IXers working on physical products - HELP!

8 Nov 2005 - 12:07am
10 years ago
2 replies
1108 reads

Hello, all!

I just saw the list e-mails on IXers working on physical products and I'd
like to join the discussion into physical product UI design. I have a
specific project in mind I need help with.

I have just started a new project as the user interface architect working
with an industrial design firm to design a physical consumer device from
scratch for production in 2007. The 2005 product is on the market and the
2006 version is already designed and currently being developed.
Interestingly, the physical design, the physical button design and layout,
and the screen user interface are different for each version.

We have been asked to leapfrog the 2006 model and design the 2007 product
from scratch with the best, most usable and most intuitive physical and
screen user interface FOR THE YEAR 2007. I have free reign to design or
create whatever physical buttons and switches needed for the design. This
means I need to look at current and future designs and trends in cell phone,
camera, printer, media device and whatever new-fangled gadgets are on the

So, I need some help collecting resources for the project. Please forward,
either to me directly (and I will summarize for the list), or to the list
- What are your favorite links or documents for
guidelines and resources for physical digital devices?
- What are the most usable digital device buttons and switches you've used?
(Opinions, product reviews, usability evaluations)
- What are the trends and research in this area?
- Other ideas?

Thanks for all your help.

Theo Mandel, Ph.D.
Interface Design and Development
Phoenix, AZ
phone: (480) 664-1202
fax: (707) 667-1848
e-mail: theo at theomandel.com
web: www.theomandel.com <http://www.theomandel.com/>


8 Nov 2005 - 6:43am
Dave Malouf

Hi Theo,

Does your project include desireability as one of the mandates? Sometimes
the most usable button (and other points of interaction) maybe not lend to
playfulness which is often a big contributing factor in the success of a
product, especially a physical one.

One area to look though is to the TiVo designs. I know they did a lot of
work on designing their remotes and I've seen some of that work documented.
I don't have links available (didn't have del.icio.us at the time. You might
want to search there, btw.

If you have a screen as part of the design I think you have some openings of
interest for the interaction design of the product. One of the reasons that
those who respond positively to the iPod do so is b/c of ...
1. its minimalism and form factor.
2. its fluidity - we can agree or disagree one whether it is usable or for
that matter ergonomic, but a circle is a lot more fluid and every lasting
and fun to use than a more linear motion. Ergo, it is playful. Other aspects
of the design might be flawed like the relationship w/ menu and back button.

Another really great design that always gets me are the Elf digital cameras
(Canon) and my Treo (Palm). I really like the button design of both for what
they need to do.

-- dave

8 Nov 2005 - 9:56am

Hi Theo,

Looks like you have quite a challenge! One of the most exciting and
challenging things is when you have carte blanche to do what you wish on a
product. In my experience, constraints are the things that set you free!

I'll try to answer your questions specifically, but bear with me as I go off
track. ;-)

Now, I hate to go to the iPod click wheel first, but I must so I can get it
out of the way. A control that allows for an infinite number of directions
and not just up/down/left/right solves a number of problems and ID issues,
but creates a few as well. Quite a number of years ago, I was working on a
digital camera that had a similar wheel, but more like a wheel and much
smaller; the wheel was on the side of the camera, parallel to the front and
back surface (can you picture it?) so your finger rotated it by its edge. It
allowed scrolling of menus in many directions and also had a push so you
could select. The down side to any wheel type device is that it forces you
into a list menu convention that is like the iPod.

One of the key things that I always am interested in (and promote) is
tactile feel. I prefer harder buttons to softer ones because they offer
better feedback, but it depends on the application really. If you're working
with buttons, wheels, etc., you need to be sure that you can differentiate
them by touch **and not by sight alone**.
You can do this a few ways:
-position and distance between buttons
-height variations (dome height too)
-size variations (must be discernable by touch though, can't be slight)
-shape variations (also must be discernable by touch... tough to do)
-some type of extra bump or detent on the surface (like how braille feels)
-material differentiation; metallic (textured and/or smooth), soft touch
paint, rubber, etc.
-snap ratio (how hard it is to press)

In designing the UI, I have some guidelines I go by. I could dig up some
reference material on gestalt psychology and all that kind of good stuff,
but get out your grain of salt... these are things I have learned in my

1. If you're working with a device that has a display and you've chosen to
use soft buttons (buttons that change labels depending on the context of the
UI), I offer one very important rule; the button must be as close to the
display as physically possible... and then bring it even closer!
2. Don't use more than one button labeled "menu", "settings", "options",
"function", etc. You may think people know the difference, but I can
guarantee that even after using a product for 2 or more years, they still
don't know which does what.
3. Double-duty buttons are confusing. Try not to label one button with more
than one function, unless they have a relationship like small and capital
4. It better be damn important to deserve a button. The heirarchy of
features can be laid out and a feature deserves a button in one of 2 cases:
it's frequently used (the send button, the shutter button, etc.) or it's
important but maybe not frequently used (a settings button, the mute button)
5. Balance button count with menu count. You can go too far in one
direction; don't sacrifice buttons and then end up with a maze of menus, and
don't flatten your menus for more buttons.

Okay... I'm getting long in the tooth and I could go on. Let me know if this
is of any help to you before I add anything else. I'd also be happy to talk
with you about your project specifics off line if you'd like.


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