December 28, 2008

No sense in sensors

I like buttons. I like handles. I like dials. I like doorknobs. I like doors for that matter. I like physical controls whose shape and feel suggests their usage and whose usage provides physical feedback. If it clicks, budges and moves, then it's good. When it is in expected position and its usage is apparent from its form, then it's good.

Sensor controls makes no sense to me. I hate smearing fingers against black glossy surface, with unclear outcome. Did it work ? Did I activate the right icon ? I hate it when controls are not really controls, but images on the glass. I hate it when controls change their places, look and functions depending on what I am doing.

Even my stove is black and glossy, with no buttons but tiny engraved white icons. Makes it easy to clean for sure, but using it feels nowhere like pressing a button. Oh well, at least the icons are always in same positions.

iPhone, yes I tried it. Could have spoken through a cigarette case instead. Doesn't feel like phone at all. Large flat nothing.

Now, why sensor controls are so popular these days then ?

The way I see it, sensor controls are cheap alternative to good interface design. See, if they knew what this thing would be used for, they could have spent time and money on design and give it a nice interface, specifically for its function.

But there is a problem - they don't know what the thing will be used for. Instead they plan to use it for something no one could imagine at the moment. And they don't want to cast it in stone. They want to leave their options open, so that the interface can be changed later through software update.

From the manufacturer point of view, the sensor panel is the ideal instrument to implement any interface they may need in the future. It is a way to secure investments, rather than make it more pleasant to use. And the rest is nothing but fashion, done through professional advertising, product placement and bandwagon effect.

Ideally, people need to be placed in a world with indifferent black walls, with the content dynamically downloadable from the BigCorp site. Virtual reality, that's what it is. Opaque screens instead of windows, so that you can choose a "view". Dumb sensor panels with fake buttons. Smaller packages with more useless contents. Things that you have no control over.

And I hate it. I like real things.


Dima said...

Well, I agree and disagree at the same time.

I agree, having dedicated controls to do dedicated things is an ideal. It is good. And for this matter, physical controls are also good.

For iPhone, as I understand it, it has been designed so to say as an iPod++. And its major goal was media consuming. Video. For viewing video you don't need controls. You need a big screen. And it is what you have. Actually, I wonder that it still has its "Home" button. Ideally, it shouldn't have any buttons at all.

But iPhone is a computer, even if it doesn't look like one. And computers were seldom used to do thing they have been designed for, you know this. Though in favor of Apple, I must say, they argue for accelerometer to be used as a control mechanism (at least in games). So to say you get back your physical control but now it is the device as a whole.

Dmitry Dvoinikov said...

I agree, it is indeed typical for a computer to have dynamic interface to support various applications. But then it is specifically "a computer", not a dedicated device like phone, video player or anything else in particular.

Sad, this fashion for combo devices. I'd much prefer to buy a phone with a well designed interface for a phone, and (should I ever need one) a portable video player with a well designed interface for a video player.

And pressing images behind glass is still unpleasant. :)

Dima said...

But what do you mean by "a computer"? Should it look like a big white box where you connect a keyboard? iPhone is not a "dedicated device", it is "a computer". Its average use is exactly the same as for all other computers: web surfing, emails and third-party applications. Making calls is just a handy add-on reducing the number of devices you have to carry with you.

I don't think combo devices are a fashion. Imagine somebody who carries everywhere his laptop, his PDA, his mobile phone (typically even two - the private one and the business one) and his MP3 player. I know what you might say: this guy is crazy, there is nothing of those things that he really needs. Of course, it is true. But look around. I see such people every day - lots of them. They are called businessmen and businesswomen. And also many others. Combo devices is not a fashion, it is a way of survival - so much hardware is just too heavy :)

For pressing images behind glass - for typing (text), I agree, unpleasant. But think of a computer mouse: with mouse you move an IMAGE of your hand to press on other "images behind glass". I think, being able to use at least your hand directly is a step forward :)

Dmitry Dvoinikov said...

Tell me this then - if its primary function is being an all-purpose computer, why is it called iPhone ? Isn't it strange ? I still think that devices like that are marketed as "phones with a twist", not "computers with GSM connection".

