December 24, 2013

Too many blinking lights : Possible vs functional hardware UI

Dave McClure made a slightly provocative statement recently on Twitter when he said, "many VCs are betting on HW advances dominating next decade, hwvr they fail 2 realize how critical functional UX will be in picking winners." I read his statement in a pre-vacation haze, but after a late night vacation jam session I realize his statement it is more important to amplify than I originally expected.

I took one of my KickStarter purchases with me on vacation, the blink(1) LED light. I was so excited to work with this. Imagine, I thought, what I could do by adding a near infinite number and variety of notifications to my Mac via a USB LED dongle. The engineer in me couldn't wait to see the limits of what I could do. I immediately wired it up in IFTT, a great, if geeky, web tool that allows you to do "if then" statements across supported devices and web platforms. Soon I was "if X then blink" for all sorts of events, supplemented by some quick hacks I made in Applescript. That's when Dave's statement hit me…

I had quickly created a notification monster. My blink(1) was blinking constantly with a variety of colors. Within minutes I was asking myself "Is the orangy color for my wife's email or the Twitter hashtag #Maker? And is that red really red or is that the orange one?"

There is an upper limit in our ability to process and uniquely identify notifications, both in terms of frequency and variety. My wife always asks me what alert came in when my phone buzzes? I have to admit to her that I have no idea. I have too many things on the phone trying to use vibration for notification. The color LED on my HTC One? Same problem. Other than green for email, I have no idea what the other colors are trying to tell me.

I expect that most designers reading this are having a "duh?!" moment. Having worked with great designers for so many years, I too had my "duh" moment, but only after I mentally stopped and put myself in a design frame of reference. I trained as an engineer but learned from designers. My first instinct was "what can I do" not "what is the right thing to do?" I had not a year ago had this very same notification debate with a group of engineers as I tried to keep the notification possibilities for a prototype down to an understandable minimum! But when placed into the role of creating engineer, I immediately crafted a beast. I had to laugh at myself.

I say this because today I see too few designers in early stage hardware programs. The hardware renaissance has unleashed the creativity and imagination of an army of hardware and software engineers, and that is a good thing. A great thing! I think, however, we need to marry this new found capability and creativity with the greater design community to create amazing AND functional products. I'm so lucky to have worked with designers who taught me when to notice that possible is subservient to practical and how to correct it when I notice that my blink(1) is suddenly blinking like a runway light at Heathrow airport on a busy evening!

So Dave, I agree with you!

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