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It's the user interface, stupid!

or, why the iPod is raking in the dough and Linux is still a non-issue on the desktop

I hate my cell phone. It's a modern, Kyocera flip-phone with a color LCD and a camera and an Internet connection, and I hate it. But it's a step up; I hate it less than I've hated any other cell phone I've ever owned.

The first cell phone I owned had a user interface so abysmal that in order to access the built-in contacts list, I had to press nine buttons. Considering that here in the US, a phone number is only seven digits long without the area code and ten digits long with the area code, that's almost unbelievably lame.

For some reason, every cell phone in the world has a crap user interface. It's a testament that I hate my new cell phone least of all, and consider it a great leap forward, because its interface is merely awful and not abysmal.

The Apple iPod is, by any measure of the word "success," a wild success beyond what even its creators could possibly have predicted. It's selling like mad; it's become a cultural icon; car manufacturers are putting iPod docks in their dashboards, purse manufacturers are making purses with iPod slots. Yet for all that, it's a simple gadget. It plays music, that's it. It's expensive; it llacks the fancy features (such as radio tuners) of cheaper MP3 players; what's the big deal?

The big deal, as Apple understands and everyone else seems to have forgotten, is that user interface matters. The iPod is a runaway success because it does one thing and does it well. The user interface of the iPod is a marvel of simplicity and elegance; all the other MP3 players on the market seem awkward, clunky, and clumsy by comparison.

Nobody gets it, except for Apple. Nobody understands that the way a person interacts with a device is as important as what the device does.

Take my car stereo (please!). It's a Pioneer model, and it's a microcosm of bad design. I can see my car stereo being used to teach a class in "How to Fuck Up a User interface 101."

It does two things: it plays CDs and it plays radio stations. The power button is also the button that switches between radio and CD; you want to turn it off when you're listening to a CD, you hit POWER POWER. Intuitive, right? Uh, no. But the controls won't tell you this; the power-cum-radio-cum-CD button is labelled "Mode."

Not that you'll ever be able to read it. It's labelled "Mode" in five-point light-gray type on a dark-gray background. It's difficult to read if you're sitting nose to nose with the faceplate; from the driver's seat, two and a half feet away, it might as well not be labelled at all.

It has a number of different controls and modes. Many of these are reached by pressing a "Shift" button, also labelled in five-point type; the button is tiny, about as big around as the guts of a cheap disposable pen, and you hold it down wat the same time as you press one or more other buttons to access various functions.

These people were not thinking. Not even a little bit. They clearly did not think about the fact that the operator would be sitting too far away to read microscopic print, nor about the fact that the operator would be working the device while driving a moving vehicle in traffic. And, like my cell phone, my car stereo has a user interface which is actually better than most. Shelly's car stereo has an auxiliary input mode which you get to by pressing the power button; to turn the stereo on and off, you press the power button and hold it down for two seconds. To insert or eject a CD, you remove the stereo's face plate. (No, it's not a CD changer; strictly one disc at a time!)

User interface matters. User interface on an MP3 player makes a difference to the user's experience with the gadget; user interface on a car stereo can make the difference between life and death. Yet every day, we are surrounded by devices, from stereos to cell phones to fax machines to microwave ovens, that have a crap user interface. Manufacturers think that what attracts us to their products is a long list of features--"Look! This car stereo pulls in stations from Kenya, and then translates them into English while piping them directly into the brain of the driver!" They add functions to their gadgets without ever thinking about the way people use their gadgets.

I don't want a video game console that plays CDs. I guaranfuckingTEE you that if I'm buying a video game console, I already have a CD player. If for some reason I don't have a CD player, I am not going to have a set of external speakers either, which means I'll be listening to my CDs through...what, the shitty speakers in my TV set? I don't think so. I buy a video game console to play video games. If the console plays the games I like, I buy it. If it does not play the games I like, I don't buy it, and making it play music CDs will not make me buy it, okay?

Ditto for MP3 players. If I buy an MP3 player, it's because I want to fill it up with songs I like. If I want to listen to the radio, which plays commercials and lots of songs I don't like, I can do it for a whole lot less money than an MP3 player--and if I'm giving the choice between listening to songs I like and songs on the radio, I'll take the songs I like, mkay? Every supposed new "iPod killer" that comes out, and falls flat on its face, fails for the same reason: they take an MP3 player, add something else on to it, and glue it all together with a crap user interface--all without the slightest thought to how people use the goddamn thing.

