Archive for the ‘Usability’ Category

Sonicare Review Haiku (it’s true!)

Friday, August 15th, 2008

So I finally buckled down a few months ago and bought a Sonicare toothbrush.  Talk about “things I should have done ages ago.”  My teeth now feel squeaky clean.  I have to watch how quickly I smile, lest my head ring with the familiar squeaking of freshly washed Tupperware.  But enough about personal hygiene.

The real question is this:  Sonicare has a regular model, the e7300, priced at $75.  Then there’s the model marketed to “teens” (since we all know their teeth are way different from adults’), the e3000, priced at a meager $25.  What’s the real difference between the two models?  Well, dumb stuff.  Like the e7300 has several LEDs to tell you how much power is left.  Like the e7300 pauses every 30 seconds to say hi and help you count down your two-minute recommended brushing time (~which~ model is for teens again?!).  Like whereas the e3000 takes AA batteries, the e7300 has a sealed-in, completely un-replaceable, only-the-factory-knows-how-so-you-might-as-well-throw-the-whole-brush-away-when-it-goes-bad battery.  Talk about planned obsolescence.  The environmentally conscious among you can simply use rechargeable AA’s on the e3000 and essentially get the same toothbrush for a third the price.

At least that was my theory.  But ever the scientist, I had to find out empirically whether this holds true.  So three months ago I bought both brushes.  My wife and I used one each.  I figured I’d keep an eye on both brushes to see whether, indeed, buying the cheaper one is the slam-dunk, obvious thing to do.

Three months later, the cheaper brush suddenly stopped working.  No rust, no apparent damage, no other contraindications.  It simply stopped coming to life.

Now, the brand- and marketing-conscious among you will simply say, “I told you so.”  “You get what you pay for.”  That whole bit.  But I beg to differ.  Since the e3000 costs a third the price of the e7300, I’d have to have two more go bad before we’re even talking the same game.  I haven’t decided yet whether the e3000 was simply manufactured to die early.  But I plan to find out, once again empirically.  I will, yet again, buy an e3000.  In fact, even if that one dies, I plan to buy a third one.  At that point, if the third one dies before the first e7300, we can debate whether or not my fourth brush should still be the cheaper one.  That would be the apples-to-apples comparison.

In the meantime, I’ve written up my experience in Haiku form on Amazon (it’s pretty obvious which review is mine — look for the familiar Haiku spacing).  For all I know, it might be Amazon’s first Haiku review.  Click to it and vote it up!  Let’s see if we can make the Haiku review some sort of cult phenomenon, like flash mobbing.  You can say you were there when it all started.

Secret Ninja Moves

Friday, July 18th, 2008

Office Hours, the Microsoft Office Online site, has posted a new article by me, titled Top 10 Most Useful Secret Ninja Moves in Office.  I had no idea that it’s been a whole year since my first article there (Top 7 Employee Bungles Using Microsoft Office).

The Office Hours folks send me a summary of the page views, comments, and ratings on the articles.  Employee Bungles, a whimsical article that’s not overly helpful, is read by far more people per month despite being reviewed by some as “not helpful.”  On the other hand, Secret Ninja Moves is unanimously hailed as “extremely helpful,” but yet has little readership.

Odd, the way these things work.

WWFMD: What Would the Fire Marshall Do?

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

Fire safety standards are quite different from those of the US in several buildings I frequent here in Shanghai.  There don’t seem to be as many accommodations to make sure that people can evacuate quickly and safely in case of fire.

For instance, in my apartment building you need to do two things before you can exit from the main door:

  1. Press a small, recessed green button to the right of the door.  This button, if left un-pressed, keeps the main door locked so that people on the inside can’t exit.  Someone please write in to explain to us the logic of this.  I see this design in most buildings in Shanghai.
  2. Pull the door towards you in order to exit.  Which direction a door operates is something that was resolved decades ago in the US, what with all the tramplings in movie theaters due to fire scares and what not.  Doors in buildings should always open outward.  That way 300 people don’t all get logjammed at the entrance when trying to rush out of a burning building.

The same weirdness happens even at work.  The Microsoft building in Zizhu (a small town in the southern outskirts of Shanghai) not only has these oddities, but has the additional death-blow of requiring a cardkey in order to exit.  To get into the offices, you understandably need a cardkey.  But apparently the building designers thought it’d be Super Extra Double-Secret Secure if you also required a cardkey to get out.

I, and this is no joke, got locked between two sets of doors in this Microsoft office.  It was my first day of work so my cardkey wasn’t yet recognized.  A guard let me into the first set of doors, at which point I realized that I couldn’t get into the second set of doors since they also required a cardkey.  When I tried to go back into the lobby to explain this, I was faced with yet another card reader.  I could neither go into the offices nor go back out into the lobby.

Good thing I didn’t have to use the restroom and that there wasn’t a fire.  I suppose one could argue that if both things happened simultaneously — that is, if I both needed to use the restroom and there happened to be a reasonably small fire that, say, 500 mL of bodily fluid could easily put out, given some patience and steady willpower in the face of adversity — I’d actually be alright locked in the Fire Hole.

As it was, I just waited for another employee to leave for the lobby and tailgated behind him.  He at least had the decency to let me out without demanding to first see my cardkey.  (“I’m sorry, sir, but you’re going to have to wait here.  I can’t let you out if you don’t have a Microsoft cardkey.”)  What exactly makes a building more secure if you need a cardkey to get out?  Someone enlighten me.

Necessity Must Be Infertile

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

I bought a jar of Sanka just a few days ago.  It’s been a while since I’ve had Sanka, but I’m currently on vacation and the condo’s coffee maker looks disgusting, so I figured I’d simplify and just deal with Sanka for a bit.

