Rotary Encoders Are Mostly Awesome

Rotary encoders are awesome because they function like knobs – a staple of user interface which needs no explanation – but ¬†electrically they generate discrete button presses, like pushing the Up or Down tuning button. They are reduced to mostly awesome by some designers who apparently don’t know how to use them correctly.

Case in point: the Kenwood VR405 surround receiver I recently picked up from the side of the road.

It’s a cheap and basic surround reciever, but it works (other than missing the volume knob), it was free, and it has a cool-looking rotary encoder on the front panel. Rotary encoders are like the bling of tactile input devices. Buttons are nice and all, but things that spin are just so much cooler. They also happen to work really well for linear controls like volume and tuning, for which they have been used for decades and still should be more than they are. (I’m looking at you, designers of 1980-s electronics-with-no-knobs and of infernal-car-stereos-with-button-densities-approaching-infinity.)

However, Kenwood got it completely wrong on this model: the input selector is rotary and the tuning/everything else “Multi Control” buttons are Up/Down buttons. Unlike rotary selector switches of yore this input selector wheel has no detent to tell your finger it has reached the next setting. This makes changing inputs quickly is very easy but stopping on the right one is very difficult. And tuning? Click, click, click, click, click, as fast as your finger can push the button you can change to the next frequency. Tiring. Why on earth didn’t they use the up/down buttons for the input selection and the rotary for tuning, like, you know, old-school tuners used to be? Some of the pricier models in the V/VR series were slightly better because they had a rotary encoder for both the Input and Multi controls, but Kenwood could have saved a couple pennies and given users a less frustrating UI at the same time by just using rotary for the Multi Control and buttons for the Input Selector across the whole line.

Change Of Face(book)

Over past Facebook changes I have largely, roundly, and imaginatively derided complainers. I have a very long, somewhat impolite, and happily unpublished blog post to that end somewhere, regarding the last facebook restructuring, and I still have very little patience with people who whine, cry, and generally carry on obnoxiously about every single thing Facebook changes. No good reasons, no quantitative analysis, or in depth discussion – mostly just a pity-party of complainers.

I know, most people may not be good at analyzing and comparing things, and/or don’t have the time – but they still find the time to complain without a second thought. The least they could do is be respectful about it, and (*gasp*) say something about why they don’t like it. Face it: posting things like “it STINKS!!! i hate facebook now it sucks and its different and what were you smoking?” does not inspire any respect at all and is mostly un-helpful.

So in the interest of my own opinions on whiners, I will not whine about the changes. I will attempt to compare the current UI iteration thoughtfully to past versions and provide insight into why most of you hate facebook so much right now, or at least did last week. And I apologize for the length of this post, but it seems I can’t do things like this by halves. To my knowledge, this is the most thorough analysis of Facebook’s interface changes ever published.

Anyway, here’s my nut-shelled opinion: I think the layout took a couple steps forward and a whole bunch of baby steps backward. The changes have been made in the name of simplicity and ease of use. It is definitely more simple. However, it is visually less structured (i.e., more cluttered), does not always work the way I want or expect it too, and does not provide me with as much control or value. If it does not do what I want it too, ease of use tanks as well. This is a case where simpler is not necessarily better.


Filtering based on friend lists
This is really nice – it’s the one major feature I wanted in the old facebook that wasn’t there.

The layout *is* simpler. For the most part, the underlying concept of the new facebook is pretty good, with exceptions noted below.

In the Operational Unintuitions Category
(Or, assumptions about user behavior which might not be quite right)

The post box operation is nebulous
It looks the same everywhere, but can behave very differently depending what page it’s on. It is completely unclear that posting on your own wall is different than posting on someone else’s, which has been very aptly demonstrated by my newly-facebookified mother, who replied to multiple wall posts by setting her status. The concept of a “status” is completely hidden unless you already know how it works.

  • This could be easily remedied – for starters, change the post button text to say “Set Status” when on your own profile page, unless posting a special type of content.

(See also the note on post format – either change the format so it works better, or split statuses back out to a separate entity. And the “What’s on your mind?” line is a bit hokey, but I can’t think of anything better than “Post stuff” or “What do you want to share today?”)