I just put the new Fedora Core on my Linux machine. Linux, once the choice only of hard-core technogeeks, really has come a long way. But it still has very serious interface problems.

Every Linux enthusiast I've ever spoken to raves about Linux's functionality, its price (free), its power, its features. Why, they all lament, do people continue to use Microsoft crapware, when a better and more secure operating system is available for free?

It's the interface, stupid. I've been using computers since 1976, I've been using Unixes of various flavors for almost as long as Unix has existed, and it's still a pain in the royal fucking ass for me to install and configure a Linux system.

It's worlds better than it was. Good Linux distros come with bootable CD-ROMs that take you through the installation in a graphical environment; indeed, the installer for Fedora Core is now prettier and more elegant than the installer for Windows XP.

Prettier and more elegant, but fragile, so very, very fragile.

When I ran that pretty, elegant installer, it got about a third of the way through the install, then suddenly disappeared to be replaced with several screenfuls of decidedly un-pretty and unfriendly text. Error messages, stack backtraces, exceptions...yuck.

Restarted the installer, same thing again. And again.

I finally puzzled out from the cryptic exceptions and backtraces that the installer was having a heart attack over a piece of hardware in my system; pulled the network card, and the install worked. (Strangely, when I put the card back, it was recognized and worked without a hitch.)

It's the user interface, stupid. I don't care how many features you have or how powerful you are; I don't care if you're cheaper than an iPod or cheaper than Windows. It's the user interface, stupid! Even today, the Linux interface still feels unnecessarily clumsy and awkward compared to the Mac's or (God forbid) even the Fisher-Price interface Windows XP offers us. For a long-term Linux user, the various awkwardnesses and clumsy design choices of the interface are not an issue, because the long-term user has learned ways to deal with, or occasionally work around, the shortcomings in Gnome and KDE, and of course he can always drop down to a terminal window (it's the user interface, stupid!) to get things done.

Back to my cell phone. It does not do the things I think it should. It offers me call-waiting, for example. I'm on a call and another call comes in; it seems to me that pressing the "answer" button will let me talk to the new caller. But it doesn't. It brings up a menu asking me what I want to do. Put the old caller on hold and answer the new call? Ignore the new call? (If I wanted to do that, I would not press any button, goddamnit!) Hang up the old call and take the new?

Now, when I end the new call, and want to go back to the old, I can't press the "answer call" or "hangup" button. Instead, I press the "options" button. Do I want to hang up? Do I want to swap calls? Do I want to disconnect both calls?

Now, you might think that swapping calls would put caller #2 on hold, and give me #1, but no. It puts both calls on hold, then gives me another menu. Do I want to release #2 and pick up #1? Release #1 and pick up #2? Hang up both? No, goddamn it, I want to swap calls! You know, swap one for the other! Trying to figure all this out quickly is a pain in the ass, especially in a darkened room.

It's the user interface, stupid. You want my money, think about how I am going to use your gadget. Don't make me read your mind. Don't get clever by making the Power button do a whole bunch of other stuff as well. Don't present irreleavnt choices when it should be clear from context what I'm trying to do. Use your head. Think about the environment where your device will be used.

You want to know why Apple came in and overnight 0wnz0r3d the entire MP3 market? It's the user interface, stupid!



( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 29th, 2005 07:34 pm (UTC)
sing it, brother!

incidentally, though it kind of sucks as a phone, the danger hiptop/t-mobile sidekick has nearly apple's level of ui-clue in its palmtop functions. moominmolly has a treo, which is a more versatile tool in every way, but she often borrows my sidekick because the web browser and ssh client are so much better. (the email and aim clients are also better, but i have them set up for my accounts and not hers).
Jun. 30th, 2005 11:00 am (UTC)
That's because Danger was founded by a bunch of ex-Apple folk. Andy Rubin, Mark Harlan, et. al.

Danger's big mistake was partnering w/ T-Mobile(AKA Deutsche Telekom) which really likes the idea of what the HipTop represents, but can't stand the idea of actual USERs or even worse, developers, doing things with the device they can't control.

Cool, hip, happening, Palo Alto-based startup meets stodgy,controlling German telecom company?---You can't expect this to work in the long term.

Jun. 29th, 2005 07:57 pm (UTC)

Something vexes thee?
Jun. 30th, 2005 04:31 pm (UTC)
Did I mention I hate my cell phone?
Jun. 29th, 2005 08:18 pm (UTC)
Shout it! Everyone looks at me from the side of their eyes when I say exactly what you write.

