Wednesday, July 10, 2013

My New Telephone


After reading the Design of Everyday Things for the second time, I decided to go on eBay and find a Bell Systems touch tone telephone.  I won an auction for a phone, and it ended up costing $24 including shipping.  Friends and family said that it was a waste of money, but I bought it because, like Donald Norman, the author of DOET, I believe it is the embodiment of great design.  So here it is sitting on my desk, inspiring and encouraging me to strive for great design in my software development.  I wanted to share with everyone why it inspires me and what it can teach us about developing well designed software.

According to DOET

"Consider the telephone.  The early telephone evolved slowly, over several generations. It once was a most awkward devices, with handset and microphone, one held in each hand. You had to turn a crank to generate a signal that would ring the bell at the other end of the line.  Voice transmission was poor.  Over the years, improvements were slowly made in size and shape, reliability, and features that simplified its use.  The instrument was heavy and robust: drop it on the floor, and not only did it still work but you seldom lost the telephone connection.  The layout of the dial or push buttons resulted from careful experimentation in the laboratory.  The size and spacing of the keys were carefully selected to work for a wide variety of the population, including the very young and the very old.  The sounds of the telephone were also carefully designed to provide feedback.  Push a button and you heard a tone in the earphone.  Speak into the microphone, and a carefully determined percentage of your own  voice was fed back into the earphone, the better to help you regulate how loudly you were talking. The clicks, buzzes, and other noises you heard while a connection was being established provided useful indications of progress."

I love the notion he presents as good design being an evolutionary process.  It comforts me to know that every wonderfully designed website or application didn't just appear out of nothingness; we as designers are all part of a process and contribute bits and pieces to the overall advancement of  design.  There is no burden of creating the next design poster child, because responsive design, iPads, and even seemingly commonplace constructs, like the number layout on my phone, all were the result of years of slow progress.

Besides the things Norman presents, I've noticed some other design features of my phone once I got it in my hands.

Design Elements of my Phone

One Function per Control

Looking at the phone, I notice that there are 14 controls on the phone; 12 number buttons, a hang up button, and a dial on the bottom for ring volume. The phone is fairly unique in the sense that, for a fairly complex device (i.e. more complex than a potato peeler), every control maps to a single function. Each number button corresponds to entering one symbol.  The hang up button controls if the phone is active or not.  The dial controls the ring volume.  There are no secrets to the functionality of this phone, and that partly contributes to the fact that when you look at this phone, you instantly know how it is used.

I want to strive for this in my websites and applications.  When you have many functions and too few controls, you end up with ambiguous elements with mysterious functionality.  On the opposite side, you end up with many redundant controls and an unclear path for the user to accomplish their goal.  The constant balance between ambiguity and clutter is a major problem for a lot of websites and web apps;  look at the clutter of and the ambiguity of the fluxbox desktop environment.

Button Arrangement

Norman mentions this in the excerpt I provided, but I couldn't help but embellish on this point.  This is a perfect example of design that goes completely unnoticed, because it is so subtle that many people take it for granted. For a moment, consider the alternative. Try typing your phone number on a number pad 5 times as fast as you can.  Now try it on the horizontal keys on top of your keyboard.  Much slower right?  I also found that I was more error prone on a horizontal keyboard.
So if design elements are so subtle and taken for granted, does it really matter?  It matters a lot, because when software applications mess this particular one up, it drives me crazy.  The most obvious offender of this is the Search page on Netflix on the XBOX 360.  Here is a link to what it looks like: (image) .  Remember how bad you were at typing on a horizontal bar with your fingers?  Try it with a joy stick.  To make matters worse, Netflix searches while you are entering terms, but its slow, causing hiccups in the letter selection process.  It is horrendous.  I remember earlier versions were not like this; I can't imagine how the change ever made it past testing.

