Amazon Kindle dictionary is sometimes useless

Problem

Amazon Kindle paperwhite is one of the best things I’ve bought this year. It costs almost as much as a Nexus 7 but has the following advantages:

  • The battery lasts much longer, even though the display doesn’t go to “sleep” as quick as a tablet (actually I have set it up to be on for 5 minutes since last interaction)
  • The whole UX is centered around books & reading. It doesn’t have any apps and distractions. No email or whatsapp notifications. Just pure joy of reading. No temptation to play games or check out Facebook either. It has a browser that is dead slow and its monocolor screen makes its usage limited to emergency.
  • It comes equipped with the world’s most famous online book store with good deals. Many awesome books are cheaper in electronic format. In fact I started to giveaway my paper books as gifts and buy their electronic version. I have close to 100 books in my pocket!
  • The backlight is adjustable to levels way below most LCD screens and that makes it super useful for reading in the bed and total darkness
  • It weights lighter so it’s quite practical to hold it with one hand
  • There are a bunch of official plugins and apps that allows sending files directly to your Kindle from Chrome, Windows, Mac etc.
  • It has a built-in dictionary that shows the meaning of words and phrases with the touch of a finger.
  • The e-ink screen is very similar to a paper.

So Kindle is mainly a device built around a paper-like screen. Here is a comparison between the Kindle and paper version of the same book:

kindle and paper version side by side

kindle and paper version side by side

However it has some downsides that are not easily forgivable:

  • The screen is very very very slow in rendering stuff. Even turn of a page is a UX hiccup. Reading PDFs is practically useless because of the slow pan and zoom. Forget scrolling.
  • Images just look weird. Amazon has worked a lot on the UX for text (which is the main part of many books) but when it comes to images and sometimes text with special frames, don’t expect anything but a scrambled unreadable picture.
  • The screen can’t show colors. Buying a Kindle version of 100 things every designer needs to know about people wasn’t very useful since many of those colorful illustrations loose their meaning on e-ink screen.
  • Occasionally some top sellers have a higher price for ebook compared to the printed version. It’s probably publishers’ desperate try to resist the electronic revolution.

This post however is not about any of those deal-breakers. It’s about that dictionary that comes with Kindle.

So here is how it works: when you’re reading a book, if you want to know the meaning of a word you just long-press it and the dictionary shows up:

Kindle dictionary

Kindle dictionary

As you can see the word “self-indulgence” has a recursive translation of “self-indulgent” in it. By the way if you knew what “self-indulgent” mean you would probably guess the meaning of “self-indulgence” and didn’t need to wait 2 seconds for the dictionary to tell you what it is.

Apart from making the user feel stupid, this dictionary misses an important feature: let’s say the user doesn’t know what “self-indulgent” means in the dictionary definition. Even if she hopelessly long-taps on the word “indulgent” in order to have a better guess, nothing happens. In other words the dictionary doesn’t work for the words it is using to describe another word.

That is annoying considering how many words actually give a recursive definition in the dictionary! But this problem isn’t only specific to recursive definitions. It is about any word in the dictionary.

Solution

A good dictionary is supposed to provide descriptions in simple words so that the user doesn’t have to look them up. But if that is not the case, at least provide a mechanism to be able to search the hard words from the description.

What do you think? What is your experience with Kindle? Would you change something to improve its usability?

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JYSK missed one single nut

Problem

This one is not a computer user interface blog post strictly speaking but it has its own lessons to learn and is fun. Recently I had to buy some furniture. I chose some of the furniture from a new JYSK shop around my home and some of them from IKEA. In total I bought 40+ items for about 4200 US$. JYSK is a Danish brand while IKEA is from Sweden. The reason I shopped from JYSK is basically the better prices and the fact that it was so close to my home.

There are several things I learned from this experience that I’d like to share:

  1. Anyway, all the products that I bought required assembling. I have a habit of carefully counting the screws and nuts. But unfortunately with my JYSK bed, I wasn’t very lucky and one single nut was missing. For that matter I could not use the bed and this huge piece of furniture had to remain at one corner of the room till the next day that I wen to the shop and got the missing nut.
  2. Since I bought many big items from both shops I had to use the delivery service. The delivery person from JYSK wasn’t very helpful. First of all I had to talk to him for a few minutes to convince him that the narrow road in front of my home is actually used by cars in case of delivery. Secondly, he only carried part of the furniture can asked me to carry the rest with him and he even didn’t carry the stuff upstairs (IKEA delivery brought the stuff into my home). Third, while I was busy carrying stuff he throw some cartoons from his car in front of my home. For several days I didn’t know who was the “nasty neighbor” who left their “JYSK cartoons” in front of the home (because the pictures on the cartoons showed a different type of bed than the one I bought), till someone told me to pick them up because it is mine! It was very irresponsible of him to leave the cartoons (which were actually from another customer) in front of my home.
  3. Several days after shopping, a guy called me from JYSK marketing research team to ask a few questions. I asked him if he can speak in English (in Sweden basically most people can speak English even the bus drivers).  But he said (in English) that his research is only meant to be carried in Swedish and he’s sorry. In other words, they gave me a bad service and the only chance that they could get a feedback was missed because their market research wasn’t doesn’t get feedback from English-speaking customers.