Just bought an MP3/radio from a coworker. The interface is so bad that it couldn't be marketed, and instead is cheaply distributed through independant resellers.

How bad is it? The spelling errors in the options menu are reprinted in the manual.
Jun. 30th, 2005 04:33 pm (UTC)
"How bad is it? The spelling errors in the options menu are reprinted in the manual."


Wow. Let me guess...the interface is written in Engrish?
Jul. 1st, 2005 06:43 pm (UTC)
No, I was refering to the function that allows one to delete a song by choosing "Earse". This is worse than an Engrish mistranslation. This is just editorial laziness.

BTW, loved the Engrish site. You should soon be seeing some goodies collected by a friend fresh from Taiwan!
Jun. 29th, 2005 08:57 pm (UTC)
What do you think about Debian? I've got an extra box laying around & have been studying up on Linux, thinking I'd try my hand at it. A few of my co-workers tell me Debian is the way to go, even for newbies.
Jun. 29th, 2005 09:23 pm (UTC)
Totally off-topic, your icon is beautiful. Where'd you get it/how'd you make it and may I steal it?
Jun. 30th, 2005 04:34 pm (UTC)
Never tried Debian. My experience with Linux extends to Yellow Dog Linux, LinuxPPC, Red Hat, and Fedora Core, and with on-Linux Unices to SCO, Xenix, and BSD.
Jun. 30th, 2005 02:23 am (UTC)
While I agree...
... I must say that you're wrong about ALL cell phones. My LG mobile phone is awesome, and has an excellent interface. I think the only non-intuitive feature is the "manners mode" (pressing and holding * key for 3 seconds) but other than that it all makes perfect sense. But yes, part of why I love my phone is the simple interface.
Jun. 30th, 2005 10:49 am (UTC)
....It's also about Apple being a computer company and not, say, a company with both a electronics AND content division like, say, oh *cough* SONY.

SONY first gave AWAY the portable player market by letting their ultra-paranoid content arm browbeat the company into forcing the electronics guys to break every portable media device they came up with from a UI/UE perspective. They had to, you know, because otherwise people might actually USE them to (horrors) play music from their existing collection or from their friends.

Even in 1998, *3* years before the iPod, beating SONY at the UE game was not much of a challenge.

Let's see, a music player that's the size of a pack of Lifesavers and only works w/ the special transfer app for that specific version of Windows '98 it was developed on, won't let you play on your PC stuff you have loaded on your player and forces you to convert everything to ATRAC.


The Diamond Rio PMP 300. Which comes in a cheesy plastic case, feels as cheap as it looks, but PLAYS MP3s and lets you load/unload songs on your PC OR Mac OR Linux system.

I bought the Rio myself.

So yeah, you're right about Apple owning the portable media player market because they have UE down cold, but I'd say they first got it because they picked it up off the ground after somebody else dropped it and then kicked it out into the middle of the street before walking away.
Jun. 30th, 2005 04:44 pm (UTC)
Sony has a unique problem; they have content divisions, who hate customers and fear any use of their intellectual property; and they have consumer electronics divisions, who love customers and want their gadgets to work easily. The company has built-in tensions a bit like the tensions inherent in a mixed-faith marriage; everythig they do is a compromise, and none of it works well.
Jun. 30th, 2005 11:59 am (UTC)
I got here from ladytabitha and I must say, you're spot on. And I'm writing this on a Mac, after using, and despising, various versions of Windows, from 3.0 to Win2K. Apple isn't perfect, by any means, but they do have UI stuff down pretty damned well.

I've done UI design for a while and, as a boss told me years ago, if you do your job well, your UI is invisible; people can concentrate on doing the job they are trying to do instead of trying to make your UI work. I have some sympathy for cell phone manufacturers; they can't really specify an optimal set of controls. But they are definitely falling prey to the "jam more stuff into this phone" syndrome and now they want to "take on the iPod" by adding music as well; apparently, people pay millions of dollars for "ring-tones" now so they figure they'll pay billions for actual songs.

John Gruber writes about usability (and has some more to say) and includes a link to Why Free Software usability tends to suck, which sums up a lot of what you are saying.

As for your stereo, I don't remember who said it, but a quote I like is that if your UI has the word mode in it, you've already failed.
Jun. 30th, 2005 04:40 pm (UTC)
"But they are definitely falling prey to the "jam more stuff into this phone" syndrome and now they want to "take on the iPod" by adding music as well..."

