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How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name

How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name:

“Good design should be attractive, pleasurable, and wonderful to use. But the wonderfulness of use requires that the device be understandable and forgiving. It must follow the basic psychological principles that give rise to a feeling of understanding, of control, of pleasure. These include discoverability, feedback, proper mapping, appropriate use of constraints, and, of course, the power to undo one’s operations. These are all principles we teach elementary students of interaction design. If Apple were taking the class, it would fail.”

(Via FastCoDesign.)

I just got around to reading last week’s editorial on Apple design, written by two legends of UI theory. Both have written classic books on user-oriented design: Don Norman wrote “The Design of Everyday Things” and practically every early Mac geek owns a copy of Bruce Tognazzini’s “Tog On Design.”

When they say that Apple’s lost the thread on effective, functional design, everyone ought to listen.

I’ve had plenty of reasons to ask myself some of the same questions…particularly in the past month. I reviewed Apple’s Magic Keyboard, and couldn’t hide my disappointment and confusion; it’s a desktop keyboard that looks great as a static object, but why on earth did they make so many tradeoffs?

Then Apple released Apple TV. The new touch-based remote has plenty of nice features. And, it’s impossible to sense if you’re holding it the right way without looking at it. And because the touchpad runs from edge-to-edge, it’s almost impossible to pick it up without unintentionally fast-forwarding through a video.

Apple TV is actually a perfect example of the sort of stuff Don and Tog point out in the article. I was seriously annoyed by the remote on the first day. Then, I discovered and read Apple’s User Guide. Now I know that if I accidentally fast-forward, I can cancel it by tapping the Menu button.

I love Apple Pencil. It works great. Even there, though, Apple’s focus on design commanded them to design a stylus that doesn’t have a clip or anything else that makes it easy to carry, no cap to protect the tip, and its glossy body is slippery enough that I dropped it when trying to get it out of the box.

(It’s also round. But it’s weighted so that it won’t roll off the table. Neat.)

I’ve always thought that good software design requires ideas that make the software easy to use during the first week, and other ideas that make it easy to use three months later. First impressions are important for a beginning user. Still, at some point this person gets experienced. That’s when he or she wants power features that allow them to get more done with fewer clicks, even if they need to go into Settings or (God forbid) actually learn something.

Few things disappoint me so much as an app that’s easy to outgrow…especially when the only reason for those limitations is “we wanted it to be clean and pretty, and [missing feature] is something that only 10% of our users would actually be interested in.” 

Don and Tog talk about how Apple has walked away from its earlier commitment to functional design. They would know (Tog, Apple Employee #66, literally wrote the book on Apple user interface design). I have to wonder if part of Apple’s problem is that they no longer have the luxury of being a niche maker.

In the Eighties and Nineties, the company made hardware and software for fans of Apple. That’s not to say that Macs weren’t objectively great computers; Apple was making stuff for their own audience. Now that they’re unquestionably a juggernaut, they’re making phones and computers for everybody. Apple’s clean design aesthetic is of limited or no value to them; therefore, they’re more keenly aware of limitations that Apple Design sometimes imposes. Like me and the Magic Keyboard, they see no aesthetic upsides. They just wish there were a visible “Back” or “Menu” button.

These things matter. I chose to spend the summer with my SIM card in an iPhone 6 Plus, so I could thoroughly test Apple Watch and also find out if I needed to widen my perspective, after two years with an Android phone as a daily driver.

iOS 9 has addressed so many of of the iPhone’s limitations over the past couple of years that I was considering switching back permanently. I still haven’t decided yet, but it seems unlikely now. Google’s new Nexus phones are outstanding.

More than that, though, I still haven’t warmed to Apple’s 2013 overhaul of the iOS interface. Even after two years with it I experience many of the problems that Don and Tog talk about in their article. The UI is so subtle and stripped down that I often find myself hunting around the screen to figure out what I need to tap to make something happen. I just like Android 6 better.

The whole article is definitely worth a read. Whether you agree with their conclusions or not, it’s a terrific primer on design theory. And I hope it spawns some serious conversations. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect users to learn new skills over time before they can get the most out of an app or piece of hardware. It’s just that, Jeez…five years ago I couldn’t have imagined myself deciding that an Android phone has a prettier, easier-to-use interface than an iPhone.

