The Hawaii Missile Alert Incident

A few weeks ago, there was a false state-wide missile alert broadcast in Hawaii. You’ve probably heard about it, because it was all over the news and the event even has its own Wikipedia page by now.

While the incident was certainly unpleasant for Hawaiians, and particularly for the poor man responsible for the broadcast, it is a stroke of luck for me. I’m always on the look-out for poor user interface design leading to catastrophe, and this event is about as good an example as it gets. In the days following the incident there was ample discussion of the user interface for sending out the broadcast (which turned out to be surprisingly difficult to reliably pin down) and how to prevent such mistakes in the future, e.g. from The Verge, Ars Technica, Jason Kottke and Nick Heer, all of which are worth a read.

As I said, I’m always looking for examples of poor user interface design, which is surprisingly difficult and seems to have become more difficult over time. By and large, the importance and necessity of good usability and user interface design seems to be so pervasive and commonly accepted that nowadays any application with a sizeable audience is well designed. While that’s obviously a very good thing for most people, it makes it quite difficult for me to find examples illustrating bad design and its consequences.

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Recommended Reading: The cult of conversational design and why forms aren’t dead yet

I just read and enjoyed this:

Everywhere we looked, conversational UIs were breaking out of messaging apps and into the products we use every day, from shoe shopping to cosmetics and everything in between. Many of these were successful, but many others were not.

Read “The cult of conversational design and why forms aren’t dead yet”

Recommended Reading: Longphone

I just read and enjoyed this, it’s quite funny:

The iPhone X is packed with new and novel technology. Face ID. OLED. Dual cameras in a compact package. As fascinating as that all is though, it has an unusual property that been little discussed: this phone is really, really tall. iPhone X’s screen is the tallest ever in an iPhone.

Read “Longphone”

Recommended Reading: The best laptop ever made

I just read and enjoyed this:

Apple has made many great laptops, but the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro (2012–2015) is the epitome of usefulness, elegance, practicality, and power for an overall package that still hasn’t been (and may never be) surpassed.

Read “The best laptop ever made”

There’s probably a line to be drawn between lauding the 2015 MacBook Pro 15″ and the frustrating state of USB-C (but maybe I’m just projecting). I tend to agree with Marco Arment’s assessment that things have gone downhill from the 2015 MacBook lineup (even though I personally use and prefer the MacBook Pro 13″) and I find the current MacBook lineup uniquely unsuitable to my needs. Apparently I’m not alone. I could really use a new laptop at work, but there isn’t a single new MacBook model available that I find acceptable on a practical day-to-day basis, mostly because of their lack of ports. Of course I could spend a lot of money on a two year old computer, but somehow I can’t quite convince myself to do that. So for now, I’ll stick with an excruciatingly slow 2010 MacBook Air and wait for USB-C to suck less, which probably shouldn’t take much longer than another three or five years…

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.

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.