Matthew Bruce Team : Web Production Tags : Technology Usability User Experience Rants

Flipping out - a yearn for simplicity

Matthew Bruce Team : Web Production Tags : Technology Usability User Experience Rants

At home, as I cleaned out my bedside drawers while waiting for a tradesman (who never showed up) I stumbled across my old Flip Video recorder. Still in it's original box, it was well looked after and in fantastic condition, but had not been used in years. As such, the inbuilt battery in the device had long deteriorated and could not be recharged, nor could it be removed, which was a damn shame. And hence, like so many 'single purpose' devices, the Flip was destined for the tip.

I was quite fond of my Flip Video Mino HD, a present from a former employer back in 2008 for a web project well executed. It came with me when I cycled 12,000km from London to Cairo - via Scandinavia - and was absolutely brilliant for video blogging my way around the continent. The device had only one connection, which 'flipped out' much like a car key (hence the name) and used USB to charge the device and transfer HD video to my laptop.

Using the Flip was a breeze. There was a small on/off button to the side, and on the front under the playback screen, a single red button which started and stopped recording. One final set of controls allowed you to delete or navigate saved video files stored on the Flip. The team who designed the device did a marvellous job, it was a sensational consumer product, not unlike an Apple product in terms of quality and ease of use.

And the Flip, as they say, is history

Unfortunately the Flip Video range was only on the market for around 12 months, before smartphones were the new kid on the block. And the Flip, as they say, is history. Cisco pulled the device from the shelf long before it needed to, but the manufacturer saw the writing on the wall and didn't want to invest in a product that, despite pretty good sales, was ultimately going to go the way of the Dodo. Quite a shame, but understandable. Other manufacturers of similar devices tried to hold onto their market longer, but in the end - like many other 'single purpose' pocket sized devices - they too were destined for oblivion. Handheld video recorders joined the ranks of compact cameras, wrist watches, alarm clocks, GPS navigators, MP3 players and other gadgets where the market was virtually wiped out overnight, or in the case of those 'survivors' prices dramatically reduced. You can't buy a Flip video anymore, but you can get a compact camcorder for two-hundred bucks these days, down from over $1000 at their peak popularity.

For the most part, it's a good thing that we now have mobile phones to replace all of these individual devices. I mean, who really wants to carry around a separate point-and-click camera, or wear a wrist watch? Let's face it, watches are just fashion accessories these days, not necessary to tell what time it is.

But every now and then, something deep inside me yearns for the simplicity that was offered by the devices I used to love. The simple, mechanical feel of a device was often comforting and gave me reassurance, and that's something I feel today's mobile phones haven't been able to reproduce (at least , not yet).

I think touch screens have a lot to answer for. Not that I would ever want to part from my beautify AMOLED Samsung GS5 screen, which is without doubt the best handheld screen ever produced for a mobile phone to date. But a touchscreen can be overly sensitive, inadvertedly stroked by a rogue thumb or pinkie, and when you want to take a photo with the flash, you can't even see it! Which is where the inconvenience begins to fester and nostalgia kicks in. On an old point an shoot (and I was always a fan of the Canon Ixus range) I was the master of selfies. Forget the selfie stick - you didn't need one - as my arm was the perfect length and it didn't take too long to perfect the angle. Most importantly, the exposure button was prominently on top of the camera and easily seen and felt, as was the zoom device directly under. Perfect selfies, nearly every time.

You can't do this with a mobile phone camera. No matter how much you try, you can never find that darn software button to 'take photo' on the touch screen unless you're staring at it - which you are not if you are trying to use the flash on the opposite side of the camera! There is nothing physical to guide your fingertips on the flat surface of the touch screen, and as you muck around trying to find it, the moment has passed, you've blurred the focus and then when you look back at the screen, somehow your fingers doing the walking have managed to close the camera app and open up some bizarre half garbled message you just nearly sent to your mother.

Selfie sticks wouldn't be around if it weren't for the camera phone. And yes, they do solve the problem to some extent (though you still can't easily see the screen!) but then, the irony of now carrying another device around with you... sort of self-defeats the idea of combining the camera and the phone into one device!