Would you buy an electric vehicle from ‘Wally Hotvedt’? | MinnPost

Would you buy an electric vehicle from ‘Wally Hotvedt’? | MinnPost

I watched the 1997 documentary “Trekkies” again last night and found myself Googling around for the “Where Are They Now?” on some of the people. I later became a fan of Rich Kornfelt as “Wally Hotvedt” on the super-funny bowling show “Let’s Bowl.”

Turns out Rich is now building electric cars (or at least he was in 2013). It looks like a neat idea: an electric car charged in part by bicycle pedals.

I like this sort of idea. I’ve been tempted to buy an “electric assist” motorized bike. It looks like and works like a normal bike, but when the onboard computer senses that you’re really pushing hard (like when you’re grinding up a long hill) the motor kicks in and “helps” you. Or, you can just open the throttle and take a break from pedaling altogether. I have an old bike, but almost never ride it. When I walk, I can pick up the pace or slow down as needed, but always be moving forward with my heart rate up. On the bike, there comes a point where I’m on a hill and I’m just dying and I need to dismount. It makes me feel not unlike a loser.

The trouble with these assist bikes is that they cost a couple of grand and that’s more than I can afford to lose if it gets stolen, or if someone chooses to smash it up because they weren’t allowed to use a toilet without a parent present until they were fourteen years old or something else that explains psychotic behavior. If I were regularly commuting ten miles to work, or regularly wound up going places where I know my bike would be safe…

Well, it’s still be two grand, which is probably more valuable than my (old but beloved) car. But I’d be tempted.

Here’s a “Let’s Bowl” compilation on YouTube.

“The Overprotected Kid” – via The Atlantic

[blockquote source=”\”The Overprotected Kid\” – via The Atlantic“]If a 10-year-old lit a fire at an American playground, someone would call the police and the kid would be taken for counseling. At the Land, spontaneous fires are a frequent occurrence. The park is staffed by professionally trained “playworkers,” who keep a close eye on the kids but don’t intervene all that much. Claire Griffiths, the manager of the Land, describes her job as “loitering with intent.”[/blockquote]


Where I grew up, there was a creek with an abandoned old wooden truck bed. You could leave it as-is and pretend it was a boat or a chariot or a landspeeder. If you flipped it on its side, it became a shelter or a clubhouse. There was a forest about a mile’s walk away with a pond that had snakes and fish and bugs. I once disturbed a wasps’ nest and got stung three times. Cried all the way home. It was all pretty awesome.

In the Pipeline: “Things I Won’t Work With”

Hexanitrohexaazaisowurtzitane, or CL-20, was developed as a highly energetic, compact, and efficient explosive. What makes it unusual is not that it blows up – go find me a small hexa-N-nitro compound that doesn’t – but that it doesn’t actually blow up immediately, early, and often. No, making things that go off when someone down the hall curses at the coffee machine, that’s no problem. Making something like this that can actually be handled and stored is a real accomplishment.

Not that it’s what you’d call a perfect compound in that regard – despite a lot of effort, it’s still not quite ready to be hauled around in trucks. There’s a recent report of a method to make a more stable form of it, by mixing it with TNT. Yes, this is an example of something that becomes less explosive as a one-to-one cocrystal with TNT. Although, as the authors point out, if you heat those crystals up the two components separate out, and you’re left with crystals of pure CL-20 soaking in liquid TNT, a situation that will heighten your awareness of the fleeting nature of life.

In the Pipeline: “Things I Won’t Work With”.

A research chemist blogs about chemicals that are so dangerous or simply awful to be around that he simply refuses to work with them.

Dangerous chemicals, chemicals that smell as bad as the last dead possum at the very end of the highway of the Universe, chemicals that are so corrosive that creating a flask that can contain them is just as complicated as synthesizing the chemical itself…and he’s a terrifically entertaining writer. Every time I discover a blog like this, (via this week’s “What If?” science blog) I’m reminded why I’m going to miss Google Reader.

Google Books for iPhone

Oh, well, yes, I suppose it’s also for Android phones. I’ll happily plug Google’s phone platform too. Actually, I’ll happily drive to Google’s house and clean the dead leaves out of their gutters. Google is officially The Coolest Company On The Planet.

