Bang & Olufsen - CE UI Tuesday, July 19, 2005

So, conventional wisdom about Bang & Olufsen is, as far as I can tell, overpriced, bad sounding junk for the “Jet Set”. ("Jet Set” being a particularly old fashioned way of saying “stupid, snobby idiot”, given the context.)

I think that it’s easy to try to slot Bang & Olufsen gear in with the ultra-high-end audio equipment because their prices do tend to be significantly higher than typical CE—your Sony/Denon/Harmon Kardon/Pioneer/Panasonic lines. There’s no question that it’s expensive stuff.

What brought this to mind recently were a pair of recent trips to Costco and BestBuy. I was looking around at trends in CE design, and it was truly depressing.

Take phones. Every major company has a multi-handset wireless phone “system” on the market at this point. And every one of the ones I saw in these stores, without exception, was a button-happy nightmare in plastic. Each was trying to “out-feature” the other, with a million conferencing modes, color screens, GHz differences, and more elaborate “space-age” styling ("space-age" being a particularly old fashioned way of saying “horribly silver-and-chrome-tastic”, given the context).

Oh, and every one cost about $100. And—no doubt—would last a few months, just like their predecessors did.

What’s funny is that there’s a really, really good example of terrific telephone design (both UI and industrial) out there—and it comes from Bang & Olufsen.

Back in the late 90s, Bang & Olufsen released their Beocom 6000 series of cordless phones. These phones were quite minimalist & modern in the B&O style, and centered around a simple UI based on a circular “scroll wheel” with a button in the center.

The 6000 allowed up to 6 handsets to be used, and had a phone book that allowed 250 names to be added: the names added automatically synchronized between the handsets, as did caller ID and the redial lists.

Menus were simple: scroll through the stripped-down menu system with the wheel, click the center button to accept (or move to a sublevel). Name entry was easy, because the letters could be selected quickly with the wheel—and lookups went just as fast.

Even the battery management was fantastic: the handsets lasted forever, and the charging system did not kill the battery in a week. Or a year. Or two years.

Bang & Olufsen recently updated the phones with the Beocom 1, which: adds two-line capability; refines the existing concept with a better display and menu system; improves sound and call handling; allows more handsets; and offers even better battery life. What it does not do is make it more complicated.

It works incredibly well. Stripped down, stylish, not overly-featured. Expensive, but worth every penny. You can learn a lot about how to design really good consumer-product UI from this phone system.

Take a look at the page above, and then look here. Seem familiar?

B&O was there first, thinking different… and smart companies learn from the best.

The Limited Saturday, July 09, 2005

We’re asked, every so often, why we don’t offer a time-limited full version of SuperDuper!.

It’s pretty simple, really.

If you’re going to time-limit a program, you have three choices:

  • “Cookie" the user’s system in some hidden way so you know when the program was first run, and can therefore calculate when you’re supposed to expire.
  • Automatically identify the system and phone home, asking some server when the copy should expire, and not allowing execution without internet access
  • Force the user to provide personal information, including an email address, so that you can give them a key that expires (and the key, which need not be hidden, can contain the “cookie")


The first, in my opinion, is right out. I hate it when programs hide things on my system, and while I understand why they do it (see above), it’s just the wrong thing to do, especially for a backup program. A backup program that writes hidden stuff to the source volume? I don’t think so.

The second is nasty for obvious reasons.

The third, while doable, forces users to announce themselves to me when they just want to evaluate the software. We’re very conscious of privacy here, and a lot of people are understandably touchy about this kind of thing. The last thing we wanted to do was to alienate them right out of the gate, and force them to register just to take a look.

So, given those not-so-good choices, we decided to:

  • Provide useful, free functionality in the unregistered version of SuperDuper!, including technical support and full documentation
  • Never “expire” or take away the free functionality we’ve provided, even in future versions
  • Offer an evaluation key, on request, for users who want to examine its full capability (all we ask is that you drop us a note and tell us what you thought)


So, now you know!  I think this has proven to be a good compromise, and while it doesn’t satisfy everyone… what does?

