Are You a Design Geek?

March 22nd, 2010 9 Comments

Everyone notices the design of everyday objects. You can’t really avoid it.

I suppose good design makes an object a joy to use, whereas bad design makes it a pain. Everyone notices, but I think being a design geek means you not only do you notice, but you appreciate and improve.

The longer I’ve been in software, the more of a design geek I’ve become. I relentlessly evaluate software because it’s a big part of what I do, but over the past decade or so, my geekery has spilled over into real life.

Over the weekend, I was encountered two real world designs that bother me: the car clock and the coffee maker.

The car clock
Daylight saving time happened here in the US about a week ago, and my wife hadn’t rolled the clock in my car ahead yet.

I didn’t recall how to change it, so I fiddled around for about five minutes trying to figure it out, giving it an intuitive test. This is definitely not an operation that should require the user manual.

I eventually combined the right button (aptly called Time) with the tuning dial to advance the clock. The key bit was turning off the radio so the tuning dial didn’t change the station.

This is a relatively spartan dash, being a Jeep and all, but even so, the combination seemed overly complex compared to say the H and M divots next to the clock display on my wife’s car. Those are perfectly intuitive, but maddening for another reason.

I never have the right tool to push them, i.e. a pen, a paperclip, etc.

Reminiscing about the other cars I’ve owned, I recall they each had a button/dial combination that was tough to remember, with the exception of one which buried the time adjustment function three levels deep into its car OS.

As much as I never have the right tool for the job, I appreciate the ease of use of the clock in my wife’s car.

Changing the time in your car isn’t a very common use case, e.g. I do it two a year. So, I naturally stumbled onto a question:

Is it OK to make a feature hard to use if that feature is not used very much?

The design geek in me says no, but the PM in me says yes and then backslides to probably.

The coffee maker
My coffee maker mysteriously died last week, which is a catastrophe. Working from home means lots of coffee. No coffee maker is a very bad thing.

We tend to go through coffee makers pretty frequently, like every four years or so. I assume that’s frequent, anyway.

My wife insists on white coffee makers, which means I don’t generally have much selection. So, our last one was bought more out of necessity and less out of feature richness.

Still, it had a bunch of features: auto-start brewing, auto-off element, small pot setting, decalcification warning, audible alarms, and more.

And it only had four buttons to control all these features.

When we got it, I had to read the manual, and I had to keep it nearby to reprogram the thing when my wife unplugged it, fearing a fire.

Programming that thing was like Dance-Dance Revolution for your fingers. Even after nearly four years, it still took me 5-10 minutes to get it ready to go.

So, I wasn’t that sorry to see it die. Now I need to figure out what features I really need and ideally get a chance to test drive them first.

I’m thinking about this beauty, mainly because I have a buddy who has the stainless version. I haven’t quizzed him on its interface, but I just might, even though that’s a bit strange. He knows me.

The question in this case is, does a coffee maker need that many features, and if so, isn’t there a better way to implement them?

Bit of a softball question, but I always wondered how that old coffee maker’s design was deemed usable.

So, are you a design geek? Do you notice good/bad design? Did you know Paul has a Flickr group for “Adventures in Bad Design“?

Find the comments and share.


Possibly Related Posts

9 Responses to “Are You a Design Geek?”

  1. Andy Says:

    For god's sake, stop drinking crap coffee and get yourself a decent espresso machine. It'll change your life – not only that, but the joy of taking a few minutes to craft a beautiful coffee is better than a cigarette break.

  2. joel garry Says:

    Baaad interface. DST isn't so bad, just touch the time display, though it took some meandering through push button menus before I realized that. But the real misfunction is trying to tune stations while driving. You have to look at the display, then touch the right part while the car is reacting to bumps in the road. You can't even steady your hand by putting it on the ridge at the bottom of the screen, 'cause when you bump, you hit the “hide list.” Not to mention the touchable area doesn't include the entire box displayed. Wife's car has duplicate hardware buttons, you can do those by feel/location memory. But of course, it is Sync, and has all those weird MS bugs, including an annoying habit of suddenly and loudly announcing it is dialing home a maintenance report, and then failing.

    Hands free phone has an issue with voice mail – it expects a password, so you have to pick up the phone and look at it, and the timeout means you can't get it in fast enough anyways.

    There's also an analog clock, with one button to make it go forward. Easy, but takes a while in the fall.

    Unlike Braun and Jobs, who make things functional and good looking, Chrysler makes things good looking (well, that's opinion), but not always so functional. (But don't tell the rock-crawlers that!)

    I'm still having DST issues with Oracle (10.2.0.4 dbconsole), btw.

  3. oraclenerd Says:

    It's like reading 37signals a couple of years ago…one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.

    I too look at things from a design perspective…unfortunately. It's frustrating to see so much out there designed so poorly. I had the exact same problem with my car clock too, I don't do it frequently enough to remember how. I also (stupidly) decided to change the time while driving 80mph across a bridge.

    I digress.

    You've got me thinking about it again in regards to the iPad. My parents are talking about getting one and I was trying to have this discussion with them…about how computers are just tools and they should “just work.”

    I guess it's fascinating (design) because I'm usually hidden off in some cave doing (giggle) back-end work.

  4. Jake Says:

    Color me skeptical. I like espresso OK, but it's just not enough. I like to sip good coffee for longer than five minutes at at time :) Plus, it's not economically feasible what with my caffeine demands.

  5. Jake Says:

    Seriously who designs car UI? From what I've seen, it's universally terrible. Maybe Apple should take that on as another frontier to conquer.

    As for Chrysler, it's a push for me. Wife's car, which is a Chrysler, has the old school divots that work fine. My Jeep has the dopey Street Fighter combo move.

    Sorry to hear you're having DST problems. I wonder how much money that random change has cost the country.

  6. Jake Says:

    Yeah, sometimes I borrow from respected people, and sometimes our quirks overlap in a happy coincidence.

    The iPad has stirred up a lot of design (and usage) fervor, and rightly so. Pondering a post on emphatic design. The iPad may actually be the agent of user revolt against the bad old ways that required snarky, arrogant geeks to maintain.

    Or it might just be a tablet.

  7. Andy Says:

    Maybe you're missing the point. Espresso machines don't just make short strong coffee – they have this steam wand that heats a bunch of milk up and then you pour that in. And when it comes to design, they look way better than what you're thinking about – and functionally those machines don't make coffee, it's muddy dishwater with a coffee flavour. Course, you need to spend about 500 bucks to get a half way decent one.

  8. Jake Says:

    I'm definitely missing something :) I know what an espresso machine does, but I'm not really much of a milk + coffee guy. So, pointing out the steam wand feature won't work.

    The wife wants one, but as you say, they're not cheap, and most take up a fair amount of counter space.

    I guess the brew process is what matters. I've never seen an espresso machine make the quantity of coffee that I want. Tiny shots just aren't enough. For now, muddy dishwater will have to do.

  9. Jake Says:

    I'm definitely missing something :) I know what an espresso machine does, but I'm not really much of a milk + coffee guy. So, pointing out the steam wand feature won't work.

    The wife wants one, but as you say, they're not cheap, and most take up a fair amount of counter space.

    I guess the brew process is what matters. I've never seen an espresso machine make the quantity of coffee that I want. Tiny shots just aren't enough. For now, muddy dishwater will have to do.

Leave a Reply