Why? Today they’ve released Google Books for Mobile. Plug into your mobile browser and look what happens:


Google Books for Mobile: Top page

Google Books for Mobile: Top page

Yes, all 1.5 million public-domain texts in the Google Books project are now available to mobile users, behind a fairly awesome, slick interface. I’m in the mood for some PG Wodehouse, I think:


PG Wodehouse, on a whim.

PG Wodehouse, on a whim.

And I scroll down a bit and find many titles of interest. I give one of ’em a tap, and soon I’m looking at a very credible little mobile book reader:


The reader. Basic, but hey, a reader ought to be clean.

The reader. Basic, but hey, a reader ought to be clean.

And the reader isn’t bare-bones. If I zoom to the top I can go to specific pages or search within the text. It doesn’t seem to “bookmark” your place automatically but you can use the browser’s built-in bookmark tool to mark that specific vague section of the book (the “hunk” that Google has just downloaded and is displaying).

Good golly. If Google is evil, then they’re a Doctor Doom sort of evil. What’s a little evil, when the totalitarian dictator takes such wonderful, indulgent care of his subjects?

Huge, hulking, armed Googlebots may suddenly appear on every street corner one morning but I’ll be inclined to think “Well, yes, that’s annoying, I won’t lie. But I do get to keep Google Books for Mobile, right?”

Cupertino Ink


I’m a man who drinks lustily from the heady draught of adventure. So obviously, I’ve bookmarked ModBlog. This is a nearly-daily dose of photos of stories about people’s tattoos. And piercings. And brandings. And…well, apparently there’s this new thing where you actually have a design cut into your skin, and then the artwork turns into a raised scar.

I could continue, but there’s an orange DPW sign posted in the road just past the scar art and it reads “ENTERING ANDY IHNATKO’S PERSONAL CREEP-OUT ZONE” and I don’t really hazard to proceed any further. Up until this point, I am full of respect and admiration for some fantastic artwork and for the sort of person with such a firm handle on their personal identity that they can upgrade their personal hardware with complete confidence and with stunning effects. No need to screw that up.

(All I’m saying is that when THE MODBLOG decides that a photo is so “out there” that it needs to be concealed behind a link or a blurred thumbnail…well, that really has to influence your decision whether to click through or not.)

I was interested by this little collection of Spider-Man tattoos that they posted this week. Each of the tats are very well-executed and tastefully-chosen. But isn’t it amazing how quickly I blipped past the “this isn’t a rub-on; this is a permanent part of the landscaping” bit and immediately dropped into Comic Book Geek mode?

“Frenz, McLeod knockoff, original art based on stock Romita pose, classic Romita…oh, they took the Mike Zeck Spidey figure from the cover of ‘Handbook To The Marvel Universe’ and replaced the black costume with his red-and-blues, very nice work, there…”

There are plenty of sites devoted to mocking awful tattoos (and I wouldn’t be surprised if I discovered the blog through one of those “Oh, get a load of THIS guy!” links from Fark or somewhere). But man alive, ModBlog has really done a fab job of promoting tattooing as an artform. Every now and then they post a shot of a piece that’s truly stunning…in which the design, the execution, the placement, and the personality of the owner are in perfect harmony with one another.

No, a tattoo isn’t in my future. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out completely. But I’m not the sort of person who’d ever get a purely decorative tattoo and I’ve never had a single image that had such totemistic power for me that I’d want to wear it for life.

Which is too bad, because I had an awesome idea for a nerdy Mac tattoo a few years ago.

Happy Mac.jpg A Happy Mac. “Wow, Andy…yeah, that’s utterly original. You’d totally be the only one who’s ever gotten that image tattooed!” Crankiness is a bad color on you, sir or Madam. Stick with me: you get this icon tattooed somewhere high up on an arm or a leg. Your hip or your shoulder, say. Or you get it in a spot where there’s plenty of real estate.

Your goal in life, from birth to death, is to continue to expand your capabilities as you go. Right? Okay: so you celebrate this with an ever-expanding sequence of startup icons, mimicking the classic Mac OS’s startup screen in which every time a new driver was successfully loaded, it’d draw a representative icon next to the previously-drawn icon, filling the screen with a long line (or even a full mosaic) of little pictures.

Next to the Happy Mac, you design an icon representing your first breath. Then the ability to process food. First steps. First words, Learning to read. Entering school. First real friend. First kiss. First real job. You learned to play guitar. You wrote your first novel. Lost your virginity. Hopefully nearby to that, an icon representing the first time you made love properly.

