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The Interface Problem

2005-10-24 16:23:02.312613+00 by petronius 12 comments

I saw this one-handed clock in the Hammacher-Schlemmer catalog the other day, and it got me thinking about interfaces. Clocks have been around for nearly 800 years, and it took a few centuries to come up with our current standard 2 or 3 handed face. The digital display clock did not replace the old one however. Instead we seem to have realized that we don't need so much to know what time is is as what time it isn't, and the clock face is a fast visual calculator of how much time we have before or after some reference moment. I see little chance of things changing in this realm.

My question is what other interfaces still need improvement. The auto companies have tried new ideas over the years, like push-button manual transmissions in the 50s, or experimental steering yokes instead of the wheel, but they never caught on; the existing interfaces seemed to do the job fine. Certainly the keyboard/mouse combination isn't the last word on the man/computer interface, but what might the alternative be? Somehow, I don't think voice activation is the way to go, and direct brain connection jacks seem far off. The pen interface seems to have had its moment and is now going back to teeny-weeny keyboards on Blackberries et al. The menu-driven interface on lower-priced digital cameras is a nightmare if you want to try something different like not using the flash but holding the damn camera still instead. I think a volume dial on my TV's remote would be more convenient than the up-an-down buttons. Where else do we need work in this area?

[ related topics: Photography Technology and Culture Invention and Design Work, productivity and environment Television Heinlein ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-24 17:29:49.019808+00 by: Dan Lyke

I find the constant attempts to re-define light switches and door knobs amusing. Many of them are indeed better (anyone who's tried to grab a knob with a wet hand appreciates some of the lever designs), but some of them are demonstrably worse. Anything that needs a text description...

This also gets into my "the best interface is none at all", or finding ways to tag new functionality into existing interfaces. The bathroom at San Anselmo Coffee Roasters[Wiki] has a timer on the bathroom light, five or six pushbuttons, and it works because if you mash your fingers down the plate the light eventually pops on and you can figure out which one to push (by label). It's a good idea to have the light in the bathroom on a timer, but I'm sure there's a better solution out there.

On camera interfaces, I think the big issue is, like most interfaces, that balance between a "push the button" need and having to expose the full functionality. In general it's only a few GUI geeks who think that deep interfaces beat wide ones; it's more reasonable to have a lot of options that are discoverable than a few options which lead to more options and so forth.

But in the "too many buttons aren't necessarily a good idea either" department, Charlene's car stereo is completely bizarre, in fact I think I should take a picture of that when she gets home so y'all can get the "Whisky Tango Foxtrot" experience.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-24 19:35:17.604226+00 by: petronius

I like the idea of a Wide, not deep interface. Of course, most cameras are sold to people as point and shoot. But I was one of those who early on figured out the relationship between f-stop, focal plane and shutter speed, and used my old Minolta that way. It was apeture weighted, so I traded off speed against gravity and shaking, and eded up using only about two controls, and only rarely a flash. To get that use out of a digital I'd need to spend twice as much.

I did think of another bad interface: digital clocks that go only one direction. If you miss the current time by one minute you have to cycle through the entire day to go back.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-25 12:18:10.480343+00 by: DaveP

My favorite light-switch interface ever was just a single button. It served as a night-light when the circuit was off (so you could find the switch) and you just slapped the button. Unfortunately, they're hard to find, and not even mentioned in the Wikipedia article on light switches. One coffee shop near me has a motion-detector light switch in the bathroom, which is very frustrating, since the timeout on it is too short. If you spend 30 seconds at the sink washing your hands (as employees are supposed to do), it'll darken the room on you just as you're reaching for the paper towels, and will leave you fumbling around trying to find the door. Bleh.

Car headlights seem to have stabilized around "automatically go on", but there was a time in the 90s when I was continually frustrated by rental cars. Is the light switch on the dash? On the turn-signal? Which way does it go? Do I pull or turn? And the dome light almost never illuminates the light-switch if you're actually sitting in the driver's seat, because you're casting a shadow right where you need to see.

