Design Thoughts

Ever look at a product and wonder, “why did they design it that way?” I know I have, and I have some examples I want to bring up.

Years ago, over dinner, I had a programmer from our Wisconsin office basically ask, “why the hell is your file system for your web servers setup the way it is?”  It was a fair question. It wasn’t something one would normally see.  But before I explain that…

Like any modern American, I’m physically incapable of being more than 10′ from a flat screen TV in my house.  We have several, including one in my office and one in the kitchen. I couldn’t tell you the brand of the one in the kitchen (well I could, but I’m too lazy to go downstairs and find out) and the only reason I can tell you the brand of the one in my office is because I can see it from here. It’s an Inginsia brand.

Both serve the same function: they allow me to watch TV. But both have design quirks.

Their button layouts are a bit different (note the layout of the numbers and the volume/channel control buttons.)

Kitchen TV Remote

Kitchen TV Remote

Office TV Remote

Office TV Remote

The kitchen TV also has a built-in DVD player, so it has additional controls for that.

So obviously, there’s different design philosophies and requirements here. But I want to go a step deeper and talk a bit about functionality.

The kitchen TV remote, if you mistype a number, you can hit the Vol – button and it will essentially backspace and delete the number. Actually a handy feature.  The Office remote has no such functionality, though hitting EXIT will remove the entire channel already entered.  Score one for Dynex. (Ok, I did go downstairs so I could grab the remote and take a photo).

But, the Dynex has one annoying quirk I’ve never figured out. When I hit the OFF button, there’s a noticeable delay of 1-2 seconds before it actually turns off. For the life of me, I have NO idea why. I mean I’m turning off a TV. It’s not like I’m shutting down a computer where it has to write the contents of memory to disk and perform other tasks. Sure, maybe it has to save the last channel I was tuned to, but it could do that right after I tuned into that station. Same with the volume.  Every other TV in the house, including my office one, when you hit the off button, turns off instantly.

I’m reminded a bit of early computers that had the big red switch. There was something satisfying about turning off an early PC. You knew it was instantly off. There was no two questions about it. Now, shutting off a PC is a far more complex operation and can take sometime.  But a TV? I’d love to know why the kitchen TV takes a long time to turn off.

Now back to the file design the programmer was asking me about. Essentially we had 5-6 web front ends, each with a virtual directory in IIS pointing to a NAS. Not an entirely awful setup, but uncommon at the time.  We were offering a web platform to newspapers so they could publish their content. Originally we tried using a 3rd party package to make sure the content on all the servers was always in synch (since a newspaper could upload content at any time to any of the servers and wanted it available instantly). What we found was sometimes we’d get into race conditions where files could actually end up erasing themselves. The 3rd party company kept assuring us they had the solution. Well after a desperate call at 4:00 AM call from my on-duty NOC person, I drove into the office, scrambling to figure out a better solution. On the drive, the idea of using the virtual directories to the NAS occurred to me. We implemented it in about 30 minutes and solved our problems. It was supposed to be a temporary solution until we came up with a more robust, permanent solution. But, 18 months later it was still in place, working great and I was explaining it to our out of town programmer. He went from, “that’s nuts” to “Hey, that makes a lot of sense.”

So, I like to think that when there’s a design I don’t understand, the designers at the time had their reasons. But, to be honest, I’m not always sure.

For example, the photo that should be heading up this article, of a shampoo bottle and a bottle of conditioner, both from the same manufacturer, both designed to be cap down, are printed the opposite way. The only reason I can think of that makes sense is so that in a befuddled, sleep deprived state, I can more easily determine which is which. But even if that is the answer, why this way, and not the other? Inquiring minds want to know!

And yes, the shampoo bottle can be placed cap up, but the conditioner bottle can’t be. Again, why? The viscosity of the two aren’t that different. Again, inquiring minds want to know.

Shampoo/Conditioner bottles

One of these is upside down!


Newspapers and paradigm shifts

When I was fairly young, I learned a detail about newspaper advertising.  The space on the lower-outside right-hand page was worth more than lower left inside page (i.e. along the fold).

If you think about how folks read and flip threw newspapers, this makes sense.  It’s an area more likely to be seen than others.

With news, there’s the term “above the fold” and “below the fold”  Obviously, you want the big news article on the front page, above the fold where it’s most likely to be seen.

When laying out a newspaper, there is over a century of experience in how to do things.  You don’t jump a front page news article to a page in the middle of the sports section; for the most part, you don’t run box-scores on the front page (unless perhaps it’s an upset at the Super Bowl or something else that will garner eyeballs); you don’t scatter sections of your newspaper across didn’t pages.

Years ago, I was proud to be part of one of the first newspaper web application service providers, “PowerAdz” (which later become PowerOne Media, and then later most of it was bought by TownNews.)

Even back then, I realized much of what was known about newspaper layout was going to have to change. There was no longer a physical fold in the newspaper.  There was a bottom edge to a browser window, and that still meant you needed the important news at the top.  But, how long should it run down the “page”.  How many pixels did the viewer have before the bottom edge of the window?  What was the width of your front page?

You also weren’t limited by a physical size to a page.  Articles could run on as long as readers were willing to scroll.  Or was having a reasonable sized page with links to following pages better?

Much of this is still in flux. And I suspect will continue to be for years to come.  Heck, just the fact that articles can have hyperlinks to other articles, or background information makes news on web pages very different from the traditional print medium.

What reminded me of this today was seeing yet another comment on a CNN fluff piece that was linked off of the front page.  The commentator was complaining that “this is news?”

Someone replied it was under the Entertainment section. Another rebutted “yeah, but it’s on the the front news page.”

That reminded me of these thoughts. What is the front page any more? Even though you can click to different sections of CNN, it’s not like a traditional newspaper where you have physically separate section, each with its own front page.  Now it’s all virtual and a front page is simply as you define it.

I think ultimately we have to let go of our definition of the front page of a news site and accept that links to news, fluff pieces and the like will all end up there.  Sure, there will be sections within the page, but to complain there’s sports, or entertainment, or other non-traditional news links off the front page will be like complaining you don’t have to unscroll the papyrus in the correct direction to read it: a sign of an older time.

Times change, but more importantly the medium changes, even if the message doesn’t.