=' as a terminal action, and will automatically clear the register if the next keypress is a digit. The hiding or showing of the widget has no bearing on the calculator's state. For example, if you're entering your bank account balance into the calculator and forget what the cents were you can exit the dashboard, look it up, re-invoke the dashboard and finish typing the number. On the other hand, if you finish a calculation by hitting '=' and leave the dashboard the number will still be displayed upon your return, but pressing any number will clear the register and start a new calculation. This is the same behavior as if you never left the calculator.

The iPhone's calculator doesn't seem to remember its full state, only the last number in the register. You can exit out of the calculator to lok up a number and come back and finish entering it, but if you've finished a calculation and leave the calculator, it's forgotten that you're not still in the middle of typing a number, forcing you to hit 'C' before you start.

If that were the extent of the problem it would be only mildly strange, but here's where it gets a lot weirder:

  • Open the calculator
  • Press 'C' to clear the register
  • Calculate '5 divided by 8'
  • Press the 'home' button and return to the launch page
  • Re-open the calculator
  • Watch carefully: The display says '0.625' Now press '5'. the display now says '11.25'! Press '4' and it now says '116.5'! What strange witchcraft is this?

It appears that the calculator uses the following logic to enter digits: On keypress 'N', multiply the register by 10 and add N. Following this logic, when the computer has '0.625' in the register and you press '5' it first multiplies 0.625 by 10, yielding 6.25, then adds 5 to it, totaling 11.25. On pressing 4 you get 11.25 * 10 + 4, or 112.5 + 4, or 116.5.

That solves the mystery for adding integers, but how does the calculator add the portion to the right of the decimal point?

  • Go to the calculator, enter 5 / 8, close and re-open the calculator.
  • Type '.'. Everything looks good and the display resets itself to '0.'!
  • Now type '2': You get 0.8.
  • Type '2' again: 0.84.
  • Type '2' again: 0.847.
  • Type '2' again: 0.8472.
  • Type '2' again: 0.84722.

This is basically the same bug, but it also demonstrates that the display register and the actual register aren't the same. When you typed '.' it automatically set the display to show zero significant digits of the actual register, so while the register still contained '0.625' it was only showing the '0.' portion. Pressing '2' pushed the display register to show one more significant digit (0.6), and added '2' to the least significant visible digit, yielding '0.8'. Pressing '2' again pushed the display to 0.82 and added 2 to the least significant visible digit, making 0.84. Pressing '2' again turned 0.825 to 0.827. Since subsequent digits were all zeroes, subsequent '2' presses behaved normally.

There are other oddities as well, mostly having to do with rounding that happens between the memory register and the display register. For example:

  • Divide 97 by 100 to yield 0.97.
  • Quit and re-open.
  • Press '.': The display now reads '1.', because that's 0.97 rounded to zero significant digits.

But wait, 0.625 rounded to zero significant digits is also 1! It appears that the relevant rounding occurs two significant digits below the current display. '0.94' closed, reopened, and '.'ed gets you '0.', as does '0.948', however '0.95' gets you '1.'

The point is that there are still a few bugs in the calculator, so be sure to hit 'C' before starting a new calculation, because some manifestations of the bug might not be quite so obvious when you're punching in a string of numbers.

The iPhone's headphone jack and world domination
Sunday, Jul 01, 2007
The iPhone's recessed headphone jack is genius I tell you. Maddening, apparently nonsensical, but pure genius. As those of you who have already bought iPhones know, most headphones don't fit the iPhone due to how far the plug is recessed into the case, meaning that unless a headphone plug has a very narrow flange behind the plug it won't fit. A lot of people have commented that this was short-sighted or uncaring of Apple, but I think it's a calculated move toward world domination.

How can a wonky headphone jack have such an impact? It's simple: Apple has become Mohamed and the mountains must now move to it. While a lesser company would have to fix their jack to fit the world, the iPhone has significant enough mindshare that Sony, Bose, Shure, and everyone else would rather retool their headphone plugs in order to be 'iPhone ready'. In fact they'll privately welcome it because new iPhone customers will end up buying another set of headphones specifically for their iPhone when they find their existing headsets don't work.

Works with iPhoneHeadphone manufacturers will definitely want to let their customers know that these retooled headphones will work with the iPhone, and what better way to do that than by applying Apple's 'Works with iPhone' logo on your headphones? Suddenly every pair of headphones sold carries an advertisement for a product and a use-case that only applies to perhaps one in a thousand people.

Headphones are one of the most commoditized pieces of electronics on the planet. They epitomize compatibility and 'plug and play'. You could never get away with making a truly proprietary headphone jack, and there's no other company that could modify the headphone jack in such an unimportant way and still get headphone manufacturers to scramble getting their revisions to market. You won't see a 'Made for Zune' or 'Works with Walkman' badge on headphone packaging (unless it's brown or made by Sony, respectively), but companies are more than willing to hitch their wagons to Apple's marketing train.

Of course, none of these companies have 'Works with iPhone' badges right now, because almost none of them do work, so with Apple's heads-up Belkin made a headphone adapter in time for launch. The item sticks straight out of the top of your iPhone, is stiff and about two inches longer than it needs to be, and is clearly a stopgap solution until revised headphones make it to market. Griffin Technology's iPhone headset adapter looks much more flexible but is not yet available.

Expect to see a whole slew of 'Works with iPhone' headphones wherever you buy electronics stuff within a few months, making even those unfortunate folks who live in one of the 13 states without Apple stores wonder, 'What's this iPhone thing? It sounds pretty important.'

As for me, I'm lusting after a 'Works with iPhone' product of my own. This August Shure is slated to come out with a headset+microphone adapter that will let you use any headphones (like my beloved Sony MDR-V6) for both listening to music and making phone calls. Judging by the headphone jack visible in the promotional photo I'm guessing it would have been to market already if they didn't have to redesign it to fit the iPhone jack. Irony.
Waiting in the iPhone line at Valley Fair
Thursday, Jun 28, 2007
It's 10:45pm on Thursday and Rachel, Keith and I are waiting in line for iPhones. 19 hours to go! We and the 10 others in line got moved from the Apple store inside the mall to an awning outside. They clearly planned things through with mall security. The line is now roughly 30 people and the cre3w from the store comes out every couple hours passing out water. Donuts and a 'surprise visit' are promised for 3am or so, and we should be escorted back into the mall proper sometime around 4 or 5am. We figure the line will really start growing around 6am.

iN line for the iPhone
Further bulletins will follow...

  
aboutme

Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
I've been blogging at Fury.com since 1998.
I can be reached at .

I also have a resume.

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pastwork

I've led design at Mozilla Labs, designed Gmail 1.0, Google Reader 2.0, FriendFeed, and a few special projects at Facebook.

©2012 Kevin Fox