How much? Sunday, June 26, 2005

Here at Shirt Pocket World Headquarters, we’re often asked about our upgrade policy, and—specifically—exactly how much v2.0 is going to cost if you already own v1.x.

Here’s the deal: SuperDuper! v2.0 will be a free upgrade for registered users of v1.x.

That said, not every major upgrade of SuperDuper! will be free. But, we promise one thing: we’ll always be fair. We truly respect and appreciate you—our users—and work like crazy to do right by you. But, we can’t do that without—well, to put it bluntly—money.

So, why is v2.0 a free upgrade?

It’s free because I wanted to reward registered users, both for their patience waiting for the new release, and for supporting us over the past year or so. You took a chance on a new product, and we’re incredibly gratified by and grateful for the response to SuperDuper!

To each and every person who registered, posted comments about SuperDuper!, and recommended us to their friends, family and colleagues: thank you! I’m sure you’re going to love the new version when it’s released. Stay tuned.

The Missing Woof Saturday, June 25, 2005

I remember back when Ketzl was a pretty young puppy, we always used to wonder if she had a bark at all. She never felt the need to let out a full “Woof!”, and pretty considerately used what we termed “mini-woofs” to get our attention (which involved blowing out her cheeks a bit and vocalizing just enough for us to hear—almost like a whisper, if dogs could do that).

It took an annoying lab, constantly trying to mount her one day, for us to hear the full power of her real bark. And, when it came—wow. Deep, resonant… loud.

And now, it’s gone—replaced with a strange, strangled-sounding two-tone “woo-woof!”

I suppose I should have expected it, given that Degenerative Myelopathy moves forward and affects muscles along the way, but somehow I didn’t think it’d take her voice, too.

It’s a gem! Monday, June 20, 2005

I’m really happy to announce that SuperDuper! was just reviewed by Dan Frakes of Macworld Magazine, in the Mac Gems section.

SuperDuper! 1.5.5 was awarded 4.5 mice—with the only failing being a lack of scheduling. (Those of you here likely know that scheduling will be featured in v2.0: I’m discussing various bits of v2.0 here in my blog, and there are some screen shots in here, too.)

Thanks, Dan!

Ketzl at the Beach Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Be gentle to my server, but here’s a quick little (3.5MB) movie of Ketzl in her wheelchair at the beach in Chatham, MA over Memorial Day.


















Pull up! Pull up! Tuesday, June 14, 2005

I think the best way to sum up my feelings at the end of the usability test would have been “despairing”. A lot of work went into what we did, and yet—somehow—it all went totally wrong. But why?

We’d thought that users knew/understood that “Saved Settings” were present, were documents, and as such—since the way scheduling worked was based on that model, and many had used them previously to manually schedule SuperDuper!—were an everyday part of SuperDuper! usage.

But once I had stepped back and thought a little more—and regained my user perspective—that clearly wasn’t the case. The only reason users even got near documents, for the most part, was to do a one-time scheduling setup. And most users didn’t even bother with that.

Users basically run SuperDuper! in immediate “mode”. That is, they start it—SD! conveniently restores their settings—and they click “Start Copying”. That’s it. Smart Update is fast enough that the backup takes but a few minutes. Then, quit. No need to save settings: SD!’s doing it for them, in the background.

Given that, it was clear that “mixing” the immediate usage model and the scheduled usage model was flawed: they’re two entirely different ways of dealing with the program. Combining them—no matter how well it might follow the internal model of what was going on—didn’t follow the external/users’s mental model. So, they couldn’t get their head around it without work, even when they could find the buried functionality: absolutely terrible usability.

