Few people have heard of it, yet many consider John Blankenbaker's KENBAK-1 to be the first commercial personal computer.

Koss introduced these headphones over 40 years ago, and they remain affordable favorites to this day.

Making Better Gadgets

Toshiba remote
Even though we rarely notice, the products we use are created by skilled industrial designers. Their job is to make impossible products become real. At the same time, they have to come up with designs that look good and can be manufactured profitably. Sadly, the rush to outpace the competition and provide 'better' products causes nothing but headaches for these folks.

Examples of almost-good-enough design are everywhere:

  • My DVD player shipped with a 44 button remote, yet many important buttons are arranged in a grid of almost identical rubber dots. Oh, and the large buttons arranged like navigation buttons aren't actually for navigation. Cheap to make, does everything, but impossible to use.

  • My mobile phone has more computing power than most computers did 20 years ago. It emails, photographs, browses the web, and plays games. Is it easier to use than the phone I had five years ago? Not a chance.

My point? It's hard to find modern devices that do one thing and do it well. Which is surprising, since they often thrive in the marketplace. A case in point: the ubiquitous iPod. Even a child can figure out (and enjoys) the clickwheel interface. It plays music or videos. Its design is the antithesis of most electronic devices: sparse and simple.  And it works.

And while we're at it, lets design in some good controls. I spend significant time filming with 30 year-old movie cameras. Even though they require manual focusing and zooming they're easier to use than modern point-and-shoot camcorders. Why? Because they offer immediate physical feedback -- I twist the lens to zoom, rather than pressing a button that sends a signal to a microcontroller that activates a motor that moves the lens. Physical immediacy equals mental immediacy.

My plea to designers: If you want to be successful, streamline your products.

Create single-use devices that help us to work quickly. Design in tactile feedback rather than touchscreens and menued interfaces -- we love real knobs, levers, and switches, especially if they're made out of something other than cheap plastic. And just say no to the marketing department's endless list of gee-whiz features that look great on spec sheets but are never used (like 220x digital zoom on camcorders).

Simple is good.


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