Thursday, 12 March 2015

What is design for? The new Apple Macbook, hobs and toilet doors

Of all the companies involved in the IT and communications world, Apple arguably has the most style and elegant design. We all know that design is brilliant on a thing you just look at, but when you also have to use it, usability comes in too - and there is frequently a tension between the two.

Many years ago, I did quite a lot of work on user interface design, and that's all about the balance, making something that looks good, but is also effortlessly usable. Generally speaking, Apple's UI designers get this, and in part maintain it by keeping more of a grip on the user interface than do rivals. However, on Apple's hardware side, the design/usability balance has sometimes strayed too far towards looks above function.

This happens all the time in everyday items. I've mentioned before the toilet doors at the British Airways Waterside HQ, which had pull handles on both sides, even though you had to push them when going in. I used to delight in watching person after person approach the door, pull it (because that's what you automatically do when you see a pull handle), fail, hesitate, then push the door. The designer let the visual elegance of symmetry overcome the practical value of a push plate.

Another great example I've mentioned before is the hob - the bit of the cooker with rings that you put pans on. Most of these have four rings, arranged in a rectangular shape. But because it looks better, designers almost always put the controls for these rings in a straight line. So there is no way of telling which control is for which ring without looking at the labels. If they just put the controls in the same shape as the rings it would be immediately apparent without any labelling.

So we come to Apple's new Macbook, coming out next month. It looks gorgeous. Super slim with stunning graphics. It may well be one of my favourite laptops ever. And the designers have really thought about how nasty the side of a typical laptop looks with all those different shaped ports and have come up with a cunning design of a single type of port, USB-C (see pic above) that can act as power in, USB, display adaptor, HDMI - whatever you need. Because the laptop is so slim you could only get one of these per side, but because they're so flexible, you'd be happy with the limit of just having two of them. But it only has one.

Just think about that. A single port for everything. Design bliss possibly (though for symmetry, there really ought to be one each side). But practical? Hardly. Okay, battery life is good, but who would willingly do a whole day's presentation from a laptop that can't be connected to the mains, because the only socket is being used to connect it to the projector? As it happens, Apple has that one covered. You have always had to have a special adaptor to connect a Mac's proprietary video port to the VGA or HDMI used by video projectors. So the new adaptor not only has a video out socket, but also a connector for the mains unit (and a USB socket). That's okay, although arguably this should come with the laptop, rather than being a £65 extra.

However, that's not the only problem. Far more people use USB sockets at the same time as the power than use projectors. They might need to swap information on and off a memory stick. They might be synchronising or charging a phone or iPod. They might want to pop on a USB mouse. Well, tough. If you want to do this, you will have to disconnect your mains supply, unless you spend £65 on one of those adaptors. If your laptop is low on charge - doubly tough. You will just have to wait to get those extremely urgent documents off that secure memory stick, because you will run out of battery if you disconnect the mains.

This can't be good. Just putting one socket either side - or providing a USB/mains adaptor with the laptop - would have made all the difference. But design has triumphed. In fact it has even robbed us of one of Apple's unique features. Anyone who has sat in a living room with four people all using laptops on mains cables will know the hazard they form. You either trip over a cable, or send a laptop flying off the sofa to crash to the floor as your foot gets wrapped in the wire. So for many years, Apple has a used a lovely 'MagSafe' connector that doesn't plug in, but is attached magnetically.   Get your foot caught in this cable and it detaches safely. But the new USB-C connector isn't magnetic. Lose-lose it seems.

When I get my hands on one of these it may still be one of my favourite laptops ever, and in the end I suspect I will overlook this flaw. But that doesn't stop it being a sad example of design over usability.

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