I can summarise my experience designing user interfaces like this: if you were to place a refrigerator and a toilet side by side in a room with no windows and a door that locked from the inside, 9.3 out of 10 people entering that room would defecate in the freezer and urinate on the floor.
Four of them would lock the door.
The world isn't a horrible place: its interface merely needs some polish. So here I am, waiting in line for a public restroom. Two feet to my left is a concrete wall. Two feet to my right is another concrete wall. Ten feet in front of me is a door. I'm standing 10 feet from the door because I don't want the guy coming out of the door to run face-first into me before I can turn my back to the wall and kindly step out of the way. I know that standing any closer to the door would have this catastrophic result because nobody looks up anymore — especially not anyone coming out of a public restroom: they're either shoe-gazingly homeless or they're on Twitter.
I stand there, 10 feet from the door, staring at the big, red "OCCUPIED" tag above the door knob, practising my telekinesis, not feeling too awful about my continuing inability to telekinect.
So some guy with earbuds turns to the side and scoots between me and the concrete wall to my left. He swaggers right up to the door and gives it a good once-inward with his palm-heel. The door does not fling open like it's part of a saloon in a silent film. He steps back, puts his hands on his hips, and breathlessly exhales a "huh". I might scoff a little bit accidentally.
Thirty seconds pass.
He turns around, his right index finger curled like a Cheetoh roughly in my direction.
"Oh man hey sorry dude were you in line?"
A man in a suit comes out of the bathroom door, just then, adjusting his tie. He bonks his forehead into the back of the other guy's head. I put my back to the wall and let them both walk past.
I rush in. My bladder is like a football. Oh, hey, he managed to get an ice-cream-scoop-sized serving of faeces between the sink knobs.
Or there's this: my bladder is like a deflated soccer ball and I am rushing towards a public restroom door. I know that at any moment any other male in the vicinity can turn into a sidewinder missile — a heatseeking sidewinder missile — and Get Right In There.
As I draw closer to the door, the green "VACANT" tag sings to my eyes. I fall knuckles-first against the door (knuckles are hard and bony and thus easier to wash bacteria off of). The door flies open, and now I've seen something I can't unsee: a homeless man resembling Santa Claus — if Santa wore a tattered navy raincoat and a knit wool cap — with his hands flat against the wall behind the toilet, his pants brought down roughly to the middles of his thighs. He's squatted halfway, screaming through his nose. And for some reason the toilet is full of... balled-up... newspaper.
His skull rotates in my direction. His red eyes fly open wide. His dangling beard quakes as he booms "OH NO YOU DIDN'T!"
This is the Macarthur Bay Area Rapid Transit station on 40th and Telegraph in Oakland, California, by the way. On the inward-facing side of that door is a medium-sized, rectangular, red plaque engraved with bold white letters: "TURN KNOB TO LOCK DOOR TO ENSURE MAXIMUM PRIVACY".
So here's what we take away (every other day) from this constant ongoing experiment:
- The people who can't read can't lock the door if and only if the idea of locking the door when they go to the bathroom has never occurred to them.
- Research possible personality-type correlation between adult persons who don't fear intrusion while defecating and adult persons who never got around to learning how to read.
Gruelling minutes later, Postmodern Santa Claus emerges from the concrete box with a look on his face like he'd just stared at a ghost for an hour. The door falls shut behind him. I make a real-life backslash face (:-/) as I think: am I really going to go in there? Of course I'm not going to go in there. I look at my iPhone. I refresh the Bart Bart application. The train for San Francisco is coming in three minutes. It's a 16-minute ride to Powell in San Francisco. I am having a pleasant-enough day that I can suffer for 19 minutes.
So now I'm on the train platform. I refresh my iPhone app: it says the train is arriving. I peer away from the iPhone, at the world-sized window to the real world: no, the train most certainly is not coming. I look up at the electric sign board. Text is just scrolling like crazy. The fire department is having an open house; tickets are on sale to a Tony-Award-Winning play; trains will be running from 5am on Sunday for Bay To Breakers ("Bay To Breakers" is San Francisco slang for "Stay The F**k Home"), and stations will be open from 4.40am, etc.
