February 12, 2007 4:00 AM PST

The human factor in gadget, Web design

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"Design must be optimized for body or brain, it has to be deeply human, something that you desire and aspire to. That's meaningful design," said Maeda.

Human-computer interaction design takes a page from a much older field known as "human factors," which came out of the aviation industry's effort to improve the ease-of-use of airplane cockpits after World War II. Now that we have cell phones, real-time graphical maps in the car and simple computers in everything from kitchen appliances to children's toys, the demand for people who understand how users interact with new technology has only grown.

"Design must be optimized for body or brain, it has to be deeply human, something that you desire and aspire to. That's meaningful design."
--John Maeda, a computer scientist at MIT's Media Lab

"Everything's becoming a computer--radios, cars, cameras, TVs--and they all have more computer power than the Apollo moon rocket," said Nielsen. "This may sound good, but it's not, because the designers can't help themselves to add so many more features than the user ever needs."

The good, the bad, the ugly
So which companies do design experts look to for inspiration?

Apple is cited more than any other company for its user design, and sales of the iPod illustrate where that obsession pays off. Experts say that a design aesthetic comes from the top, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs exemplifies that.

Some pundits would argue that Google's breakthrough was in building better search technology, but others might say its stripped-down interface was the innovation that attracted a majority of users. Maeda likes Google's design because it's simple, optimistic and humanistic. Its "I'm feeling lucky" button, for example, feeds a sense of optimism.

Another top choice is TiVo. During the VCR's heyday, people often joked about how hard it was to set time of day on the device, according to Don Norman, a design professor at Northwestern University. Time was essential because if the VCR wasn't set right, then people couldn't program it to record a show at a certain time. TiVo solved that problem by removing the time equation. The device enables consumers to simply record a program--say, the Australian Open--based on the title or subject matter, rather than record a show according to the channel and time slot. "That is breakthrough," Norman said.

Another example of good design, say experts, is the Nintendo Wii. Unlike game consoles that rely on controllers and buttons, Nintendo's Wii lets people play a game like they might in the real world. A person playing tennis, for example, would swing her arm with the Wii controller as though she were holding a tennis racket.

"It's a welcome sigh of relief to many people. Mind you, this didn't take any technological breakthrough, it just took some imagination and some thought about the average person," said Norman.

In the column of bad design, design critics (and BMW drivers) commonly flame BMW's iDrive, a one-knob control interface for all in-car systems--audio, navigation, phone, ventilation and so on. It's elegant, but most people think it isn't as intuitive as simple knobs and buttons. "It's a huge step backward to these abstract menus," Norman said.

The future of design
Industry experts say designers will have to be mindful of human attention spans in an age of information-overload. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon, MIT and other universities are working on designs that could, for example, give people more options than "on" or "off." CMU is working to develop interfaces that could detect what a person is working on (through visual sensors) and then perhaps deflect other attention-grabbing applications so the user can stay focused.

Experts say design of many household appliances and gadgets has typically been driven by marketing people, who believe that more buttons, controls and features sell. But manufacturers like Whirlpool are beginning to think about making their devices less intimidating, according to Norman.

New user interfaces, like so-called multi-touch screens, are also promising to change computing and devices. Jeff Han, who famously introduced new multi-touch technology at the high-profile media conference Technology, Entertainment and Design last year, recently launched a company called Perceptive Pixel to sell the multi-touch technology, starting with the military.

The technology removes the keyboard and the mouse so that people can use two hands to do things like touch the screen, zoom in on data, edit pictures or manipulate 3D maps. Perceptive Pixel is working on bringing the technology to tabletops and walls as big as 8 feet wide.

"In general, technology's become so good that it's not the differentiator between products," said Han. "User interface is becoming a huge differentiator."

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Interested in interaction design? read this
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Interactions-Bill-Moggridge/dp/0262134748/sr=8-1/qid=1171292703/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-9998220-3997618?ie=UTF8&#38;s=books" target="_newWindow">http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Interactions-Bill-Moggridge/dp/0262134748/sr=8-1/qid=1171292703/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-9998220-3997618?ie=UTF8&#38;s=books</a>

Great book filled with interviews of some of the brains behind the Palm Pilot, iPod and more.
Posted by Lite Rocker (42 comments )
Reply Link Flag
YouTube Succeeds for Another Reason
YouTube certainly succeeds for the reason cited in the article--because it simply works. All too often I click on a video link to have something start, then to get an error (this version of whatever not supported, you require this software, etc). I don't even bother at that point.

