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.
"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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