This is the sign board that's supposed to tell me when the train is coming.
It stops on "9.48am" and sticks there until 9.49am.
So here's where I remember why downloading that Bart Bart application was such a good idea.
Finally, the train arrival information: a train is coming for San Francisco in eight minutes.
Here's where I remember why the Bart Bart application isn't a perfect idea: it just shows you the train timetables. It doesn't account for the accidents and incidents of the world.
I get on the train. It slides its head into a dark tunnel halfway to 19th St. It stops. It stays stopped for a long time.
Eventually, the train driver comes on the PA and speaks quickly:
"We cannot be stopping at 19th street — we can't stop at 19th street. There has been a medical incident... there has been a medical incident which is also a police incident."
I swear those were the exact words: "a medical incident which is also a police incident".
I've been playing Where's My Water? on my shiny iPad 3 for 15 minutes, on the train stopped in that tunnel, before this thought occurs to me, in so many words: modern civilisation sure was designed before someone invented the concept of No. 1 free iOS app.
Just let me talk a little bit more, and I'll go away. Here's the beginning:
Imagine yourself, absolutely ignorant of the method of operating a can-opener.
Try to wipe your slate clean. Imagine someone puts a can-opener in one of your hands and a can in the other. It's not an electric can-opener — though those are just as confusing, come to think of it — nor is it the modern manual can-opener. It's a handle with a blade on the end. Imagine you're an alien from a planet that doesn't have tin cans, or even aluminium cans.
Or try to imagine the instrument without its target, and then vice versa. Try to separate them. Let your mind linger on the tactile presence of either thing. Consider that neither of them is a problem, and neither is a solution. Give yourself 30 seconds with this exercise.
Don't worry, it's supposed to be impossible. If it's impossible, it means you're smart enough to be able to read.
It's a one-in-a-billion sort of savant who can learn how to read given only a book, solitude and an adequate light source. This hypothetical brain-superman aside, we all learn by the patient funnelling of others' experiences: teachers who understand the difference between ignorance and stupidity, and generously decide to take the time to search for intelligence.
It's every once in a while that even the most zen of educational paragons encounters an Actual Idiot. We have old sayings such as "a bad apple spoils the whole bunch", and it's these people — the freezer-poopers — who deposit molecules of hatred around civilised environments, gumming up the urban machine, generating passive-aggressive leaks.
"Idiot-proof" is a buzz-word in the software industry. It's also a buzz-word in civil engineering, which is nice, and it's also a buzz-word in the fast-food industry, which is hilarious.
Someone could say — in many more words — that what is idiot-proofed is not necessarily genius-proofed, or (especially) the other way around.
So, to continue my public transit story from earlier: I'm in San Francisco, waiting for a bus. Which bus? Google Maps tells me I can take the 38, the 38, the 38, the 38 or the 38. These buses stop at four different stops, each located less than a block from my current position.
On the surface level, this sounds convenient: multiple buses with the same number, some of them stopping where others don't stop, in the name of keeping traffic in the downtown area as smooth as humanly possible. The number "38" immediately tells the potential passenger where the bus will eventually be going. The hypothesis is that no one is going to get on the bus at 2nd St and get off at 3rd St. That'd be a scientifically weird spurt of laziness.
So, on the surface, it's like this: wherever you are relative to Market and Montgomery Streets, you can stand at any one of those corners and have a bus stop right in front of you in a matter of minutes. OK:
The not-genius-proofed part, which coincidentally un-idiot-proofs the whole situation, is that if I have the NextBus app conveniently installed on my iPhone, I can see when the next bus is coming, and where it will be. When I see three "38" buses coming in the next six minutes, if I'm sort of in a hurry, I probably want to get on the one which is coming first.
