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The Design of Things

My girlfriend asked, "When someone asks you 'what do you like to do?' do you ever tell them that you like to imagine the meeting that took place where they designed whatever it is that's in front of you? Because that seems like your main hobby."

Owned. And yes it is my main hobby, more than playing games. Here's a couple examples.

The Emergency Shut-off Valve

I was at Costco, a discount warehouse store (does not mean that it sells warehouses) with its own gas station. The layout of the gas station is designed so that you can only approach the pumps from one side. This is actually fine and not a problem. It has the consequence that while you are getting gas, your car is definitely pointed in a certain direction. Several feet in front of you, away from the pumps, is a sign that says "EMERGENCY SHUT-OFF VALVE." I thought this was well-designed, and I should have taken a picture for you, sorry. Anyway, if something goes horribly wrong at the gas station, you or someone else there could push that button and prevent even more gas from catching on fire or blowing up or whatever.

The sign is red with bold white lettering. The words are in all capital letters. I'm usually against all caps as there is some mistaken impression that this makes things easier to read. It doesn't because when letters are all caps, they look more similar to each other than when they aren't. It also has the connotation of yelling. All caps is way overused, and it has no place on my menu saying things like "BAKED APPLE PIE: $8.99." But if there was ever a time to use all caps, I think a warning sign saying "EMERGENCY SHUT-OFF VALVE" is probably it.

Under the sign is one button. Not a panel of buttons, just one button. And it's pretty big and red. It would be impossible to look at this situation and think, "I'm not really sure how I operate this emergency shut-off valve." Further, there's another sign next to the button that describes in a few more words the concept of pressing this button in case there is a fire. It also tells you to call 911, and some other important people you can call too, while you're at it.

I wondered if the sign started out as white with red letters. After all, red letters are attention-getting right? But the red sign with white letters that they actually chose is better, it really looks, um, emergency-ey. Also, do you think there were early plans that put this button right by the gas pumps? I mean that would make sense, it's a button that has to do with the gas pumps so maybe someone drew up some plans to put it there. Then someone pointed out, "Uh, if you need to push that button, you're probably ON FIRE if the button is located right there. How about not right next to the pumps, but instead ahead, in the direction we already know all the cars are facing?"

My girlfriend suspects there was no meeting, and that a non-idiot silently figured all this out on his own, drew up plans, and no one questioned them. Maybe, but that's boring to think about.

The "Silence Ringer" Switch

My girlfriend just got an iPhone (finally), and one of the first questions she asked me was how to silence the ringer. I showed her that there is a physical button that does this--well I guess it's actually a switch. It has an "up" position (normal) and "down" position that reveals a small red light. In that position, the phone won't make noise, so you're it's handy in movie theaters or lectures or whatever.

What got me thinking was when she mentioned that she had a Blackberry phone for years and never figured out how to silence it without also turning it off in the process. "They don't have a button for that?" I asked. I mean, there's like a hundred buttons on that thing, and one of them isn't for silencing the phone? Maybe there is one, who knows, but I guess she never figured it out.

Meanwhile the iPhone hardly has any buttons, but that's one of them. I wonder how that meeting went. First, I imagine someone said, "So we're going to have this huge screen that will have virtual buttons. Besides the virtual buttons, is there a way we can have NO BUTTONS AT ALL? That would be slick."

Then another guy says, "Ok how about this? There's ONE BIG BUTTON. If you don't know what to do, you can press that button. It will get you back to the home screen. It saves you when you're lost. One button is simple and elegant." His comment is met with dead silence. He then puts in, "Haven't you guys played GameCube before? That thing had one big button too, it was great. Oh, but I don't mean a plasticy button. Ours has to be expensive-feeling and satisfying to press. Really guys, this is the ticket."

Then the super logical engineer says, " moving on from the one-big-button idea, we really need a sleep button. You know, when you're done with using the phone for the moment and you want to put it in your pocket. We can probably get away without an actual power button though. You hardly ever would want to use a power button so you could hold the sleep button for several seconds maybe. In any case, we do need that sleep button."

Then someone else (maybe a girl, are there any girls at this meeting?) says, "Volume buttons for god's sake. Have you guys ever used some program that had software volume controls and you cursed at it because you couldn't find the volume controls, or it was cumbersome to get the mouse over to them, or they didn't work at that particular (important real-life) moment, or whatever? And you'd always say, 'Why didn't the people who made this device put real, honest-to-god volume buttons on this thing? I hate those people.' Well I've said that and we really need volume buttons on this thing. I mean an up and a down, don't try to get cute and put it on one button somehow."

Then Steve Jobs says, "I like these ideas guys, really great stuff. Especially the one-big-button idea, that's just what I was looking for." (One-big-button guy breathes sigh of relief at his acceptance.) "So zero buttons would be a nice ideal, but it looks like we should present one-big-button to the user along with three other less noticeable buttons (sleep, volume up, down) for a total of four."

And then the maverick rocks the room with, "I think we need a 5th button." Maybe his name is Jimmy Montenegro or Calyx Oster or something dramatic like that. Jimmy says that what people really want is a way to silence their damn phones. "Regular people go to movies and weddings and other situations where they need to quickly and easily turn off the damn ringer. And I don't mean by pressing the volume down button however many times that happens to be the right number. Besides, who wants that anyway because when you want the ringer back on, you don't want to press volume up to get it where you like it. You just want a mute on/off somewhere that you can toggle without ever looking at the phone. Look guys, I know we're all "Can we do zero buttons on this," but let's be real. We need a 5th button."

Maybe this spawned a raging debate. Maybe Jimmy was not invited to the big-button-guy's weekend barbeque over the tension cased by the great 5th-button-debate. I don't know how it played out exactly, but Jimmy Montenegro got his 5th button in the end. He didn't get 6th, but damn it, he got the 5th. And he's proud of it. Minimal is good, but people need to silence their damn phones without fumbling around in software or clicking volume down a lot. We owe him our thanks, I think.

Well that's how I picture it anyway. Maybe later I could share some more behind-the-scenes meetings of how things were designed (in my imaginary world).


Reader Comments (2)

It's interesting to note that it makes a lot more sense on the iPhone (where the feature currently exists) than on the iPad (where the feature is going to be implemented in iOS 4). It's curious that Apple's going ahead with the mute feature for the sliding switch instead of its current use as a screen orientation lock, despite the practically unanimous protests against the change.

As an aside, I don't yet have an iPhone (yet) because I'm in the 3% of the country that AT&T doesn't support. When you mute the phone, does sliding the switch actually reveal a real light, like an LED? On the iPad it's a red-colored piece of plastic; it doesn't actually light up.

By the way, I'd love to read other posts in this category. Unless you've given up on this particular hobby? =)

November 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCurby

Muting the iphone reveals a red dot, but not an actual light. (Seems fine though?)

I have not given up on this hobby, I do it all the time. I just never seem to write about it.

November 19, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin
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