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?

March 23, 2012

Recent Home (and Car!) Improvements

Filed under: Cars, Design, House Blog — marcstober @ 7:56 am

The say a picture is worth a thousand words so here’s a few thousand of things I’ve been improving at home.

And yeah, there’s stuff I bought at Anthropologie and Etsy, and I probably should be posting this on Pinterest, and I’m a guy. Want to make something of it? 🙂

Direct link

July 30, 2011

iPhone Navigation a Bumpy Road

Filed under: Cars, Design, Software Blog, Travel — marcstober @ 10:45 am

Your Road Ahead
Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff on Flickr under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license (thanks for sharing!)

I left behind my paper maps and GPS device on our recent trip to California, navigating with my iPhone 4 instead. We got where we needed to go, but the iPhone was limited and frustrating for a state-of-the-art smartphone.

We flew into northern California to visit relatives and attend a wedding, then drive along the coast to LA sightseeing. This meant we had to locate points of interest as specific as a San Francisco apartment and as vague as a spot along those coast where you can see elephant seals, and drive in LA traffic. I knew I’d need more than the built-in Maps app. Before the trip, I used TripIt and Google Maps on the web to store various destinations. For voice-guided navigation, I purchased NAVIGON MobileNavigator, which was expensive, but cheaper than either buying a new GPS device or even updating the maps on my old one. (I’d also tried the less expensive MotionX GPS Drive app around eastern Massachusetts, but it came up with some strange routes, which proved to me that all navigation apps are not the same.)

I also purchased NavAssist. If you have Navigon or TomTom apps, buy NavAssist. It’s only 99 cents and it lets you copy and paste addresses from other apps (including the native Maps app) into your GPS app. On the other hand, it’s ridiculous that there not a better way to share addresses designed into the iPhone. For example, to navigate to our hotel address saved in TripIt: open the record in TripIt, click to open the address in Maps, copy the address, paste into NavAssist, click to search then click to launch Navigon. This should not take so many clicks through 4 different apps!

My big disappointment came when I tried to view the customized map I’d saved in Google Maps. I’d dropped multiple pins on a map and planned to use that to see what I was near and decide what to visit next. I didn’t expect that the native Maps app (which isn’t really “Google Maps” even if it uses Google data) would support this, but I’d assumed I’d have all the functionality of the web-based Google Maps through the mobile web. It was not possible. The Google products are a confusing mix of “Maps,” “Local”, “Places,” and the Google Earth app. It is possible to view saved maps via Google Earth, but this is both too slow to use well without good WiFi, and doesn’t provide you with the sort of road and address data you need for driving navigation at all.

Fortunately, I’d printed out on a paper a list of the points of interest I’d saved in Google Maps. The native Maps app doesn’t support dropping multiple pins (or even a single pin precisely). I briefly tried free Bing and MapQuest apps before buying two more map apps: CityMaps2Go by Ulmon, and Map+ by Shinya Sugawara. I’d used Ulmon’s Paris guide app on another trip with much success, but it worked better for finding landmarks (like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and the closest subway stop) than for finding specific street address and driving to them. Finally, the 99 cent Map+ app was only thing I could find for dropping multiple pins on on a street map.

Maybe the developers of NavAssist and Map+ could get together and build an app that combines the ability to drop multiple pins with the ability to paste in addresses and launch a navigation app? Does it seem wrong that $300 of GPS hardware and software is made usable by $1.98 of apps? Has Apple restricted the functionality of map and navigation apps while it works on its own? I’d consider this a possibility, but I can’t do much else with a speculation of an unannounced product.

June 23, 2010

How Becoming a Chevrolet Owner is Changing My Design Ethic

Filed under: Business, Cars, Consumer, Design, Economics — marcstober @ 7:50 am

I feel there is a very different design ethic now that I have the GM car.

I saw that Chevrolet is doing a program to sponsor training for first responders to learn how to extricate people from their upcoming electric car with the Jaws of Life, etc.

There are two ways to look at it. Toyota finds ways to be Lean about everything, and it makes a lot of money, and makes GM look old and stupid.

On the other hand, GM over-engineers things. And so the Volt comes out years behind the Prius, for maybe more money. But for all that extra time they will actually have a car that is a lot more efficient. They are probably losing money because they do things like training for rescue personnel that might not contribute to the bottom line (but if you’re the one in a wreck, it’s good they did)!

Similarly, with our car, the way the radio is all integrated with everything from the driver’s side door to the OnStar system, it’s like – this is not the simplest, leanest way to do it. It has to be more complex and require exponentially more engineering to get right. But the end result is a car that might successfully argue against the “KISS” (keep it simple, stupid) principle. Which is really interesting to me, since I engineer complicated things professionally.