Of course, NextBus is hardly reliable. It's a noble endeavor: they track the locations of the actual buses as they move down actual roads, using Global Positioning. It's not like Bart Bart, which just spits out the timetable: it's smarter. It's got Big Financial Backing.
Being smarter, unfortunately, only makes it stupider: it breaks the heart, again and again, to see a bus listed as arriving in "3 minutes", only to see the time pop up to "6 minutes", then "5 minutes", then "9 minutes".
The truth is: buses drive down roads, down which unpredictable humans are also driving cars. You can't ever really know when a bus is coming, outside of seeing it rounding a corner a block away as you step back from the curb. Being able to stare at a technologically marvellous little portal into Information I'm Probably Better Without only makes the wait sting.
NextBus's slogan, which you see every time you launch the app, is "Why Wonder?" After many months of use and many minutes of careful thought, here is my answer: "Because at least I'm in charge of my own wonderment."
So here's where it falls to the bus system: the system needs to have a lot of buses, one of which stops at any given stop, say, every 10 minutes or so. Now everyone who steps up to a bus stop sign feels secure in thinking, "I definitely won't be standing here any longer than 10 minutes."
So I'm standing on a curb island in the middle of Market St, waiting for a bus. A bus bobs up and down one of those sublime, near-invisible San-Franciscan hills. There, on its electric marquee, are the words "GO GIANTS!"
While I appreciate the team spirit, I'd... I'd really like to see the number of the bus.
So the bus glides to a stop, and the doors veen open, and I ask the driver, "So, hey, is this the 38 bus?" The driver half-rolls his eyes. "No, sir, this is the 71 bus, where are you going", he says, all punctuated wrongly like that. I tell him I need to go to the Haight. "This'll take you there," he says, and I shrug, like, "Of course it will!" So there's another problem.
I'm sitting in the back of the 71 bus which also goes the same place as a 38 bus — or, I realise later, as an F bus or an N bus — and I'm playing Where's My Water? on iPad, and thinking a little bit more about The Planet Earth as a User Experience.
Here's the end of this little anecdote:
I go to get my hair cut at Bladerunners. The haircut is fantastic. Not 30 seconds out of the salon, a hippie just barely in control of four black labradors has written a poem about my hair.
THE PROFESSIONAL USER INTERFACE DESIGNER I am — sort of accidentally — a professional user interface designer. Over the last several years, I've done a lot of different tasks in my effort to vampire-suck-extract a stomach-full of hot, thick information from the neck of the video game industry. The ultimate idea is to make video games with my own studio. We'll see how that works out. One of the things I've ended up doing — and this is a recent development — is design user interfaces for game developers.
I do this for money — no, that's not a metaphor: they actually pay me. What a weird world this is.
My little studio Action Button Entertainment's first game, ZiGGURAT (please buy it (I have a tumour which is unfortunately not getting rid of itself)), had been on the iTunes App Store for a week before someone in the San Francisco Bay Area emailed me about the options menu.
Well — it'd been on the App Store for a day, technically, before someone emailed me about the options menu. That first someone wasn't able to find the options menu. He was, however, able to figure out the name of one of the guys who made the game, and then somehow extract my email address from the internet. The answer was: "Touch the little gear on the title screen."
He emailed back instantly with some "friendly advice": "You should make two buttons on the title screen — ‘START' and ‘OPTIONS'." I said that was extra localisation work and that I liked the gear icon. He didn't respond to that.
Well, a week later, someone in the Bay Area emailed about the options screen. He opened by telling me he was an all-time reader. He said he liked ZiGGURAT. He made a sideways comment about it being "probably a little too hardcore for the masses".
Then he got right into options screen talk. "I like it a lot. My team is looking for someone to design an interface for our game. Could you ask your interface guy how much he charges?"
I blinked at the suggestion. I remembered our interface screen.
I remembered the process by which I had designed it: email to my art-brother and co-founder, Brent Porter.