So, I reviewed how I’d arrived at this point, and suddenly the answer was right in front of me! All I needed to do was roll back to the original design! Before we started working through the implementation, I’d solved the whole problem:

  • The scheduling functionality was right up front, in the main UI
  • The scheduled/immediate parts of the program were distinct from one another
  • The whole concept of “Saved Settings” was hidden from the user during the scheduling process, and they didn’t need to worry about it at all

So, I wrote the whole sad saga up, and sheepishly presented it to Bruce. He wasn’t happy about it, as we’d have to throw away a lot of work but—fortunately—I pointed out that the vast majority it could be re-used: after all, while the effect on usability should be significant, there were no “new” elements, just existing items that moved around.

Some judicious rewording of the buttons—from “Start Copying” to “Copy Now”—and “Copy Later” fit in the main window. Thus (some tweaks left to go, but this is the current build):


(In what you’re looking at, the red entry has failed to run: clicking Show Log will give the reason why.)

Of course, there are many parts here you can’t see: the way the “Scheduled Copies” window comes up and moves forward when it’s time to schedule, emphasizing the second type of use; the sheet that actually gives you the way to select the repeating timeframe; the new log window that makes it easier to contact support; schedule editing. But you get the general idea: it’s quite simple.

The second test commenced with the same four users, and it went great. Every one completed their task with no confusion, save for one point: most didn’t unlock the application, so the schedules never ran. Once we took care of that: bingo.

We’ve got scheduling!

The Usability Test Friday, June 03, 2005

At the end of the last part of our tale, Bruce and I were feeling pretty good about the state of Scheduling in SuperDuper! We’d solved the technical challenges involved, the UI for setting up the times looked good, worked well, and seemed logical.

In short, we were ready to try things out on “real users”.

In a large organization, Usability tests are done in a very formal way (you can see this in the comments for my last scheduling-related post). The user is given a series of tasks and a (typically instrumented) build, and put in a room where they can be extensively observed. Everything they do is logged, video cameras look at different aspects of the process, sometimes even physiological measurements are taken. And the team, either on the other side of a one-way mirror or in a control room away (sometimes far away) from the test, gets to watch.

What you see is always a surprise. No matter how much you plan and design and argue and rework, something always comes up when you usability test. And it’s never pretty.

Well, here at Shirt Pocket, we can’t afford that kind of usability test.

Instead, we select users who are good at approaching things na├»vely. Each one is given the build, and a task, and then I watch and listen very carefully—often using an iSight—while they perform the task. And takes notes. And stay very, very quiet. After all, we’re hunting usability rabbits…

Well, the first tester was—of all people—my brother Paul. Paul’s a good choice, because he’s a very typical Macintosh user, and he indicates in lots of ways, which makes his reactions easy to read.

The task in this case was pretty easy—something like “Schedule a backup of all files on your drive at a time and frequency of your choosing”.

Right off the bat, lots of confusion and the very worst question of all: “How the hell do I do that?”

And, once he found the settings in Options, and checked the box, and it didn’t seem to do anything, he thought he was done and then found out he had to manually save settings, and didn’t know why, and… well, it kept going downhill.

Not good. Not good at all.

(In a real usability test, the designers and developers at this point are usually screaming at the user—who can’t hear them—in the remote location, begging them to find the stuff they’d worked so hard on. It’s really very frustrating to have a lot of work that seemed so good fail so completely.)

So, I thanked Paul, hoping his reaction was an anomaly, and moved onto my next tester. Who reacted almost identically. And a third. Same thing.

The fourth, a user who had previously used saved settings extensively, had virtually no problem at all.

75% failure. Many, many points of confusion. Most of the nice touches in the UI—and there were many—were ignored because the major portion of it was fundamentally flawed: it assumed you knew about saved settings and were comfortable with them, and the vast majority of users know nothing about saved settings and don’t want to know anything about them.

An unmitigated disaster. I’d really screwed the pooch. Gah. And now I had to tell Bruce how poorly it went, and fix it…

NetNewsWire v2.0 Design Friday, June 03, 2005

Brent Simmons has just blogged a bit about the design of one feature in NetNewsWire 2.0on his blog. If you’ve been enjoying my posts about this, you’ll probably enjoy Brent’s, too!