The Recent activity thing is confusing
Labeling activity on the wall as “recent” serves no useful purpose for two reasons:
1) I can figure out if yesterday is recent on my own, thank you, based on the post’s timestamp
2) The “Recent Activity” boxes are all through the wall, even if the activity is no longer recent. This makes the term “Recent” totally useless.

This is/was done (I think) because it is easier to filter programmatically and visually groups wall posts and informational stuff separately. However, it would still be better to use the “Today”, “Yesterday”, “Some other day” headings, grouping the posts and other activity underneath. The smart date headings were great because they are very simple, require no interpretation, and (most important!) give the user control over what they think is “recent” enough to be interesting. I honestly don’t care if it’s recent, I just care if it’s interesting to me and generally when it happened.

The single “delete” button is not intuitive
When I click it, I do not expect a particular friend to stop showing up on my news feed, I expect to just get rid of (or de-rate) that particular post or post type. The friend-based behavior is redundant – news feed supposedly already rates somewhat based on friend activity/interaction. This is an example where simplification is completely irrelevant – it’s simpler, sure, but it a) isn’t very useful and b) doesn’t work the way users expect.

Wall post filtering is not designed from a user’s perspective
This one is sticky. The wall has been restructured for ease of use by everyone but the person who owns the profile. The defaults should be to show user+friends, with option to show only friends or only user. The current settings emphasize broadcasting the activity of the user, rather than letting the user choose how they want their wall to work and be used.

Wall posts no longer have a “Reply” link
This is a UI dilemma – it’s a duplicate feature. Yes, you can just as easily post on a friends wall by clicking their name or on the “Wall-to-Wall” link, but if I’m replying, I look for a “reply” link. It’s not intuitive to click one of the other links. It would be amazingly intuitive to click “reply” and have a post box drop down (or pop up), like a comment, only it would post directly to the friend’s wall instead of commenting. This would be a killer feature.

The new feed is a lot of information in a huge, daunting list
It’s very hard to get useful information out of so much data. The old feed algorithm provided a much better balance and control over what showed up – now I have almost no useful control. See also the note above about wall post activity/date headings.

I no longer have control of post types in the News Feed
Before, there were preferences with sliders to customize the type of content that came across my feed. Now the only way to do that is manually, with application filters. Not good.

And now in the Visual Miscues section…

Post format is visually muddled
Previously, the name of the poster was in a sort of header and the message was separate. The current run-on format is harder to read because it is not visually well-defined. It works great for statuses, but nobody writes wall posts like statuses. Heck, most people don’t write statuses like statuses. For wall posts, a better balance between space and readability would be good – even just putting a break between the name and post.

The new feed is harder to read – no visual formatting!
The old news feed formatting was much easier to read – the “Today” “Yesterday” etc. headings broke down the news feed into smaller, more easily parsable chunks. (The abbreviated & more compact format helped, too.) Coupled with the more mashed post formatting, it’s much harder to read the news feed.

Miscellaneous UI quirks

  • The rounded images look icky and ill-defined. Keep the sharp, square, refined look.
  • Can we please put pokes with other notifications or something? Burying them in the middle of the right-hand sidebar has always bugged me, it makes no sense.
  • Group invites & friend requests should go back over on the right hand side with events, pokes, etc. They get lost visually at the top, even if it makes sense grammatically.
  • Highlights are pretty useless. It looks messy and is distracting. I want the relevant stuff I like to show up in my feed, not over there. Reformatting them could help, or put some sort of visual break between the news feed and highlights.
  • People You May Know should be hideable. It’s useless to me – I want the option of not seeing it, like I had in a couple versions ago with apps on the profile page.

My Big Solution:
Put all invites, events, pokes, and notifications on the right-hand sidebar. Group as necessary for ease of use. Limit the amount of space notifications can take up, or make it say “You have 23 notifications” and the link unzips it.

So there’s my take. Hope it’s useful.

How Not To Design Stuff: Dellusions Of Power

The University of Southern Maine employs the use of a large number of Dell Optiplex GX280 computers in labs and classrooms. They are modern computers, pretty fast, quiet, not real pretty, and the power button of these computers looks pretty much like any other typical power button on the planet: it’s round, it has that funky little circle-with-a-line-symbol-of-power-thingy, and it glows green. However, one unfortunate design flaw has caused lost time and headaches.