"A little box at the top that says ‘OPTIONS'. Under that, a large box containing multiple options, spanning edge to edge, one-fourth the screen in height, the words ‘PRECISION MODE' on one side, the words ‘SLINGSHOT MODE' on the other, a translucent pink square atop the active selection. The words ‘AIMING GUIDE', centred beneath the above options, the word ‘OFF' alone in pink text — this changes to ‘ON' when the player touches the option. The word's ‘PLAY NOW' in huge all-capital letters in the middle of the bottom of the screen, roughly one third the screen's width."
Apparently, having a pink box atop the active control scheme and having the words "OFF" and "ON" in pink letters despite all other text being white illustrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that whoever had designed our interface had been, in fact, a Professional User Interface Designer.
It's like this: the literate player knows that the opposite of "OFF" is "ON".
Even literacy, however, does not grant a player psychic powers, so the first-timer cannot guess that "SLINGSHOT MODE" is the opposite of "PRECISION MODE". That's why those two choices are presented in such a way, with a large translucent box atop the active selection.
As for the large translucent box: have you ever played a game with an option menu where you weren't sure what you were highlighting? Like, maybe the text dims a microscopic bit. I hate that. I hate it so much I never even think about it, and when it came time to design an options screen for my own game, I subconsciously funnelled my hatred into something that Just Worked.
So there it was: a menu that worked.
I replied to the nice man on the email: "My co-founder Brent Porter did the art for that interface, if you want a similar look. I myself detailed the layout, if the layout is what grabs you."
The guy replied in 10 minutes: "What tools do you use for layouts? Can I share you something on Balsamiq?"
So there it was: you can't throw an egg in Silicon Valley without hitting the windshield of a Volkswagen Jetta whose owner works at a start-up whose trademarked name is a misspelled food (or salad dressing).
You can't throw an egg in San Francisco's SoMa district without hitting a window of a technology company's office inside of which someone is wondering aloud, "How do people keep messing up user interfaces?"
This is why Balsamiq exists — this much I gathered in 45 seconds of fierce Googling. I decided it best not to lie in my reply:
"I'm not familiar with Balsamiq, though it looks pretty neat."
It costs $US80 to get a Balsamiq account. I did their interface with MSPaint, and they paid me $US64 an hour.
A month later, I was a registered Balsamiq user. I'd dismantled every successful game or app's interface in a Balsamiq mockup. It's really a neat product. The Balsamiq slogan is "Because Life's Too Short For Bad Software". I feel the same way — I also feel like the average Skype call is too long for Skype's interface.
Seriously — is there an uglier, more labyrinthine, horrible interface attached to a piece of Essential Software than that of Skype? It almost makes me cry, sometimes, when I can't get to sleep and I accidentally remember it.
I got on board the Balsamiq train while consulting as a game designer at a start-up in San Francisco. One day, the project lead says to me, "Hey, can you hop on Balsamiq and mock up the interface" and I was like, "OK, give me your account information".
So, there's the answer to every startup's question about why user interface is often so bad: they just ask any guy on the team to do it, usually when he has a cup of coffee in his hand and is standing, though not moving in any direction closer or farther from his desk.
Luckily for this startup, they had pinged a savant. So there's how good user interface happens — on accident. And no, I'm not arrogant for calling my interface designs "good". A "good" user interface is no more remarkable than a tied shoe: it doesn't come untied and cause anyone to cut their throat on an escalator. By which I mean: there's a right and a wrong way.
The surest tools for the modern video game interface designer are Jetpack Joyride and Where's My Water?. If you've ever groaned aloud at Skype, if you've ever filled a pause in an Important Conference Call with a sighing lamentation of "Oh my god Skype sucks so much" or replied to a beautiful girl's "What are you up to today?" with "Good lord Skype's interface is hideous", then your iPad is the Louvre, and Jetpack Joyride is the Mona Lisa.
I attended a talk on Jetpack Joyride at the 2012 Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. The brochure said it would be about "depth in simplicity", which I realised was a BS sort of way of saying the director was going to talk about the user interface for 45 minutes and the user experience for 15. My expectations did not disappoint me.