Brent classifies himself as an Experimenter/Gatherer, which I usually am too, when actually doing the coding. When I’m doing the design, I try to experiment as much as possible on paper and roll in feedback, but get close to final and keep the tweakable elements to a minimum so as not to waste Bruce’s time.

That doesn’t always work out, as my Scheduling posts show…

Scheduling: Losing the Light Thursday, June 02, 2005

During the development of v2.0, almost everything went according to plan. Almost.

What didn’t go right, at least not entirely, was scheduling. In fact, the usability testing for scheduling went absolutely horribly. Embarrassingly so. And it wasn’t just isolated to a single tester: in fact, only one user in the test group managed to figure it out at all.

The question is, of course, what happened? We should know this stuff cold, shouldn’t we?

Looking back, it’s pretty easy to tell where things flew off the tracks, and it started with a simple thing: there wasn’t enough room in the main window to fit the Copy Now button.

SuperDuper!’s main window isn’t “narrow”, and we didn’t want to widen it. A small issue, easily understandable, that snowballed into something fundamentally wrong. Here’s how.

It’s very difficult, when you’re going through a months-long development process, to stay focused on usability. You become so familiar with the concepts you’ve designed that it’s difficult to remember that users—the users you’re trying to serve—don’t necessarily approach the feature set the same way you do.

So, we’d added a “Saved Settings” feature to SuperDuper! as one of the very first changes on the roadmap that would eventually bring us to full scheduling. This was a way to save a whole SuperDuper! setup—from the drives and script to the options—and had been part of SuperDuper! for a very long time. We rarely got any questions about it—usually a good thing.

The initial design of scheduling basically used these documents “behind the scenes”: the user clicked Copy Later, the settings were saved for them, a scheduled copy “job” was created and appeared in a Scheduled Copies window, all automatically. That copy then ran at an interval selected by the user. All pretty straightforward.

But, as I said, Copy Later didn’t fit: a definite problem.

Well, since we knew that we were basing our scheduling around these “settings”—in essence, a SuperDuper! document—we decided that we’d just make the scheduling part of the document itself! After all, that’s sort of what was going on anyway, and obviously people were familiar with these saved settings documents, they’d been in the product for a year! (Plus, this resolved the whole issue of managing “hidden” documents behind the scenes, something that didn’t feel entirely right.)

The design I came up with was this: rather than a Copy Later button, I did what I thought was the next best thing. I moved scheduling to a tab in Options called, of all things, Scheduling. You’d just switch to that, check a box that said “Automatically copy (source) to (destination)”, set the schedule, save the document, and bingo—scheduled document! And all without any changes to the main window.

Problem solved. Looked nice, too! And there was much rejoicing: perfect!

Design settled, Bruce expended much effort implementing it exactly that way.

But during that process, there were some warning signs that should have told me something was wrong. Bruce would come back with questions like “When exactly does the document get scheduled? When it’s saved? Do we force a save when the check the box?” There were intermediate builds with little quirks and small issues that needed to be worked on. These were all problems with solutions, but the fact that they were coming up at all—questions about basic operation that didn’t fall immediately out of the design—should have raised a lot of flags. A whole United Nations of them.

But they didn’t. Or, if they did, I aggressively ignored them. Big mistake.

This was totally my fault: although I wasn’t doing the implementation, the developer in me was thinking about implementation details from a developer’s perspective—never a good thing. Because I knew what was going on behind the scenes, I let it influence the way I framed the UI, and totally lost the light—my “user” perspective—thinking something like:

  • We have documents.
  • User, of course, knows we have documents.
  • Scheduling uses documents.
  • Therefore user will know that documents are the way that scheduling works.

It’s so obvious!

Nothing quite like a usability test to toss cold water on that kind of crap thinking. And we’ll pick up that sad saga in the next entry.

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