On and on. Over the years, more and more icons appear. True, you’ll be busy for the first few months as you fill in all of the individual icons representing the first couple of decades of your life. But after that, it becomes a far more leisurely pace. You only add an icon when it becomes compellingly and irrefutably clear to you that you’ve experienced something that’s made you a bigger and better individual.

The tricky part — and here’s where you’ll need to choose the executor of your estate properly — is that you won’t be able to go into the shop and have the Death tattoo put on:


So you’ll have to have the artwork printed up and inserted into your will. Ideally, accompanied by a link to a Python script you’ve uploaded to your website that can convert a date and time of death into hexadecimal, so that the artist can ink it into the proper spot under the icon.

It isn’t the most brilliant idea for a tattoo ever. That honor goes to the convict on “Prison Break” who had the blueprints and technical data for the prison inked all over his body before he was incarerated, concealed as geometric designs. But give me credit: this idea is definitely up there.

I’m A Genius, Chapter CXCVI, Boke MCMLXXI

This is one of those heroically-stupid ideas that I feel compelled to encourage, with a link: “The Nothing Show” is an improv MP3 in which two performers read Tweets from two separate people.

Episode 3 features the Tweets of you-know-who. I don’t know if I can say “I thought it was funny” without sending the implied message “Good God, even when I’m just writing casual 140-character snippets, I am one talented sunofabitch” so I’ll just ahead and send that message explicitly instead.

The Un-Ethicist runs one of my favorite online columns: The UnEthicist. It’s technically a parody of Randy Cohen’s “Ethicist” column that runs in the New York Times.

The original is sort of an academic twist on the classic advice column. Instead of asking “I spilled red wine all over the carpet during a party at my boss’ house; should I just have the rug cleaned, or should I pay for a whole new rug?” readers ask “Of course, I blamed the spill on an associate who joined the firm a few months ago. He got fired for not being ‘enough of a man to admit what he’d done.’ I would never have intentionally gotten the guy canned, but now that he’s out, is it ethical to lobby for my cousin to get hired for the vacant position?”

It’s a fine column and it’s good to know that the subtle topic of ethical behavior is being discussed in a paper as prestigious as the New York Times. Week after week, Randy Cohen makes the point that ethics usually comes down to just one simple idea: considering the feelings and points of view of other people.

And many of the questions are absolutely fascinating ethical dilemmas. An artist friend of yours has died. She’s left instructions that all of her artwork must be destroyed. Is it ethical to ignore the request, in the interests that her creative legacy lives on?

But oftentimes, the questioners take the most trivial of issues and make them seem like Sophie’s Choice. Or, they’re asking a question like “I donated $3.2 million dollars plus both my kidneys to charity last year; is it ethical to have donated only one lobe of my liver as well?” which is clearly just engineered to get their name and their good deeds published in the international newspaper of record.

Gawker publishes a new edition of “The Unethicist” after each column appears in the Times. Gabriel Delahave answers the exact same questions as Randy Cohen…informed from a slightly different worldview.

I’m plugging this column because it’s usually a great read, but also because this week’s outing is exceptional. I read his response to the second question and thought “You know, the problem with the sort of people who even consider doing something like what this woman is considering is that they never get called onto the carpet as surgically and effectively as Delahave just has.” Usually, they hear something diplomatic (like Randy Cohen’s original answer)…which isn’t a hard enough slap to knock any sense into them.

Instead, they usually hear something diplomatic. Like the original response.

Leopard: What’s it really worth?

Head on over to I’ve posted a long piece in which I attach a dollar value to every major new feature of Leopard.

Macworld Feature: What’s Leopard really worth?

So how much is Leopard worth? If it were a collection of third-party utilities, I’ve got it at $409. And I’m sorry to have to tell you that you could have added a zero to that if your uncle hadn’t cleaned off that rich, 250-year-old  patina. Because collectors die for that sort of stuff.

I’m usually pretty critical of my own stuff, so I’m always pleased when I find myself laughing at something I wrote just 48 hours earlier:

And now we have the de-wussification of Mail. Mail was once a candy-apple red Mazda Miata. Now it’s a Ford pickup with a gun rack and a rear-window decal of a cartoon Calvin peeing all over the Microsoft Entourage icon.

Y’know, every now and then, the Plinko chip lands in the $10,000 slot.