Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Lack of Affordance Problem

Yesterday, I complained about the lack of an eject button on an Apple USB DVD drive. That design philosophy problem goes much deeper than just a single drive. It pervades Apple products, and, although I love them, it drives me spare!

If I could say one thing to Jonny Ive it would be: "In designing to make the every day use of Apple's products a wonderful experience you're missing the moment when your users need you most. It's when everything goes wrong that the user needs the maximum help. It's in those moments (of despair) that a well designed product will surprise and delight the user."

The DVD drive is an example of the opposite. When it's working it's lovely to look at, but when it goes wrong it's as enigmatic as the 2001 monolith.

The mystical incantations necessary to remove the DVD from the drive (such as the hold down the mouse button while rebooting your machine) have to be passed on from the Apple elders in secret whispers (or found by a desperate Google search). Surely, there's a better way? The DVD drive could have had a discreet eject button. And Apple software could be better.

Take the MacBook Air. If it's gone wrong and I need help I'm going to need the serial number. How do I get it? There are (at least) two ways. First it's printed on the bottom of the machine in tiny type printed in almost the same colour as the case. It's as if the designer wanted to make it hard to read. For goodness sake it's on the bottom of the machine, it wouldn't have killed you to use bigger type, or a different colour.

The second way is in software. But knowing that requires more mystical knowledge and reveals something truly nasty. Here's the dialog you get by clicking Apple -> About This Mac.

If you click on the grey text that says Version 10.6.8 the text changes, first to the build number and then to the serial number. There's is no indication that this will happen. The cursor doesn't change, it's normal text that the user wouldn't expect to see change like this. (You can also click More Info... to get the System Profiler where you can find the same information).

Why do this Apple? Why not let me know this is clickable? What's needed is an affordance. Something that lets the user know that this is interactive, that leads the user to the right action.

This situation gets worse with touch screens. Because there's no 'hover' possibility you are left guessing which inscrutable user interface element might be interactive, or what gestures are possible.

I swear that one day the iPhone will do something interesting if you take the Tai Chi "Carry Tiger to Mountain" position.

And don't even get me started on the abomination that is the Apple keyboard USB extension cable fiasco which is a USB cable with a special little indentation in the USB plug so you can't use it for anything else. That just feels like that designers sat around laughing at the purchaser.

And then there's the problem of video connectors.

PS A commentator on Hacker News pointed out that the USB specification prohibits extension cables and so although millions of the things exist, Apple probably did the right thing by making the extension a non-USB cable.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.


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