How, you ask, can the design of a power button result in confusion and lost work? Visual feedback.

Fact: The button glows green when the computer is on.
Fact: People expect something on the computer to glow green when the computer is on.
However: In order to tell that the button is glowing, one must look almost straight at it from the front. If you are a little to the side – which is the normal arrangement for the Labs – you can’t see the light.

Result: If the computer is positioned anywhere but in front of the user, the little green glow is invisible unless one leans over and peers at the button.

One would not think this to be a terrible problem, a dinky little light doesn’t make that much difference. After all, you can also tell if the computer is on by looking at the monitor.

That logic is conveniently defeated by two different circumstances.

1) Some classroom computers are attached solely to a projector – if the projector isn’t on (or is blanked), there is no feedback from the screen.
2) In the John Mitchell Center CAD lab, all the monitors are on a separate power circuit and can be turned off at the professor’s whim.

We are back to using the power button glow as the sole indicator of computer status. This is a dangerous prospect to entertain if the glow cannot be easily seen – and did I mention that pushing the power button when the computer is on immediately shuts it down?

(Cue scary theme music.)

You push the button. Nothing seems to happen for a couple seconds. You push the power button again. The computer you just turned on shuts off again. You wait longer this time, and are confused. You push the power button again, firmly, and wait longer and something finally shows up on the screen. You can now do useful work before class starts.

Then, the monitors are shut off during lecture and you forget the computer is on – and there are no visible glowy lights to tell you either way. The lecture is over and you push the power button to start the machine up. It shuts off. And, since the computers have DeepFreeze (or equivalent) installed, anything that you saved to the internal drive is wiped clean at boot.

It sounds ridiculous, but I’ve seen people lose valuable work because of that. Extra frustration, problems, and lost work – all because the power button doesn’t provide a good (i.e., visible!) visual cue.

The Horrors Of The Everything Button

We just got a Samsung ML-2010 laser printer. It’s a great printer – cheap, compact….and it has an Everything button.

Truly, you cannot know the power of the everything button unless you have experienced it in person. For what can this innocuous grey button do? Everything! (Ok, almost everything.) It can cancel print jobs, print test pages, it can turn the Toner Save feature on and off, and it can change the paper feed.

I think Samsung might have labeled it wrong, though, the text underneath says “Cancel” and it only cancels a print job if the “On Line/Error” light is blinking. If you push the button in “Ready” mode, it turns the Toner Save feature on or off. But only if you press the button for about a second. If you just hit it real quick it doesn’t do anything.

Don’t press it too long, though – if you hold the button for two seconds then the printer will spit out a test page at you, informing anyone who cares the RAM size, CPU speed, and current settings of the printer.

Oh, you want to use one sheet from the manual feed tray instead of the bottom auto-feed tray? There’s a really simple solution. Just load a sheet and press the “Cancel” button.

It’s Not Fair, I Tell You

Two bomb threats a school in two days. At the rate we’re going, we’re going to make Bonny Eagle High School’s record a couple years ago look puny. Yesterday wasn’t so bad because only the Portland campus was shut down and I don’t have any classes in Portland, but today – today some prankster (I assume, until further proof) gyps me out of Work. Money. I would be getting paid to do build stuff.

Yeah, so it’s debatable whether hacking up those chairs for Equus and reassembling them in Expressionist/Cubist style is really building stuff, but I would be getting paid for it if the whole blasted school weren’t closed from Gorham to Lewiston-Auburn.

Life is really not fair. My brother lives through power outage, lightning, flooding, and general mayhem at school in Illinois and what do I do? I sit here in my kiester because of a stupid bomb threat. *sigh* I guess I’ll just have to put up with it.

Striving For Excellence In A Land Of Lowercase

IMspeek really bugs me. Why does everyone seem to think that capitalization, punctuation and spelling don’t mean anything anymore? The rules and dots are there to bestow the language with order, reason and color.