I've often wondered... if I was ever in the situation where I saw something incredible, or witnessed a flash mob or a crime, or something that otherwise might go viral had I been Johnny on the spot and thought to record the whole incident. Would I miss the whole ordeal while I pulled out the phone, made several attempts to swipe at my security pattern, then waded through my apps to the camera app, opened it and then kicked the video recorder into gear, the software eventually focusing in on the detail? Maybe I exaggerate the time it takes just a little... or maybe not, depending on your phone and setup. What I can tell you is that my Flip video would have been out and recording within merely 2 seconds - power on and press the big red record button. Glorious HD!

Back when I was cycling around Europe, I carried around my compact digital camera, my Flip video recorder, a rather heavy laptop (by today's standards), a Garmin Edge GPS and a rugged Sonim phone that was virtually indesctructible (perfect for my needs at the time) but was by no means a 'smart phone'. Wow, I tell you what it was interesting trying to keep all those devices charged up and ready to go, while at the same time hitting the road covering anywhere from 80 - 150 km every day.

Have to admit, it's brilliant that merely five years later, my smart-phone - with more processing power than the space shuttle - has replaced all of these devices, and actually has a battery life that might just survive me a whole day with moderate-heavy use. Or alternatively, my tablet which can do all that but with the convenience of a larger screen, if that's what I desire.

Maybe I'm a bit old fashioned (in fact, I'm certain of it!) but I can tell you that despite the wonderful device that is my Samsung Galaxy S5 - and all the other like phones (even iPhones!) there is still a soft spot in me, for simpler technology and simpler times. When cameras took beautiful photos without the software doing its best to ruin the experience. When I could come home and flick a switch on the stereo system and the music would play instantly from the radio or a CD. Not having to first link up to some home network, download a controller app, select the music source and search for a song or playlist. Inevitably discovering that my $1500 'smart' A/V receiver can't be discovered on my home network because the IP address is set to static, not DHCP - and I can't even access the setup menu because that requires plugging in a TV monitor via HDMI, of which I have none. Gone are the days where every feature of a device could be controlled from the remote - good luck winning at anything unless you have the on-screen menu.

What on earth has any of this got to do with web design?

What on earth does any of this have to do with web design? Well, not a great deal directly. But at the end of the day, the reason I liked all of my individual devices, is because each one was best in class for the task that it was designed for. As far as I was concerned, there was never a better point-and-shoot range of compact cameras than the Canon Ixus series. My Garmin Edge was a GPS navigator purpose built for use on bicycles, strapping to the handle bar and using simplified maps for a smaller screen that could also be seen easily in bright sunlight. My laptop was near state of the art (for its time). My phone was virtually indestructable being of the rugged, tradesman type, waterproof, dust-proof and drop proof, perfect for the harsh conditions of being on the road for months, crossing mountain ranges, rivers and deserts. My Flip video was the best HD personal recording device on the market.

All were brilliantly designed, at the top of the market and using the latest in technology, for 2008. We knew no better. Every function on every device was simple and intuitive and things just worked well. Combining them all together into one device has been largely very successful, but not without its flaws.

I think in web design, we can take a lesson from this. Two actually.

The first, obvious and certainly not earth shattering, is that the user experience and the interface is critical. The fact that Wiliam spends in order of 10-20% of a project budget on UX and design discovery, is no accident. Getting this right is critical - as the old saying goes, changes are much easier to make at the start of a project, as they are at the end (and that reflects cost).

The second, is not so obvious but has been a trend for many websites over the past few years. Simplify. We are seeing (and designing) more and more websites that do only one thing, but they do it well. People can get so caught up with thinking they need a website with all the bells and whistles. Leave nothing out! But these take longer to design and build, and often are confusing and don't give the customer one thing to focus on. Wiliam's solution to this is MVP - minimum viable product - and we've written about it in this blog, a lot. It means get your website to market sooner, with the minimum amount of work and keep to the bare basics. By the time you've mucked around with your idea and re-written the site a dozen times... chances are you've missed your opportunity as somebody else has already launched in competition.

But simplify. Keep your customer focused. What do you want them to do? Make contact for a quote? Post an advertisement? Sign-up to a newsletter? The Canon Ixus was a fantastic camera because it didn't try to be anything else but a great camera. You used it to take photos, then when you wanted to check the time, you looked at your watch. It didn't try to be a jack of all trades. And that's what I like about the Ixus, the Flip, the Garmin, the Casio watch, and all the other wonderful toys from years past that are all but forgotten and obselete these days.

Sentimental? Yes. But I'm right, sometimes. Maybe mobile phones still have a long way to go before we've designed the perfect interface. Meanwhile, everything old is new again, just you wait and see.