Combo devices indeed allow to reduce the number of items one has to carry with him. On the other hand, devices that combine different things in them may feel cheaper, less stylish, and are certainly less robust and more vulnerable to a single component failure. This last one may be even a benefit, because the consumer has to replace the entire $1000-worth gadget when only one of its components is effectively broken.

Combo devices are complex and remain unexplored. They contain functions their owner will never use. Not only he had to pay for it, but something he doesn't even know about the thing he owns, can harm him.

The entire idea of combo devices is certainly not new and has not always been for good, check out this and this.

Originally, when it comes to electronics, the primary reason combo devices emerged IMO was not compactness. When parts were large and expensive, the reuse of functional blocks allowed to make the entire combo cheaper. When you had to have a radio and a turntable, and an amplifier with speakers anyway, combo was a viable solution. Now, I don't need my phone to contain half of the functions it contains. They come against my will, although there is no technical difficulties in producing a less burdened device.

And I completely disagree with your note about a mouse. See, it is about things called "tools". :) You hardly ever write with your bare fingers, instead you use a pen or a keyboard, in any case, the point at which you apply pressing or movement is not the same point where the result appears. You open a door by pulling a handle, not the door itself. You hit a banana with a stick to make it fall down. Anyway, such indirection is habitual, and a mouse is but one example - you move your hand over here, but the effect of that is over there - on the screen. This is IMO normal.

My original point was that good interaction should have a tactile feedback, intuitively associated with what you imagine you are doing. The mouse is exactly a good example - you move your hand to cause identical movement of the pointer and you press a button feeling a distinct click to cause an action. In this way, you associate mouse pointer with a finger and it behaves as expected. Compare this to a trackpoint - it feels nowhere as comfortable. Or imagine a mouse with sensor buttons - try a double click on that :)

This does not imply that we are out of interaction possibilities - the mentioned keyboard is just over a hundred years old, and we are all using it comfortably now.

Dima said...

Er... you know, there is nothing more misleading than marketing names :) By the way, take a look here: "15,000 Apps. And counting." - what is this marketing for if not for a computer?

For a mouse, my point is that what you have to do with the mouse has nothing to to with what you want to be done. Using your banana analogy you take the stick and hit somebody to bring you a banana. It works, but it is not a direct manipulation :) Why associating mouse pointer with a finger if you have a finger? Using the finger returns you your physical control instead of a virtual mouse pointer - your finger, don't you mind?

Dmitry Dvoinikov said...

Your arguments are very good indeed and I find them interesting.

Then, iPhone may have been coined by market researchers, but is still the name of the thing. What would an average person answer to a direct "what is iPhone ?" question ?

Considering the finger vs. mouse argument, I don't see how smearing finger to a glass is more direct than dragging a piece of plastic around :) More intuitive/natural for someone who never saw a mouse, yes.

But, it's also a matter of habit and convenience. For that person who never saw a mouse, using a big touch-screen once or twice a day could be a great experience. But if he'd need to actively manipulate objects on a screen for hours and he'd still want to do it with his bare hands, using touch screen may become a fitness contest :) Enter mice that have been developed precisely to manipulate virtual objects on a screen with very little muscular effort.

Dima said...

You know, I think, what happens is that all electronic devices around us slowly shift towards generic computers. At the moment they may be restricted in functionality and may look like the "good old" things, but the number of supported features grows continuously. I'm not saying it is good or bad, it simply happens. And probably we need a new name for this "a computer" thing. We still call these new things their old names but they are something different now. Something for which we don't have a good name yet.

I believe, we converge to a fixed point :) I don't argue that touch interfaces is a solution to all problems. I like mouse more than a touchpad on a notebook. I just wanted to say that for such a small computer as an iPhone touch interface appears to be more usable than everything else that has been done on such devices before (by Palm, Windows Mobile and Symbian to name just the biggest players). But I would appreciate if at some point in time iPhone would get a touchscreen with a tactile response.

Dmitry Dvoinikov said...

I totally agree with you here.