Don’t believe me? Here. Let me translate some of an old classic into the modern vernacular of IMers for you, with very sincere apologies to Shakespeare.

alonso87: dude they all fell asleep
alonso87: im tired to
bro_sebastian: go to bed man
4n70n10: yeah man      bro an ill watch 4 u
alonso87: bye
alonso87: zzzzzzz
bro_sebastian: OMG dude thats so weird they all just like conked out
4n70n10: LOL its the climate
bro_sebastian: yah but im not tired
4n70n10: me either
4n70n10: totally weird they just all fell over at once

Ok, enough of that torture. (It’s from The Tempest, Act II, Scene I, by the way.) I think I can count on one finger the number of my friends who actually IM in fluent English. Hang on…I think I’m channeling the ancient spirit of superbob487… (above the whine of a certain William’s coffin, which is rotating at a very high rate of speed right now)…

superbob487: LOL dude its all about like just talking not some english paper

Yeah, it’s just talking, but what is talking about? Communicating, and you are communicating to me right now that you are too lazy to hit the shift key and put a little thought to what you’re saying to me.

Think of it this way. A telephone is one step removed from real life – you can’t see the other person’s body language. IMs are one step removed even from that – you can’t actually hear the other persons voice. (That’s two steps from real life.) This makes it difficult at times to convey meaning – more specifically, the meaning we want – in what we write.

Now, comparing a book (The Tempest – a play, actually, but who cares) to a real-time communication device (like IM) is rather a stretch. Obviously the two have little in common aside from the words and communication bit. That’s the important bit, however. Though a completely different method than books, IMs are still a medium for communication. More importantly, they are a form of interaction – like talking to someone. I don’t know about you, but when I talk I don’t do it in a flat monotone and I use various vocal inflections to convey my meaning.

Read that bit about our buddies on the island again, but try it out loud this time. (If you’re in a library, just make sure you whisper.) If you read it right, it probably sounded flat and incredibly boring. If it sounded normal, you read it wrong. Remember: no periods no commas no pauses no taking a breath!

In writing, punctuation controls the flow of the words. Pauses….. dramatic… or dreamy… pauses….. can be had with merely a half-dozen (or fewer) presses of the period key. Just around the next comma, there awaits great adventure! Excitement! And colons! Remember this, kids: “Lack of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling inhibits comprehension.” We’ll review that later; now on to Capitals and Spelling.

Capitals mark important things, like places, titles, and Stuff that you want to Highlight. Beginnings of sentences. And sure, you ALL know about YELLING, but judicious use of that shift key really adds a lot of depth and class to simple sentences. Especially beginnings of sentences. Just that one capital letter can make writing easier to understand – not capitalizing takes away the visual definition and is harder for your brain to parse.

And spelling – spelling is one of the more nebulous ones. Your brain is really very good at fixing things and making it make sense, but there is no point in making it work harder than need be. Using regular spellings is easier to read and, as an added bonus, gives the appearance of being somewhat intelligent and capable of understanding multi-syllable words.

This isn’t that hard, is it?

Now a brief spiel on acronyms. Acronyms to abbreviate common phrases are sort of like carrying a bunch of cardboard signs around my neck and holding up the one that says “LOL” whenever I hear something really funny. It might be faster than actually laughing, but it requires extra translation on the receiving end. Sure, I can translate it, but whenever I see “IMHO” my brain thinks it “Imho” and then has to go back and say “In my humble opinion”. Communication is about getting your thought to the other guy, right? Anything that needs translation on the other end isn’t communicating clearly.

Now one word on l33t 5p33k: Retarded. I refuse to go any further down that path. See also the last sentence of the previous paragraph.

Now that I have thoroughly lambasted all my friends (except one) and most of the rest of the universe under age 20 (except for probably a couple dozen), let me be the first to say that this whole post is rather…er, anal. You can sometimes leave off capitals without appearing totally dumb, and acronyms really do work if you’re in a big hurry.

My point remains, however: Unless your house is burning down, there’s no really good reason not to spend a couple extra seconds to type complete and properly formatted thoughts. Just remember this, kids: “Lack of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling inhibits comprehension.” (And if your house IS burning down, what the heck are you typing for? Get out and call 911, for the love of Pete.)