But, there's a second, even more important reason that YouTube succeeds: Because what they're providing on video is SUITED for video. It's not the video representation of information that's better gleened from the written word. All too often websites try to adapt TV footage to the web when a couple written paragraphs would provide all the information the viewer wishes, and within the 30-seconds he's willing to devote to the subject before he moves on to something more attractive. Video doesn't allow for quick scanning--You must commit to the entire footage, or risk missing what you seek.

--mark d.
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.summitpost.org/user_page.php" target="_newWindow">http://www.summitpost.org/user_page.php</a>
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Interaction Design
I'm a human factors consultant, and I believe there are basically
three universal problems with electronic products: modes,
convoluted logic, and hidden functions. Modes are when a
control does different things in different device states; think of
the remote control POWER button that turns OFF the TV when
you try to turn ON the DVD player. Convoluted logic is when you
have to follow a sequence of hard-to-remember steps in order
to accomplish something. This was the typical VCR
programming problem. An example of a hidden function is when
the POWER button for a car radio switches power between the
radio and CD player when pressed momentarily and only actually
turns power off to the unit when pressed and held. All are
strategies used to access more product features with limited
control space; instead of a one-to-one mapping between
controls and functions, there may be fifteen controls and fifty
functions. I believe that the only way around the problem of
increased user complexity with an increasing number of
functions is the application of appropriate functional metaphors
- make the product work like the user thinks, so the user
doesn't have to learn how the product works. This is backed up
by research that suggests that Americans typically return a
product as defective if they can't get it to work within about
twenty minutes, and about half of all product returns are due to
this reason.

Victor Riley
User Interaction Research and Design, Inc.
Posted by vriley (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Shameless (though topical) plug
bMuze.com is currently doing to music what YouTube is doing to video--easy to upload, share, and play (yes, i am associated with bMuze.com so of course i think it is great).

but to the larger point, so much of the web is designed to make things *harder* for people--as an example, it took my wife four tries to get the Capchta right to sign up for digg.com (capchta's are those graphical squiggly things of text that are used to see if you are really human or not). these types of steps, along with needing to fill out forms detailing everything about your life to even participate in an discussion are getting a tad out of hand.
Posted by jeremy.pickett (5 comments )
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which humans?
Touting the ipod and palm pilot as the be-all and end-all in human factor design misses something that todays marketers keep trying to avoid - the entire world is not made up of 15-30 year old males. Women outnember men in the population, and control more of the wealth. And boomers are still around, still have a lot of disposable income, and, if the the government social security statistics are to be heeded, outnumber the "new" generation. The Wii is doing as well as it is partly because girls and women love the intuitive interface. My 27 year old daughter HAD to have one, and her 54 year old mother plays with her. And Nintendo didn't insult us by making it pink. I programmed my first computer using punch cards over 30 years ago. And now that I wear bifocals I'm not going to stop using them - but I'll spend my money on what works for me, not for the annoying brat next door.
Technology is not an end in itself. It exists as a tool to make my life easier. When it fails to do that I spend my money on something else that does work for me. And eventually the brat next door will grow up and realize the same thing.
Posted by debll (9 comments )
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That was an interesting read
As one Canada's largest consulting firms in human factors we can certaintly relate to the recent rise in awareness and acceptance of our field in the business world. Even in the relatively short time (6 years) Maskery has been around we find ourselves more often in the situation where we are explaining how we do human factors rather than what it is.

Companies now seem to more clearly understand the direct business benefits or understanding the importance of optimizing the interaction between people and technology. And at least now we know why its still so difficult to find highly trained experts in the field - Google and Nasa are taking them all :-).
Posted by teddevg (1 comment )
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The human factor in gadget, Web design
Quote " In the '90s, Microsoft started building a user design team
that now includes roughly 500 people, industry experts say."

If this is the true then every criticism everyone has ever said of
Microsoft and it's software &#38; hardware is true.

500 people that are inept at their job.
Posted by mozart11 (30 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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