Solution

I don’t know if I should compare IKEA to JYSK because it’s like an “orange vs apple” comparison but in this case everything that JYSK did wrong IKEA did right:

  1. With every IKEA furniture that I’ve bought so far, no matter how complex the structure was, it never had one screw less or more than necessary. Just about the right number. It is “lagom” as it’s said in Swedish. I don’t know how IKEA manages to do it. I’m seriously surprised how they get it right. I have literally used hundreds of screws and even a single one was not missing. Even the wrench or anything other than a hammer and screw driver is included in the package! It was a pain to buy something and be forced to go all the way to the shop just because they were not careful enough to put a piece of metal in the package which weights less than 20gr but is a crucial part of that 70Kg piece of furniture!
  2. IKEA delivery guys brought their car till right in front of my home. They already knew the route. No discussion necessary. They were extremely polite and after delivery they thanked me for shopping from IKEA. I didn’t have to help them, but I did pick some small stuff. They left no garbage for me and most importantly they delivered the stuff till inside my home.
  3. I received an email from IKEA market search for a short online survey which was available in several languages. I was more than happy to fill that out and let them know why I’ll be shopping from IKEA instead of JYSK. I felt I was heard and my money was well-spent. Now that I look back I see my JYSK stuff was probably 10% cheaper than their IKEA counterparts but I’m much happier with the IKEA stuff.

I guess that explains why IKEA is much bigger than JYSK. They have a good customer-oriented production and support.

Wittenborg coffee machine is “out of service” when boiling water

Problem

I remember a few months ago when I came to work, there was a paper on our Wittenborg FB 7100 coffee machine saying:

It’s broken. Please don’t keep pressing the buttons!

That day me and my team mates didn’t drink coffee till I saw a colleague with a cup of coffee in the meeting room. I asked him where did he get the coffee when the coffee machine is broken? He replied that the machine is working and he has no idea who put the note on it.

Our WIttenborg coffee machine

Long story short it turns out that a guy who was new to the company tried to take coffee from the machine but saw “Out of service” on the display and no matter what keys he pressed the device was not responding. So he kindly put a note there to save some time for others. But the old-timers who take coffee every morning knew what’s the issue and took their coffee anyway. You know how? All you have to do is to wait a few minutes till the machine boils the water.

The "Out of service" message on Wittenborg coffee machine

Another colleague who didn’t know the trick said:

To me “out of service” means that it is indefinitely broken and out of service. I would wait for the them to fix it rather than stupidly punching the buttons.

And I do agree. “Out of service” doesn’t have the properties of a good error message: it doesn’t clearly identify the reason for the error and it doesn’t offer any solution.

It’s a super-duper coffee machine and without it no work will have been done in the office (no, we don’t get paid for converting coffee to urine! ;) ) so it’s important that it works well. It’s the core machine that keeps the office running… some sort of power plant.

Solution

It’s a feedback issue. It’s not really hard to fix this. Instead of “out of service” it can say “Boiling water. Please wait.” and show a progress bar. This machine shows a progress bar when pouring coffee so it is capable of doing so. The size of its water container is known to the device and it can exactly calculate how long it takes to boil the water so the solution:

  • shows the reason for the error (boiling water)
  • indicates an action to solve the error (waiting)
  • shows an indicator (so that user can decides for waiting)

A spy watch which is too complicated to use

Problem

Today I was reviewing a spy watch send to me by its retailer in Stockholm. Since it’s not an official review I cannot disclose names, but the watch itself seems to be one of those white label products with no name so here I just refer to it as the watch. It is an ordinary analogue wrist watch which can record 30fps HD video, take photos (5MPix) and record audio. It has 8GB storage and can be connected to computer via USB as a standard mass storage device.

Spywatch described

The manual doesn’t have a good quality and apparently is directly translated from Chinese to English using Google Translate! Moreover the pictures and buttons in the manual didn’t look like the watch they came with and there is no “green light” in the user interface –only red, blue and violet!

Spywatch manual in English

So after taking a quick look, I started trying different ways to make it work. After about a long drudgery, I finally managed to decrypt it. There are several issues with this product (like recording the clock tick-tick and having literally 2 fake hands) but this post is specifically about the perception for the video recording and photo taking functionality.

For the sake of simplicity let’s have a simpler picture of the watch:

A simplified model of the spy watch

  • If you hold button A for 3 seconds, it turns on the spy features. Holding it 3 seconds turns the spy features off.
  • When the spy feature is on:
    • Photo: if you press button B, it will take a picture. The LED flashes red once while taking the photo.
    • Audio: if you hold button B, it will record an audio. You can stop it by pressing B. The LED blinks red while recording.
    • Video: if you press button A, it will record video. You can stop it by holding button A (pressing A while recording, doesn’t do anything. Pressing or holding B doesn’t doe anything either). The LED blinks blue 3 times at the start of recording (and also with neutral key press or hold of button B)

OK, it may sound simple but took me about 10 minutes of trial and error to understand it in a way that I can write about it.