For camera interfaces, I like the Nikon D50. The menus remember which set of menus you were in last, so you generally start in the right place, and the things I tweak most frequently are grouped together. It's the closest to the simplicity of a film camera that I've found on a digital.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-25 13:57:02.451456+00 by: Shawn

I think a volume dial on my TV's remote would be more convenient than the up-an-down buttons

Interesting. In the years when I owned an expensive car stereo I opted for one with up/down buttons for volume. While I'm sure I lost some ability to fine-tune the setting, I generally prefer a button interface.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-25 14:53:03.058018+00 by: Dan Lyke

I think buttons are better for fine-tuning where you want to be a part of the feedback loop, knobs are better for gross adjustments where you know where you want to end up. With volume the task is often split between "can you turn it up just a notch" and "crank it". While buttons for volume are fine for my TV (which we only ever use for watching movies, so we don't end up making a lot of adjustments to it, just pausing and restarting the movie), and I could tolerate them on my stereo, I'm a big fan of knobs in the car because there I'm most often doing a "okay, on to the highway, need to match wind noise", and I want to be able to do that in one crank because I don't want to be fiddling while I'm driving.

I haven't played with the Nikon cameras, but one of the thing I love about the Canon film bodies and upper end digital bodies is the thumb wheel. In aperture priority or shutter priority the forefinger wheel right above the shutter changes aperture or shutter, in program mode it changes the ratio between shutter and aperture, and in manual it changes aperture, which means that the thumb wheel lets me quickly scroll through exposure compensation with the first three, or shutter with the manual mode (and that last may be reversed). Everything right there where I want it.

More frustrating are things like DOF preview (different place on each camera, on one it's "calibrate the eye sensors for the individual user, then look at the upper left corner of the viewfinder") and such, but once I'm used to it for an individual body I can get to almost everything without having to take my eye from the viewfinder to go to a menu.

I actually don't like the automatically on headlights because they reduce my ability to communicate with drivers around me. Most truckers, at least, understand the difference between flash of high beams and lights momentarily off, and I hate when I'm in a rental car and there's a whole bunch of my driving vocabulary cut off.

Back to the clock idea, I've been playing with the flight simulator recently, and FlightGear has three helicopter models. One has a fully modeled console, the other two have Heads-Up Displays. I find the HUDs harder to use because more of the information on them is digital. Even though the altimeter has less resolution in two-hand dial form (one for hundreds of feet, one for thousands) it's easier for me to hold an altitude when I know "the hands should look like that" than "try to stay on that number". I think 60/60/12 clocks work well because they give us information in the scales that we can react to; it's nice to have a sweep for short things, it's ridiculous to try to schedule anything with greater granularity than a quarter turn of the long hand, and the short hand tells us when it's time to eat.

Trying to compress that down to one division of a circle loses too much resolution where it counts, although that may have been fine for an agricultural economy where "when do my animals need to be fed" is the primary concern.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-25 16:26:30.217245+00 by: petronius [edit history]

I think an important distinction here is between control interfaces, like camera adjustments and wiper switches on cars; and information interfaces, like clock dials or the center brakelights on cars. (Why did it take 90 years to come up with that one?) Sometimes we do better with a simple visual cue for information, like the 12/60 scale on a clock. One thing I would welcom is a greater use of these visual cues in computer screens. One idea I have is for a sub-routine called a YAD, after the pointer that indicates the Torah passage in the synagogue scrolls.

The idea is to aid in screen reading of long blocks of text. When you see maybe 3 paragraphs on the screen at once, when you hit the Page Down the thing roles up but I lose my place for a second as the bottom line becomes maybe the top or the second line. In the Yad system, when you hit Page Down a small triangle would appear to the left of the last line on the screen and roll up with that line, disappearing a second later. This would remiond you of where you were when you scrolled up. I think a system like this would make text work onscreen much easier.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-25 17:29:31.757085+00 by: Dan Lyke

Oooh! That's a good one! I might have to write a text scroller just to see how that works.

I think one of the issues with division into control interfaces and information interfaces is that in many cases the information interface is tightly coupled to the control interface and can't be separated. Your clock example is pretty much read-only, but my altimeter example may be closely tied to the input device, and the visual elements on some of the aforementioned light switches, like the timer in that bathroom, are tied in fairly closely to the needs of the input system.

And as another clock example, I prefer digital countdown timers, and in cooking where I'm trying to time things to a few fives or tens of seconds (ie: pizelles or similar cookies which only get cooked for 15 seconds or so) I prefer a digital display because I have an easier time not losing track of where I was.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-26 05:04:08.049046+00 by: DaveP

The Nikon D-50 has the thumb-wheel, which operates similarly to the way you describe the Canon. But I really miss the needle and ring meter from my first camera (a Canon FtB (or some permutation of goofy caps)).