I've been thinking a lot about that, and the more I think about it, the worse that idea seems to get.

Now, at first, adding an MP3 player to a cell phone seems like a no-brainer. But let's look deeper.

First, you have the issue of the user interface. The UI requirements for a music device are radically different from those of a telephone--so different, in fact, that it's hard to imagine a single interface that can even remotely work for both. You'd need two different interfaces (one on the front and one on the back?), or an LCD interface with an "MP3 player mode" and a "telephone mode."

But how do you listen to the damn thing? Obviously, you don'twant to hold the phone up to your ear to hear music. So you need stereo headphones, with a built-in mic for when you use it as a phone, right? But then what do you do when you're in your car? In most states, it's actually illegal to wear headphones in a car; you can wear one earbud, but not two. So do you listen to your music with only one headphone? Or do you connect the cell phone to your car stereo? If you do that, what happens when a call comes in? Do you disconnect it from your car stereo and plug in a headset? Disconnect it from the car stereo and hold it up to your ear? Listen to the call on the car stereo, but speak into a microphone?

Jun. 30th, 2005 10:30 pm (UTC)
First, you have the issue of the user interface.

I definitely agree that this will be a problem. While it won't be too hard to make an "address book"-like interface to select songs, I'm sure it won't scale well; what works for 50 songs doesn't necessarily work for 1000. But, it is clear, a crappy UI won't stop it from being done, just stop it from being fun.

But how do you listen to the damn thing?

This is, of course, a big problem but I think it will dealt with either via headphones or via a dock-like interface; it isn't that the cell phone makers want you to listen to music on your phone, it is that they want you to buy music with your phone (and thus store it on the phone, too). They couldn't care less where you actually listen to said music, as long as it uses airtime to download and respects DRM restrictions. And do note that many built-in cell phone systems do indeed link to the stereo and mute the music when a call comes in.

However, what I think the mistaken assumption is (if there is one) is that the ring-tone market somehow relates tot he music market. With the former, the ring-tone gets used in the course of using the device as a phone, although I'm sure you can show it off to annoy your friends, too; music is something entirely different, though.

They are banking on two things: the first being the desire to carry less gadgets and the second is the "impulse buy" where you hear a song on the radio and go to buy it right then. While I'll grant them that both of these will be a factor, I wonder if "less gadgets" will overcome "trendy and excellent UI" and what the hell are you doing listening to the radio if you have an MP3 player in your phone?

Personally, I hope it fails miserably and not just because I have stock in Apple, but because it shouldn't succeed; it is the wrong way to do things.

Jun. 30th, 2005 09:46 pm (UTC)
(Also got here via ladytabitha...)

As someone who's worked in software development of one sort or another for two decades now, it regularly boggles my brain and has for years how rare it is for anyone to understand anything at all about user interface usability.

And how common it is for people to dismiss it as unimportant when you try to bring it up.

*shakes head*
Jul. 1st, 2005 04:42 pm (UTC)
I think this article dovetails nicely with your points.

Less Is More
Jul. 4th, 2005 11:14 pm (UTC)
Linked to your journal from one of your communities...

I used to have Kyocera cell phones....for 3 years. THREE YEARS, I tell you!! It was the free phone, and I was poor. The one good thing I have to say about it is that it was durable. I dropped it on the concrete MANY times...once actually sorta threw it, as I forgot it was in my hand. Picked it up, put the battery back on it, and it was fine. And toward the end, I was using a ballpoint pen to force the buttons to work, since they had started splitting apart. Then I finally got a new free phone after two years on my contract...got another Kyocera, same sort of model. So again, the phone was pretty durable, considering most people I know tear up their phones within six months.

Here's the thing....In THREE YEARS, I successfully managed to answer an incoming call on my second line TWICE. Yes, TWICE. I assure you I am not stupid. But I always had a problem with it, and rarely ever got multiple calls at once, so I never hunted down the user manual to figure it out. Just always ended up hanging up on or not answering one of the calls.

So the point being, I totally feel your pain about the cell phoone. Fortuanately I finally broke down, did some internet searching/researching/shopping(and went to a local store to get a realistic view of what the phone really looked like), and bought a new phone with all the newest bells and whistles, renewed my contract, and it cost me all of fifty bucks. I LOVE my new phone...I call it my portable entertainment center. as ot serves as an excellent distraction while on pulic transportation. :)
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )