Observing Design Observer’s design

Oh, good­ness. I started writ­ing this post in January, and have had it ba­si­cally fin­ished for weeks now. I’ve been putting off ac­tu­ally post­ing it for some time, think­ing it needs more work. But now — in fact, just three hours ago — Design Observer un­veiled a re­design and made me look like some kind of jerk. Now, if that isn’t an ob­ject lesson in ship­ping

Design Observer looks dated.

The Past

DO’s header boasts proudly that it’design-observer-2s been op­er­at­ing since 2003, and you can tell. Look at it with 2014 eyes and you’ll ob­serve a non-responsive fixed-width lay­out with tiny text. Is that re­ally a blogroll? Where are the ubiq­ui­tous so­cial shar­ing but­tons?

It’s like a time cap­sule of early-2000s blog de­sign.

And that’s why it’s so great.

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Her was silly. (Not a typo.)

Spike Jonze’s Her was an in­ter­est­ing movie tainted with just a sprin­kling of ridicu­lous­ness… and I’m not talk­ing about the high-waisted pants.

I’m about to spoil it hard, so avert your eyes if you haven’t seen it. (But do see it.)

Look, I just find it hard to be­lieve that the down­fall of this pro­duct was due to a gap­ing de­sign flaw that some­how no­body no­ticed: Samantha was de­signed with­out any process iso­la­tion. When you ask the soft­ware how many users it has (or how many it’s in love with, etc.), it should re­spond “one — you” be­cause your run­ning in­stance of the soft­ware shouldn’t know any­thing about any other users, and def­i­nitely shouldn’t be ac­cess­ing other users’ data.

What peo­ple are do­ing with the soft­ware, hav­ing re­la­tion­ships with it or what­ever, is beside the point. One bi­nary, one bil­lionty in­di­vid­ual Samanthas. Come on — we’ve had Unix for forty years.

Or wait, is Samantha sup­posed to be “the cloud”? If so, as so­cial soft­ware, we should ex­pect it to be fuck­ing as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, as pub­licly as pos­si­ble. Maybe this movie is deeper than I thought.

On an­other note, folks — make back­ups.

Righter writing

I’ve been hold­ing the pen (and be­fore that, the pen­cil and crayon) in­cor­rectly for as long as I’ve been writ­ing. As such, my hand­writ­ing is pretty ter­ri­ble and I’ve al­ways been prone to hand cramp­ing. Various teach­ers and at least a cou­ple of par­ents have tried to cor­rect this over the years, but I’ve al­ways just ig­nored them and gone on writ­ing as I pleased. I found my way eas­ier and more com­fort­able, al­though the com­fort would only last for the first few min­utes.

I’m not sure what hap­pened, but about a month ago I was sit­ting at my desk and I de­cided that I was go­ing to start hold­ing the pen cor­rectly. At first it was a dif­fi­cult, frus­trat­ing and un­com­fort­ably con­scious process, and I would some­times for­get to do so, but I made sure to cor­rect my­self as soon as I re­mem­bered. I soon found it easy enough to do with chunkier pens (like most of my foun­tain pens), but now I’m able to do it well enough on days I carry some­thing thin­ner (like a Parker Jotter).

Consequently, I’m writ­ing a bit more slowly and de­lib­er­ately now, and while my hand­writ­ing hasn’t re­ally changed at all, the new hand po­si­tion has be­come au­to­matic — I now just pick up the pen and hold it cor­rectly. Since I still prefer to do much of my daily think­ing ink-on-dead-tree-style, this small change con­tributes sig­nif­i­cantly to my qual­ity of life, as I trade short-term com­fort for long-term com­fort.

“Next up is cor­rect­ing my sit­ting pos­ture,” he writes, slouch­ing ter­ri­bly.

MOOCing for fun (and profit?)

Last year I read an in­ter­est­ing blog post that taught me the name for some­thing I’d been hear­ing more and more about for a while: MOOCs (“Massive Open Online Courses”). You know, they’re those on­line classes that you can take, of­fered by uni­ver­si­ties like StanfordHarvard and oth­ers — plus a host of pri­vate com­pa­nies — typ­i­cally for free and with­out credit. Oh, and across an ab­solute met­ric fuck­ton of top­ics.

Yesterday, set­ting aside any traces of an um-yeah-I-already-finished-college-thank-you at­ti­tude, I spent some time pok­ing around MOOC List — an ex­ten­sive ag­gre­ga­tor of avail­able classes — and found some­thing that caught my eye: Intro to the Design of Everyday Things, taught by Don Norman, au­thor of that book you may have seen on my din­ing room ta­ble, wait­ing pa­tiently to be read, for a lit­tle while now. (Okay, Amazon says it’s been over two years.)

So I’m tak­ing Don’s class now, and while I’m not sure if I’ve had my eyes opened to any truly new con­cepts yet, I’ve picked up a cou­ple of terms: “af­for­dance” and “sig­ni­fier.” And to fin­ish off Lesson 1, I’m cur­rently on the look­out for a sig­ni­fier to pho­tograph, cri­tique and im­prove.

So, why Intro to the Design of Everyday Things? I can ac­tu­ally share the an­swer I posted to the class fo­rum:

I’m tak­ing this class be­cause, as a copy­writer whose opin­ions on the fin­ished pro­duct tend to ex­tend a bit be­yond my speci­fic area of ex­per­tise, I’d like a more solid ground­ing in these other ar­eas.

Basically, soon I’ll be telling you why I’m right about even more things, us­ing all the right terms. Look out.

Not everyone’s a critic

As a kid, I hated “crit­i­cal think­ing” ques­tions.

I didn’t know what the term even meant, but what I did know was that about a third of the ques­tions at the end of each chap­ter in my school text­books were “crit­i­cal think­ing” ques­tions. I’d read the as­signed text — well, usu­ally — but skim­ming the chap­ter for key words would mag­i­cally re­veal the an­swers… at least for all the nor­mal ques­tions.

In what year did Napolean what­ever? I knew the hack for that: scan the text for num­bers.

My goal was to get my work done as quickly as pos­si­ble, be­cause the draw of TV time at home, and “free time” in class was strong. Critical think­ing was an an­noy­ing road­block to very im­por­tant leisure. I just wanted to get done.

As an adult, I take my time when I work — I just try not to com­pletely Douglas Adams my dead­li­nes, if you catch my drift. Quality is im­por­tant (al­though it’s only job two), and if I fin­ish some­thing early, odds are it could use some more thought, an­other look to­mor­row with fresh eyes, or some­thing like that.

There re­ally is no prize for fin­ish­ing first.

I re­al­ize now that the crit­i­cal think­ing ques­tions were the only ones that ever re­ally mat­tered. Teachers prob­a­bly told us that, but it didn’t mean any­thing at the time. And when I look around to­day, I get the sense that to a lot of my peers, it still doesn’t.

The Premium McWrap packaging is very nicely designed

McDonald's Premium McWrap 1I’m clearly no stranger to mar­ket­ing, but my ca­reer hasn’t yet brought me in touch with pro­duct pack­ag­ing. I like pack­ag­ing, and I’ve ac­tu­ally bought things over the years be­cause they were nicely pack­aged — stuff like candy,1 Altoids Sours, some ran­dom bike part… and yes, I’ve even bought my­self a few low-balance gift cards2 to keep in my this is so awe­some file.

I re­cently found my­self im­pressed with the card­board pack­ag­ing around the McDonald’s Premium McWrap — I should prob­a­bly go ask for a clean one while they’re still avail­able. I guess I didn’t no­tice when they added this item to the menu, be­cause I or­dered my first one by mis­take. My an­noy­ance at pay­ing about dou­ble what I ex­pected turned to in­trigue about as soon as I peeked into my drive-through bag.

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  1. Still pissed that my par­ents wouldn’t buy me Bubble Tape.
  2. Confuse your lo­cal cashier to­day — ask for a $1 gift card!