When it comes down to it, Jetpack Joyride is barely even a thing. It's a wisp of a game-like phone application. It's the modern equivalent of those accursed handheld video poker games. Man, those were great. Jetpack Joyride is a tiny little tea saucer piled medium-high with fun friction.
The goal of the developers, said the director, was to make a "sticky" game. "Sticky" is marketing language for "addictive" and "brain-destroying". It means the player is going to come back to it again and again, even (especially) while standing in the middle of a fucking escalator at rush hour.
Turning a Fun Little Friction into a "sticky" experience requires
- A user interface
- A user experience
"User Experience" is how the user interface manifests itself between starts and stops of the game. It's a tenuous concept that I've never heard anyone — pro or amateur — actually sit down and talk about in preschool storybook terminology. If you wanted me to tell you everything great about Jetpack Joyride's user experience, we'd be here literally all week. Instead, I'll talk about one aspect of the game, and how it fits into the whole experience so smoothly that it makes itself essential.
In Jetpack Joyride, you occasionally pick up a "spin token" during the game. These tokens allow you to use a slot machine after you lose. The slot machine gives you gifts — except for the somewhat rare times when it gives you nothing. The slot machine's gifts might be immediate, or they might carry over to your next play. Every once in a blue moon, the slot machine might let you continue the game where you left off.
Jetpack Joyride is a high-score chase, and the score is "distance". You lose when you hit an obstacle. If you've collected a spin token, you might be able to win a revive. Or you might win a bomb, which blasts your dude into the air and earns you some extra distance. During your blast through the air, you might collect more coins or tokens! Who the heck knows!
Or your reward, ever so frequently, might be some extra coins.
Now look at Bejeweled Blitz (or don't — you can have more fun with a scientific calculator and a handful of over-the-counter sleeping pills). Every once in a while, you'll see a friend with a score of, like, 900,000. Play as you might, match those jewels with the diligence of a regular worker bee as you might, you just can't get more than 50,000 points. How the heck did your friend do that? It laser-burns the centre of your brain.
Then, suddenly: 200,000 points!
The answer to this riddle is that Bejeweled is horribly random, its maths morbidly lazy. For god's sake, there are seven gem colours and the field is eight-by-eight wide. Notice how literally every time you press the "shuffle" boost button you get at least one match. That's because the game is programmed to never start the board with three gems of any colour touching. Listen: I have read only the first chapter of just one of those huge "Learn C++ in 21 days" books, and I am pretty sure I could program that algorithm even while listening to some really exciting music that kept begging me to do something more fun.
So Jetpack Joyride's slot machine — a wonderful, simple, immediately recognisable splash of user interface — becomes a crucial part of the user experience. It's because it's a recognisable object that it's able to perform this design sleight of hand. Maybe we've just played six times in a row; the game is starting to fear we're going to stop playing. So the slot machine straight up gives us a "Double Coins Next Run" power on our first spin. Now we want to play again.
Behind all this, the store in which we spend those coins is perfectly easy to use: we see a list of items, small icon images on the left side, a price on the right, and the item's name in the middle. Scroll the list of items by sliding. Tap an item to expand its listing vertically, revealing a one-line description under its name and a "BUY" button under its price. Touch "buy" to buy the thing.
I mocked up a store interface that borrowed this "touch to expand" store style which is all the rage in mobile games these days.
The CEO said: "I don't like that the ‘BUY' button only shows up when you expand the item to view its description."
"It'd look sleazy if it said ‘BUY' next to the price of every item in the highest level of the store menu."
"Jetpack Joyride does it that way," one guy said.
"No, it doesn't," I replied immediately. "I have Jetpack Joyride's shop menu burned into the back of my brain. It's the iPhone Click Wheel of shop menus." It's more than that — it's the iPhone music browser of in-game stores.
"If you've ever looked at a Zynga game," the CEO said (and let the record show it was the CEO who brought Zynga into this), "you'll see they're always guiding the user toward a specific action."
