The Terrible State of USB-C

Marco Arment recently posted about the myriad of frustrations surrounding USB-C:

I love the idea of USB-C: one port and one cable that can replace all other ports and cables. It sounds so simple, straightforward, and unified.

In practice, it’s not even close.

As he points out, USB-C ports can vary drastically in their capabilities, and it’s impossible to tell their capabilities by looking at them. For example, USB-C can carry data via both USB and Thunderbolt protocols, but you can’t tell by looking at a port or cable which protocols are supported. You can sometimes use it for charging your laptop, but there are different power delivery standards and, again, it’s hard to tell which of those are supported. Microsoft mentioned this confusing mess of supported standards and capabilities as one of the reasons why they didn’t include any USB-C ports on their Surface Laptops:

Kyriacou points out many of the issues anybody who’s used USB-C has run into. “What happened with USB-C is the cables look identical, but they start to have vastly different capabilities. So even someone in the know, confusion starts to set in,” he argues. Some cables support 3 amps, some 5, some Thunderbolt, some not.

Microsoft has since gone on to include a USB-C port in their new Surface Book 2 (one that doesn’t support Thunderbolt, in case you were wondering), but the problems surrounding USB-C haven’t been solved.

This mess reminds me of an old desktop PC that I had in the 90s: It featured two PS/2-ports on the back, one for plugging in a mouse, another for plugging in a keyboard. Problem was, those two ports were completely identical looking, so you never knew which cable should be plugged into which port without resorting to trial and error. Some PCs back then solved this problem with iconography or color coding, but mine didn’t.

This was bad design 20 years ago, and it’s still bad design today. The design principle of consistency states that things that are the same should look the same, but the inverse is also true: things that are different should look different. USB-C is clearly in violation of this principle. The only solution to this problem that comes to mind is for USB-C to support a uniform and consistent set of features. Unfortunately this will certainly take some time to come to fruition. In the meantime I’m sticking with USB-A.

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Recommended Reading: The long, strange story behind Blade Runner’s title

I just read and enjoyed this:

Most fans of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner are aware that it’s based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, and that the book is not called Blade Runner. If you pick up Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, you’ll notice the term never appears in it.

Read “The long, strange story behind Blade Runner’s title”

Deliberately Horrible UI Design

A few months ago, in response to a horrible web form for entering phone numbers shared by Stelian Firez, Twitter responded with a barrage of deliberately horrible and obtuse design alternatives, seemingly in search of the worst option possible. Many of these are collected and archived here.

Then more recently, Reddit set to the task of designing the worst possible volume sliders.

Hilarity aside, there are certainly lessons to be learned in trying to design a worst possible UI, as well as in studying these fine examples.

Recommended Reading: Analyzing the Gender Representation of 34,476 Comic Book Characters

I just read and enjoyed this:

Female characters appear in superhero comics less often than males — but when they are included, how are they depicted? The recent theatrical release of Wonder Woman briefly catapulted the question of female superhero representation into the mainstream.

Read “Analyzing the Gender Representation of 34,476 Comic Book Characters”

The analysis is beautifully visualised, including some great pixel art.

How an edge-to-edge screen could change the iPhone’s UI

With new iPhones almost upon us it’s that time of the year when iPhone rumors and speculation are everywhere. It is pretty much accepted as fact that we will see three new iPhones this year, two of them based on the familiar iPhone 7 design and one completely new design with minimal bezels and an edge-to-edge display.

Allen Pike had some interesting ideas how such a display could shake up the default screen layout of iPhone apps: he thinks that a lot more functionality as well as basic navigation will move to the bottom of the screen, maybe like this.

Max Rudberg also picked up on the idea and created a few more mockups to illustrate the possibilities:

iphone-pro-ui.png

As an aside: It’s kinda weird that I still care about this now that I no longer personally use an iPhone. I guess it’s hard to escape the pervasive excitement surrounding a new iPhone design.

Recommended Reading: Creation and consumption

I just read and enjoyed this:

It seems to me that when people talk about what you ‘can’t’ do on a device, there are actually two different meanings of ‘can’t’ in computing. There is ‘can’t’ as meaning the feature doesn’t exist, and there is ‘can’t’ as meaning you don’t know how to do it. If you don’t know how to do it, the feature might as well not be there. So, there is what an expert can’t do on a smartphone or tablet that they could do on a PC. But then there are all of the things that a normal person (the other 90% or 95%) can’t do on a PC but can do on a smartphone, because the step change in user interface abstraction and simplicity means that they know how to do it on a phone and didn’t know how to do it on a PC. That is, the step change in user interface models that comes with the shift from Windows and Mac to iOS and Android is really a shift in the accessibility of capability. A small proportion of people might temporarily go from can to can’t, but vastly more go from can’t to can.

Read “Creation and consumption”

Recommended Reading: Myanmar’s Smartphone Revolution

I just read and enjoyed this:

For six weeks in October and November 2015, just before Myanmar held its landmark elections, I joined a team of design ethnographers in the countryside interviewing forty farmers about smartphones. A design ethnographer is someone who studies how culture and technology interact.

Read “Myanmar’s Smartphone Revolution”

I didn’t expect Facebook to hold such a dominant position in people’s lives. There are also some great examples of how routing around infrastructure differences causes completely different usage patterns compared to the US and Europe.

Recommended Reading: Not even wrong – ways to dismiss technology

I enjoyed this article by Benedict Evans, particularly this bit:

In the enterprise, new technology tends to solve existing problems in new ways (or of course solve the new problems created by the new tech). In consumer products, it’s more common to seem to be proposing a change in human behaviour, and so in human desires. You may in some underlying way ‘really’ be replacing an existing behavior in a different way, as Word replaced typewriters and email replaced Word, but that line of reasoning can easily lead you to unfalsifiable assertions when you move up Maslow’s Hierarchy.  ‘Millennials care less about driving because smartphones give them their freedom now’ certainly sounds good, but I have no idea how you could tell if it’s true, far less predict it. This is not a falsifiable analysis. All that you can hold in your hands is that you’re proposing a new human desire, and that’s a subjective view, not the objective analysis one could do of the roadmap for flight in 1903 – worse, it requires a change in your subjective view. You don’t think that you want to listen to music walking down the street, and you don’t think that you want to be able to call anyone from anywhere you might be. The argument for progress here is effectively false consciousness – ‘you think you don’t want this, but you are wrong, and one day you will realise the truth of your own feelings’. But you can’t ever know this – again, you can’t falsify it.

Steven Sinofski made similar observations when writing about platform shifts.