Tuesday, January 03, 2006

This Week's Memo to Product Designers

Just because you can do something doesn't make it a good idea.

Case study #1: I received one of these travel alarm clocks as a gift. It almost goes without saying that the user interface was atrocious. Anytime instructions for setting a clock begin with "Press Button 1 three times..." you know it's not going to be pretty. But the general badness of UIs is a diatribe for another day. On top of everything else, this clock's "designers" (although that word implies a certain thinking about design that was clearly absent) felt a need to pollute their already over-complicated and overly-modal device with a stopwatch function. I would have hoped that the iPod's success would have encouraged more "Simpler is Better" designs. Apparently not.

Case study #2: The superbright LEDs that have appeared over the past few years have been a real boon for many applications. I do a fair bit of hiking, climbing, camping and the like. The headlamps that use these new LEDs are fantastic. They're small, light, have great battery life, and there's no bulb to burn out at the most inopportune moment. It's even practical to just carry a spare in an emergency kit. (And the latest generation of 1 watt SuperBright LEDs is even better with just a single LED throwing off quite a bit of light (as in this headlamp). But the same LEDs that work so well in flashlights aren't so great used as indicator lights in every piece of electronic gear. I do not, for example, really need a bright blue light staring out dolefully from the otherwise darkened direction of my television and entertainment setup. I've seen cases so bad that a piece of electrical tape was needed to mute the spotlight. Just because LEDs can be so much brighter than in the past doesn't mean that you have to amp up the brightness for everything.

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