I had Castleville open in a Chrome tab. I put it on the big screen TV in the conference room.
"I want to buy a cobblestone road," I said. "Tell me how to buy one. Tell me what to click. Tell me what to click, and I'll click it. Let's get me a cobblestone road-segment, guys."
During the ensuing two-minute silence, I went into my Balsamiq tab and put the word "BUY" next to every price in the top-level store mockup.
"Here, look at this."
"That looks better."
"I mean, if I were a user," one guy said, "I wouldn't want to read the description of an item before buying it. The name of the item, and that tiny preview image is enough."
"Yeah, what if I didn't want to read the description?"
"‘The Product is Irrelevant', marketers say," I said. "However, this is a dance we all dance. It's as much seduction as it is common decency. Avast: Jetpack Joyride." I held up my iPad. It was Jetpack Joyride's shop screen. (And no, I don't actually talk like that.)
"I could have sworn it said ‘BUY' by every price. I stand corrected."
"Hmm," the director said. "Hmm. Let's go ahead and do it like this."
So it is that, more often than not, a professional's role is in pointing out precedents, not making them.
Also — and I say this as the highest compliment — the majority of higher-ups couldn't think like an idiot if you put a gun to their head. I suppose, at the end of the day, my professionally applicable talents have nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with experience with and knowledge of idiocy.
For my qualifications in experiencing idiocy, I refer you to the toilet anecdotes with which I started this essay. Also, I'll have you know that I recently tried to use Kinect voice commands to buy Fez.
My brain is constantly contemplating such disasters. Some might call me a complainer, though I'd like someone, someday, to phrase me as a person with "attention to detail". If no one complained, literally nothing would get better.
Thus, my hypothesis: no one complains directly to whatever jerk-hive of slackers is designing the Xbox 360 dashboard updates every year. Seriously, it's a game console, and "games" is, like, tab number four to the right of the start page.
OLD, NEW AND ETERNAL
Smartphones are going to kill us all.
Before you say anything — no. It is not ironic at all that a professional developer of smartphone applications says that smartphones are going to kill us all. Right up front, let me say that though I condone smartphone usage — especially the usage of apps for which I earn royalties — I am by no means encouraging use of apps during situations when one's attention is better directed at, say, the road. Does a kitchen knife salesman apologise for all stab-murders? Of course not. And for the record, I do not develop any of the GPS apps people stare at as they walk up a staircase or toward a streetlight or into an open manhole. None of the apps I develop sends the user text messages which vibrate their jacket pocket and inspire them to bury their face in their phone screen just in time to head-on collide with the man or woman of their dreams.
On the one hand, maybe smartphones will lead to more breeding — the whole "accidentally run into someone" pick-up technique makes a lot more sense when everyone is always looking down — which means humanity might not be on the way out, after all.
I guess Google really wants to nip that one in the bud with their Google Glasses initiative.
Lately, I've been looking at an app called Highlight. I'm doing this professionally, because literally three independent game developers have tasked me with inventing an innovative game-design concept around "something like this".
I swear, when I first moved to Japan in 2001, all NTT DoCoMo phones had something like this built in: when someone else using the app is nearby, it pings you.
It took someone about a month to develop that app — for casual sex.
An article on VentureBeat or VentureAdventure or Yay4Venture or whatever other website with "Venture" in the title — actually, I'm thinking of six articles that all used the same quote — described it like this: "Social discovery is a growing space."
Netflix's user experience — nice interface, by the way (loveliest on Apple TV) — tells me what movies I'd like, based on movies I've already watched and/or rated. Highlight sucks away at the iPhone's battery in the name of constantly radar-sweeping for other users of the app who — get this — share Facebook friends or interests with you.
As soon as I get off the train in downtown San Francisco, Highlight is telling me that I'm near two-dozen people who know people I know and/or like things I like.
If I go to places my friends and I actually hang out, in The Cool Parts of Oakland . . . I get nothing.