Necessity 001When opening it for the first time, I noticed that the cap wasn’t your standard coffee jar / peanut butter jar plastic cap.  Instead, the grip portion of the cap was a rubberized grippy material which the marketers named EZ Grip (see left).  And indeed, it was easy to grip.  Far easier than the standard hard-plastic ribbed cap that you get in almost any other grocery jar.

This got me thinking.  How many years has the old rubber band trick been around, the one where you wrap a thick rubber band around the lid of a hard-to-open jar to give it better traction?  Sanka’s EZ Grip is essentially that same idea, but built in.

This state of affairs seems ridiculous to me.  I don’t at all fault EZ Grip’s producers for making a classic concept into a branded (and no doubt now patented) “invention.”  On the contrary, it shocks and awes me that it has taken us (meaning The Global We, the Sum of Humanity) so many decades to finally come up with EZ Grip.

If necessity is the mother of invention, I worry she’s infertile.

Let me count the ways.  Since I’ve been traveling lately, I’ll use everyday examples from recent experience:

  1. Necessity 002 Luggage with built-in wheels and handles.  Those of you born after the early 80’s may not even remember a time when luggage came without wheels and handles.  It used to be when you traveled that you would bring, in addition to all your luggage, Necessity 003 a folding luggage cart, complete with a set of bungee cords to strap your luggage onto the cart prior to wheeling the whole contraption through the airport.  Then you’d undo the bundle at the counter, fold up the cart, and check the cart in along with all your baggage at the counter.  This went on for years. Necessity 004 Never mind the phase where luggage on four wheels was towed behind you by a strap, inevitably resulting in the luggage falling over and crushing nearby kids at every turn.  Finally, after decades, someone thankfully integrated wheels and collapsible handles into luggage.  Nowadays, you can hardly find luggage without it.
  2. Integrated cup holders in cars.  Although cup “holders” had been available as early as the 1950’s (where by “holders,” we mean two shallow indentations that suggested where you might set cups down, but were by no means sufficient for you to actually drive with the cups in them), true cup holders weren’t introduced into cars until the 1980’s.  They first made it into minivans and are now pretty much ubiquitous.  It took about a century after the automobile’s invention for cup holders to be introduced into cars.
  3. Necessity 006 Necessity 005 Big Mouth Slam Can.  Your mouth might not even remember a time when all soda cans had narrow-profile lids.  For decades, the opening in the can was taller than it was wide, like the first photo to the right.  Then Mountain Dew came along and introduced the first wide-aspect can opening.  It was far easier to drink from and presumably costs no more to make than the original.  Who even knows why the original opening was made so narrow?  Mountain Dew called the new opening the Big Mouth Slam Can when it was first introduced.  Now you can hardly buy a can without it.
  4. Soda boxes that fit and dispense in the fridge.  While we’re on the subject of sodas…  For decades, twelve-packs came in cardboard boxes that were three cans high and four cans wide.  The layout was such that you’d have to lay it sideways in the fridge, such that none of the sodas would dispense.  You’d end up either reaching deeply into the box whenever you wanted a soda or unpacking the sodas prior to refrigerating them.  Only several years ago, soda boxes finally changed to be two sodas high and six sodas wide, allowing you to put the box in the fridge in a way affords easy dispensing.

Why do simple inventions take decades for us to figure out?  The inventions I mention above are all very simple and do not take any sort of serious engineering or domain expertise.  Anyone can come up with these ideas.  And yet it seems to take forever for us to do so.

The evolution of luggage is particularly abysmal.  It used to be that luggage didn’t come with wheels at all.  People traveled with trunks — literally boxes — that required two people (read: servants) to carry.  How long has humanity known about the wheel?!  Some trunks didn’t even come with handles!

There’s all this talk in business literature about “innovation,” “invention,” and “disruptive technologies,” but all I see is idiocy.  We do even very basic things in idiotic ways.  Forget all this talk about the next billion dollar breakthrough, nanotechnology, the human genome, etc.  Let’s just focus a few moments’ thought on improving everyday things.

Perhaps good ideas don’t surface for several reasons:

  1. We don’t expect more.  Carry my luggage?  Fine.  Use a separate folding cart?  Sure.  Unpack my sodas every time?  Ok.  Struggle with opening jars?  Who hasn’t?
  2. Everyday inventors aren’t empowered to realize their inventions.  Suppose you think of the Big Mouth Slam Can before Mountain Dew does.  What are you going to do about it?  Write them?  The people who read those mails don’t care.  Patent it? Most people with a good idea aren’t going to put hundreds of dollars and several years’ time into patenting it.  Most times, when an idea occurs to you, you just want a company who is actually in that line of business to take the idea and run with it.  You just want to drink your soda more easily.
  3. Companies don’t care.  They truly don’t.  Sure, they talk about how innovative they are all the time.  But they really don’t care about everyday usability.  They’re too busy making money from the status quo.  This is the only explanation I have for why things continue to be so unusable when they can often be improved so easily.

We so often do things half way.  Once things seem good enough, we stop demanding better.  Take soda boxes.  Now they fit in a fridge — great.  But the last few sodas in the box still require you to reach into the box since it sits completely level in the fridge.  Why do inventors leave these loose ends?  To solve the “last few cans” problem, couldn’t they just wrap a cardboard strap behind the last few cans which you tug on to release the final few?  Or couldn’t they provide a fold-out that inclines the box in the fridge?

Somebody please tell me why this happens.  Why are products continually made in substandard, unusable ways?