The auto-on headlights in my Blazer have a "shut 'em off" mode (it resets when you start the engine), so I don't lose the ability to communicate with them. But I also don't have to think about turning them on or off, especially when the conditions are changing. About the only tweak I'd make is some way to tweak the turn-on point. I'm pretty sure it has to get darker for them to come on full (rather than daytime driving mode) than I'd like. I KNOW it takes too long for the dashboard to light up in the evening.

Cooking timers - two digital, and one analog. One digital is usually in "count-up" mode, and the other is mostly for temperature-sensitive stuff (i.e. yank the roast when it hits 140) or longer times (the analog and other digital max out at an hour). I use analog for short times, except when times are so short (like doing a steak ) that I count seconds in my brain.

There was a hack for Mac OS 9 that did the text-scroller thing. I haven't seen a version for ten yet. Worked system-wide.

Volume - TV is fine with buttons, but my best TV had two mutes - one was N dB down (just perfect for the one local station that was always louder than the others, or for commercials blasting), and the other was a full mute. Car radios need knobs. The SCV (speed-controlled-volume) in mine is pretty cool. Set it on a scale from 1-5 and it'll wind up the volume based on how fast you're going. 1 makes basically no change. 3 is fine with windows up. 5 works pretty well with the windows open.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-26 05:08:40.656307+00 by: DaveP

The single most annoying interface I deal with on a regular basis is the clock/alarm in my cell phone. It takes a major effort to set a "beep me in 5 minutes" timer, and on the alarm, your two choices are to have it go off every day or lose the alarm time when it goes off. Ucky. But it's still better than trying to figure out the hotel alarm-clock in most hotels.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-26 16:07:43.340997+00 by: ebradway

Headlights: I remember the first time I drove Dan's BMW 528e after dark. I had to pull over to the side of the road and analyze the dashboard to figure out that the headlights were controlled by a slider-knob on the dash! My 2004 VW Jetta has similar annoyances - like power door locks that automatically lock at 10mph but then, if you stop and get out, the back doors remained lock. PITA when you are trying to run the garbage to the dumpster on the way out. The radio has volume buttons on the steering column and a knob on the dash - but the knob has notches, and the right volume is usually between two of the notches...

Digital cameras: I need to right a series of reviews. Right now, I have two Canons, two Olympuses and a Pentax. All have their own quirks

Light switches (and other automatic controls): They all need to be as functional manually, as they are automatically. Just because the switch is automatic doesn't mean I will be able to rely on it - and I may want to make it behave in a fashion other than the programmed mode.

Current UI gripe: toilet paper dispensers! Every public restroom is now equipped with these giant plastic monstrosities that can't be mounted properly next to a toilet, especially if there are handicap bars on the wall. Either the toliet paper is dispensed too low or it's too high. It's also impossible to tear off the right amount of paper. It's too thin to use a normal "square" and it pulls out too far if you try to get a little more. I don't understand why, after decades of refining toilet paper rolls to a formfactor that can be mounted at any height, dispensed outward into the stall and separated to the right amount, had to radically change overnight.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-27 00:26:50.733415+00 by: Diane Reese

... if the roll even turns enough to grace you with paper sheets at all. Most of the ones I encounter seem to be jammed in the "new roll installed, do something to make it unroll" position.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-10-27 15:10:51.300159+00 by: petronius

Well, the giant toilet paper rolls are obviously designed to reduce labor, and having to send in a busboy during the lunch rush to put in a new one. As to car controls, It amazes me that the industry has never standardized where controls are located. I also have a beef with my 2004 Impala's heat/AC system. It has no OFF position. Yes, you can turn the fan off, but if you are pulling air from the outside it keeps flowing while you are moving, unless you close the vents on the dash. Why not an internal vent closer?

I do have one more interface anecdote: the first VCR I ever worked with was many,many moons ago. It was a Sony 3/4-in Umatic, a happily obsolete format. When you hit play or stop, it took a few seconds to unspool enough tape to wrap around the rotary head. A yellow STANDBY light come on to warn you not to hit anything else until the spooling/retraction process was complete, lest you mangle the tape. For some reason, the Sony guys never thought to build a lockout into the other switches to prevent mangling, until the second release. I assume they didn't test it on non-engineers who didn't know about this problem. We put big signs on the machines to warn the medical students not to hit anything while the yellow light was on, but with little confidence it would help. People push the buttons willy-nilly, whatever you tell them to do.