"Social Discovery" is a "growing" space, not a "grown" one.
So here's where I think about Harry Beck, designer of the London Tube map diagrams. It was Harry Beck's opinion that, underground stations being, well, underground, the passengers — today we'd call them "users" — are not constantly mindful of geography. The precise geographical location of the stations doesn't matter at all, not to mention nearly as much as a station's location relative to the passenger's destination.
It's like this: a passenger getting on the train knows where he is. He sees the name of the station on his way into the station. Or, he knows the name of the station beforehand, because he lives nearby: it's his station. A weathered passenger can get to and from home and multiple destinations, because he has memorised routes. He knows when to get off the train: he knows the name of the stop where he has to transfer.
What about the passenger embarking on a journey to a destination for the first time? He'll need to look at a map. Though as he's not the one driving the darn train, he doesn't need to know the geographical location. What he needs is information. He needs to look at the map and say, "This orange line goes here, and then stops at this big junction together with a bunch of other train lines. I want to transfer to this blue one at this place, and then it's one, two, three, four stops until I'm where Cousin Pip is having his wedding."
So Beck drew his underground diagrams with clean angles and legible station names. When it served the purpose of relaying information clearly, Beck did not hesitate in making two stations farther apart than they really were. The purpose of the diagram was to sacrifice geography for order.
Of course, it blew far too many minds. Powdered wigs jumped off craniums at the speed of sound. The roof repairmen had a good year, that year, in 1933. Before Beck, Londoners used hideous, geographically faithful maps.
Today, we use Beck's map.
So, a few years ago, I saw this on my Facebook, coupled with the comment "OMFG SO TRUE":
I unfriended that person, eventually, and I'd love to pretend it was because of that. No, it had nothing to do with iPhone loyalty — it was that I just can't stand Sex and the City, and she just kept posting Sex and the City clips. (She was also my sister, to prove even biology can't bias me as hard as Sex and the City can.)
That clip brings up a point, though: in 2008, a woman asks for a phone; someone hands her an iPhone; she takes one look at the screen and immediately says, "I can't use this". She asks for another phone, a "real" phone.
Aha — a "real" phone.
Technically, the cynic says, isn't a "real" phone the kind with a coily cord and a dial?
Every generation or so, what was once old becomes "real"; later in that generation, what was "new" becomes "eternal", and what was "old" and "real" ceases to exist.
Can you imagine someone who couldn't work an iPhone today? I am sure I'll get 2000 cynical responses to that question from Android users, so I'll rephrase that: Can you imagine someone today who couldn't work an iPhone or Android phone? Oh man — I just remembered the Windows Phone. I'm sorry. I don't have time to rephrase that question again. I'm really sorry.
Around the time the Sex and the City movie hovered over the carpet, biting society's ankle, the iPhone was still a thing for "hip" early adopters. These early adopters knew immediately that this thing was a bridge-burner: that the future wouldn't happen without one of these appearing next to "phone" in the dictionary. For cheap laughs, we make fun of minorities who believe in things — whether those are religious things or the future conquering power of a piece of technology — and so: there's that YouTube clip.
Look — I've said so before, though I'll say it again: just because I own a MacBook Air and an iPad and an iPhone doesn't mean I'm an Apple Fanboy. I am typing this right now on the Windows 7 FrankenPC that I use 95 per cent of the time. So bear with me when I say the iPhone's interface design is god darn fantastic. Right there — you press The Only Button on its face, and the screen lights up. There's a square with an arrow. You slide it in that direction. There's an icon on the bottom, right near where your finger was when you slid that square. It's green. It has a picture of a phone. You press that, and there's the phone.
Weird that it looks like an old-timey "real" phone — the kind with the coily cord and rotary dial — though. Then again, when Apple changed the iTunes logo from a CD (that stands for "Compact Disc") to an innocuous blue circle with some music notes inside it, purists threw up onto their keyboards while logged in to internet forums.