It seems button A has two irrelevant functions (mapping issue):

  1. Turn on the spy functionality
  2. Start recording
Button B can take a photo or record audio, but considering that they are both “spy” features, it can be acceptable to have both of them in one button. The feedback is not very good. The user is expected to remember that “blinking red” means audio recording but in pretty much any other standard video recording device or software it means video recording. But in this product, video recording is “blinking blue for the first 3 seconds” and then it turns off. I suppose it is because a red blinking led on the watch while facing to someone can attract their attention.

Solution

Except bad documentation and low production quality, the challenge of designing a spy watch is interestingly big. The limited space to put buttons and LEDs make it quite hard to have a good feedback and mapping. Also the nature of spy tools make feedback less subtle or cryptic. However, the functionality of this watch can be improved for a better user experience.

We have two buttons. It’s hard to add one more button to this watch (there is one place on the right bottom) but considering that it’s a water proof watch, it’s probably expensive to add one more button. But LEDs are quite cheap and my solution adds only two more of them.

There will be 3 LEDs for indicating which function is being used:

  • One LED for Video
  • One LED for Photo
  • One LED for Audio

Each LED has a little icon next to it clearly indicating its function. All LED’s turn red when that function is active (no blue, no violet, no blinking). When the spy feature is off, all LEDs are off as well.

The two buttons are used like this:

  • Button B starts/stops recording (in case of photo it just snaps the photo). When it is recording, the corresponding LED blinks.
  • Button A selects the spy feature. Just like an ordinary computer watch this button rotates around different functionalists:
    • first press: Video recording LED is on
    • second press: Photo taking LED is on
    • third press: Audio recording LED is on
Forth press jumpts back to Video recording and so on and so forth. This watch seems to need to turn off the camera when it’s not being used. Again the LEDs can be used for this feature. When no LED is on, the camera automatically turns on when the user presses the start button (button B). As an alternative, the user can press and hold button A to turn on the LEDs, then use button B to start recording.

This is how it looks:

Schematic for a suggestion to the spy watch user interface

I didn’t have too much time to design perfect icons, but I believe it’s descriptive enough to convey the idea.

Yamaha keyboard has only 1 button to explore 17 functions

Problem

Yamaha YPT-220 just like many similar keyboards from Yamaha has one important button called “Function” (see picture below). It should actually be labeled “settings” or “configure” or “options” because it sets various parameters to control how the keyboard works. This is the single most important button in the user interface of this device after the power button.

Everytime the user presses this button, the name of the current parameter appears in the monochrome LCD screen and the user can use the + and – button to set the parameter or press + and – together to reset the value of the parameter to its factory default.

Unfortunately it is very hard to use this type of setting. First of all there is a mapping problem. Different settings are all under the same button. There is also a navigation problem. User doesn’t know what is the next option coming when the “Function” button is pressed. In Yamaha YPT-220 there are 17 different options that can be set using this button:

If the user passes one desired option on mistake, he has to press the “Function” button 16 more times to reach that menu again! Moreover if he wants to set a specific parameter like “Panel Sustain”, he has to press the “Function” button repeatedly and every time read the LCD display carefully not to pass that menu. In other words the setting navigation doesn’t show a big picture of the current location. Of course the user can memorize these 17 items, but is it really a reasonable expectation from the designers?

One reason for this mess is because unlike digital interfaces, adding a new button to a device physically makes it more expensive. Yamaha designers probably wanted to keep the production price low and have a minimal user interface.

Solution

Here are a few possible alternatives to solve the navigation and mapping problem:

1. The simplest one is to add a list of parameters on the body of the keyboard. There are already 3 lists there: songs, voices and styles. There is empty space on the left side of the display that can be used for this purpose and the “Function” button better be replaced near this list and be called “Settings”. It’s good to color code the header just like the other lists. See the mockup below:

2. There can be one button for each option. This is the best option from the mapping point of view but is 17 times more expensive. It is not very flexible from the software perspective. If in the future a new parameter is added to the software, a new button should be added physically to support this interaction model. Moreover it is not a minimalist design.

3. When holding the “Function” button, user can browse through options using + and – keys. This is not very intuitive because + and – at the same time are used for adjusting the value of the parameters. But it solves the annoying button-presses to reach a menu you have already passed.

Note

I tried to contact Yamaha about this issue, but quite surprisingly I found out that Yamaha has totally shut the door for any technical ideas:

Yamaha doesn't accept technical ideas

iPad doesn’t give a good feedback for properly inserting the headphone jack

Problem

When connecting a 3.5mm headphone jack to iPad, it doesn’t go in completely. It gives the impression that the jack needs to be pushed more. This doesn’t happen with the same jack on an iPhone, iPod or another MP3 player.

You wouldn’t expect a goofy mistake like this from Apple, a company that has a world-class reputation of high quality products. In fact at the beginning me and my friends thought of it as a weird feature that needs to be figured out! But a feature or not it gives the wrong feedback.

Solution

The solution is obvious: make more space in the socket so that the jack can go it entirely and the user doesn’t keep pushing it in thinking there’s something wrong with themselves or the jack.