I'm not advocating strictly adhering to convention because that would be detrimental to progress.  Instead, rather than take common constructs for granted, gain a full understanding for why they are the way they are.  Chances are, there is good design at work that goes unnoticed.  This phone reminds me to notice the little things, analyze why they work or why they don't, and find creative solutions to the smallest of problems.  In the end, that is what is contributing to the evolution of design.

Requires Little Precision or Accuracy

The usage of this phone requires little physical dexterity to use.  The buttons are spaced far enough away from each other, require adequate amount of force to push (preventing accidental presses), and have a low minimum speed required for subsequent presses to be considered a string of numbers.  The handset can be easily dropped into place from a good six to eight inches above the prongs; the prongs act like funnels and guide the handset in.  This is great design because it affects an action used every time the device is used, and it is done unknowingly to the user.

Being tolerant of low precision users encompasses both those with disabilities and the elderly, who are constantly being left out in regards to technological inclusion.  Windows 8, for example, requires the user to bring the mouse to the top corner of the screen, where it is out of view, to pop up the Charm bar, where common functions are kept.  This requires a decent amount of mouse dexterity,  which is no problem for us used to website pull down menus, but what about the others?

Back Handle

This is one of my favorite features of the phone.  There is a little handle under the prongs to pick the phone up.  I've seen this in movies, so I tried it myself, and I realized how great this design is.  First, it acts as a forcing function when the handset is on the prongs.  When you pick up the phone like this, the handset becomes part of the handle; it cannot fall off the prongs while in transit.  The design forces this functionality.  Similarly, when the handset is off and you are presumably in a call, the prongs block the fingers from accidentally hanging up the phone.  The handle is just a little indention, so it can only be picked up one way; with the hand over the handset or prongs.

Furthermore, The handle is placed right in the center of gravity, so it pivots nicely on your fingers and is easy to pick up. Also, it is neatly hidden as not to distract from the aesthetics of the phone.  Norman seems to thing there is no possible reconciliation of good design and good aesthetics, but I believe his own example proves him wrong.

Design fundamentals like forcing functions and affordances can be implemented in software applications.  Don't let users close the application if there is unsaved work.  Blank out unavailable dates in an airline booking program.  Guide them into the desired functionality with good design.

Built To Last

One thing I was surprised about when I got my phone was how heavy it was.  These phones were made with high quality, metal parts so they can be dropped, slammed, and rolled.  As Norman stated, the phone is fault tolerant; if it falls off a table, the prongs protect it from hanging up on itself.  And even after all of these years, the phone still carries out its designed task flawlessly.

The implications to software are obvious.  Use quality libraries and components.  Design fault tolerance and test extensively.  Build for the future and maintain the functionality of your application.

Curvature of Handset

The handset is curved and designed to fit a face.  It is comfortable and can be propped up to my ear with my shoulder.  It seems to naturally fit my face, which is something most smartphones can't say.  It is easy to grip, and is obvious by its shape where I am intended to hold it.  The cord comes out the side of the phone, not the back or front, indicating a specific orientation that the handset is supposed to reside on the prongs.  All small design features, but all very important.

I'm not sure about this next point, but it seems to make sense to me.  I noticed that the speaker is concave, while the microphone is convex.  I'm sure part of this is for comfort; holding the convex side to my ear is not nearly as comfortable.  My other theory is that the concave side is meant to form a sort of seal around your ear, trapping in the sound from the speaker.  The convex side on the microphone is to reflect outside noise and pick up more direct sound from the person talking.  Again, I have no proof of this, but because of all the little details, I wouldn't be surprised if this were the case.

To me, the handset is a lesson in user centered design.  Make the app conform or "fit" your users just like the handset fits my head.  It should be easy to use and comfortable for them both mentally and physically.  Time spent  hammering out small details, although possibly unnoticed to the users, is time well spent, considering the alternative.


I know that was a lot to read, but there are a lot of lessons to be learned from a small, common place object like my phone.  No matter what anybody says, I see it as a good investment, as it inspires and encourages good design in everything I do.  It sits next to my monitor, always in the corner of my eye, constantly reminding that good design is timeless.

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