September 12, 2013

One of these EMRs is not like the others

Filed under: Health, Software Blog, Usability — marcstober @ 10:58 pm

winner-thumb healthhub-thumb runner-up-thumb

Above are three thumbnail screenshots of prototype medical applications.

One of them is the winner of a White House competition, winning thousands of dollars and influencing the EMR of the huge VA medical system.

One is a problem-oriented medical record and the runner up.

One is a prototype I designed as part of an Innovation Team project while working at Partners. (We didn’t win a White House award. I guess we were ahead of our time.)

March 3, 2013

Usability, Backward-Compatibility, and “Three-Way” Light Switches

Filed under: Design, House Blog, Usability — marcstober @ 8:40 pm

My nine-year-old daughter commented the other day that it was confusing to turn off the living room lights because you couldn’t just push it down to turn it off, sometimes you had to push it up and sometimes you had to push it down.

Indeed. It’s a so-called “three-way” switch, the biggest crime against usability that’s been foisted upon the world. These are the type of switches you use to control a light from two locations, like both ends of a hall. They look just like a classic light switch, that you push up to turn on and down to turn off; and they sometimes work the same (at least from the user’s perspective), but other times, depending on the state of the opposite switch, they work the opposite way. To add insult to injury, they’re called “three-way” switches when they can only be used in two locations. (Three-way refers to the wiring, with three instead of the usual two wires inside. In the rare occasion you need three switches, are you surprised that you need a four-way switch?)

As an aside, the typical toggle switch doesn’t offend me. Paddle switches with screwless wallplates are nice, but not necessary; I just want to fix the usability issue.

One solution would be a single push-button switch. In an example of what was old is now again, the 1950’s house I lived in as a child in the 1980’s had Honeywell Tap-Lite switches. (At least it did at first, my first exposure to electrical wiring was when my dad had to replace some 30 year old switches that failed.) Recently, Legrand has introduced push-button switches in its Adorne line. I think I might use these in my house.

An even better solution would be a switch that you could simply always push down to turn off. It could spring back to the center position, so if the switch at other end of the room was used it wouldn’t end up in the wrong position. But I haven’t seen such a switch for normal residential use.

The amazing thing is that all these switches are backward compatible. The living room switches above were a replacement for the original 1920’s two-button switches that failed after over 90 years of service! I like the character of those old switches (and there are reproductions available now), although the three-way version did have the same usability issue. But, I was able to swap out the 90 year old part with little more than a screwdriver. I think about this when I see USB charging ports that you can hard wire into your house now–will any new hardware and software of today be as compatible at the dawn of the 22nd century?

June 3, 2011

The last thing I’ll say about PC’s vs. Macs

Filed under: Software Blog, Usability — marcstober @ 8:01 am

I’ve recently started using an iPad. As an old-school (80’s and 90’s) Mac user who has been using Windows for the last 15 years, I’ve been struggling to express what it is about Apple’s UI that I’m having trouble getting used to. I realized it was an issue of the “clutter-discoverability trade-off” that John Cook so nicely explains on this blog:

Clutter-discoverability trade-off — The Endeavour.

It’s interesting how over my career, Microsoft and Apple have switched places on this. I remember when Macs came out in the 80’s–-really up until Windows 95–-the advantage was that everything was discoverable on a menu or as an icon, unlike DOS-based programs where you needed a cheat sheet handy for all the commands. These days, I find Apple products, while beautifully clutter-free, are less discoverable.

For example, a relative of mine recently had to take her phone back to the Apple Store because she had accidentally activated the three-finger-double-tap zoom feature. Gestures that involve taps or swipes with 2 or 3 fingers aren’t very discoverable, IMHO. A big ugly “click here to unzoom” button would have been friendly. (Not that having live people in local stores isn’t friendly in some other way.)

p.s. Back to the article, I’ve also recently started using Emacs, but you could say I took that up just for the challenge of it’s non-discoverability!