Still — shouldn't Sex Lady have seen that little phone-shaped icon? Shouldn't it have registered in her squirrel brain that "this is a phone like the phone I know"?
You'd think. Again: in the freezer, on the floor, with the door unlocked.
That Sex and the City clip is a cockroach in the motel room of my career. There's the hypothetical toilet and a refrigerator side-by-side in a room with no windows and a door which locks. On a bad day, it feels like the feces might materialise in the freezer without anyone even entering the room.
And, just like that, a friend irresponsible enough to be filthy rich was letting me drive her Nissan GT-R. What a beautiful machine. I plugged my iPhone into the provided USB cable. An interface popped up on the built-in screen. Navigating the menus to try to find the song I wanted was a painful chore. It was like weeding the garden with a pistol pressed against the back of my neck. The touchscreen was so unresponsive, clunky and ugly. I had to jam my finger into it as though making sure an avocado wasn't, in fact, a rock. I liked jamming this car with my body parts — though just my feet. This touchscreen made me feel dangerous and slimy. Its built-in GPS interface was terrifying. It was like some kid had drawn it up with crayons and handed it to a robot programmed to Obey The Child At All Costs.
Later, perfectly parallel parked by the waterfront, with a heavy morbid curiosity, I tooled around with this Horrible Interface Gone Horribler. Said I, aloud, to my rich friend: "If the rubes who designed this interface made a video game, no one would play it! Literally no one!"
I stumbled into the "about" page. You should have seen how cartoon-wide my eyes were: the interface designer had been "Polyphony Digital", makers of the Gran Turismo games.
The Nissan GT-R is an automobile so low to the ground that if I would have LOLed, I would have by necessity been ROFLing.
A friend hip to Feng Shui entered my apartment.
"This place has a fantastic energy flow. Look at that. Look at that."
I don't think my friend is dumb or weird. He's not a Wiccan or a Vegan — oh, wait, he is both of those. Oh, man, he also plays WoW. OK, uhh, start over: my friend is very intelligent. He "gets" a lot of things. The point is, he's a graphic artist specializing in web interfaces.
He wanted to be an artist. He studied art. Then he switched to graphic design. Somehow he ended up in an advertising firm; after that: web interfaces. His interfaces are pretty good. I mean it as a compliment when I say he doesn't seem to actually think about them. He just makes them, and they work. That's a pretty huge talent.
So, he just "gets" stuff on so many levels that he has to genuinely reach for other stuff that he — also innately — gets. Hence Feng Shui.
Meanwhile, there's me. I'm sort of a jerk. As a consultant, I've witnessed firms with a complete product which is enjoyable and usable, floundering for literally months on end in attempt to define the "character" and the "world". Should this game be about yetis? Should it be about ninjas? Should it be about pirates? Can we get zombies in there? Are zombies too graphic for younger or older users? What about cute zombies? I think I saw a game with a cute zombie in it.
I didn't think about where I put my sofa. I said, "Well, that sofa has to go right there." I'm either the ideal CEO or a perfectly useless one. It feels like, if I'm wrong about one thing, I'm wrong about everything.
Professional User Interface Designers often refer to the non-battle between Facebook and Myspace.
"We can Facebook these guys' MySpace" = "we can make a similar product with a user interface so much better that everyone will use our product instead of theirs".
A lot of the more cynical game-people on the internet are Sarah Jessica Parker, and Angry Birds and Where's My Water? are the first-generation iPhone. Mobile games are Facebooking the f**k out of triple-A games' MySpace, all over the place, every day, in new, terrifying, breathtaking fashion.
We at Action Button Entertainment have a new mobile game coming before the end of June. That's a promise. The game is all ready to go. It's for every mobile device you could possibly buy — as long as you don't go inventing your own mobile device in the next month, you can enjoy this game of ours. It took us two weeks to make.
Now give us five weeks to make the interface.
Tim Rogers is, among other things, someone you can follow on Twitter.
Top photo: meepoohfoto/Shutterstock