Bateries and cables

A week ago a news about the new MS patent was circulating the web: Microsoft Enables Batteries To Be Inserted in Either Direction. Which is nothing more that a sophisticated battery terminal for cell batteries (AA, AAA, D, C) which I recall being suggested before; we as kids were trying to do a similar thing. And for many people it would be much easier to insert the batteries with no hassle and need for glasses and no worries to make mistakes and break appliances. Reading small + and - signs on batteries and on appliances where signs are usually the same colour as the surrounding plastics and engraved is really a nuisance. But sadly I have read many comments how this feature is useless.

Similar products that could be plugged or inserted in any way or that can not be plugged or inserted in wrong way already exist. Some cordless phones could be placed in a holder in any position. Their bottom was round and the charging connector was round as well. Most of present cordless phones allow to be placed in a holder only with a keyboard facing the user - but placing the phone is still easy. I do remember one of my phones that was often left on a holder in a way that contacts for charging batteries did not touch those in a holder - often the phone was discharged and I realized this only days later - a real bad design! A lot of electrical tools have batteries that can be inserted one way only but are easy to plug as well (with huge connectors and with one battery only and not few equal in a roll).

Other easy-to-plug examples are cylindrical DC connectors that can be inserted in any imaginable way (imagine Nokia's phone charger or a charger for most laptops). There are others DC connectors which can be connected in only one possible way. While later don't allow users to make mistakes, former are also easier to plug!

Some audio connectors are a good example of a good design. TRC or audio jacks are easy to plug (only one possible way). RCA or cinch are also easy to plug but there are always two colours (red and white) which have to match sockets (and even if sockets don't match sound still works). While the same connector for video signal has only one (yellow) plug. These are simple to plug. But there are other audio/video connectors with thin pins that can get easily twisted like DIN connectors and are hard to plug in as well! Similar to these (regarding pins) are VGA, S-video (DIN), DVI, SCART and similar video connectors that have to be carefully inserted in a socket because their pins can get easily twisted. Improved video/audio connectors are Firewire and HDMI. They also can't be plugged in any possible way but are much more robust.

AC power connectors can also be inserted only in one (e.g. British power plug with three rectangular pins) or two possible ways (e.g. European power plug with two round pins) but at least their pins are more robust (but I already managed to twist e.g. US power plugs and I broke many Europeans plugs).

I could go on but I think I made my point. Easy-to-use-and-make-no-mistake holders/batteries/plugs do make sense (even if some claim that +/- position is not hard to understand). Easier plugs we have, less hassle is needed to use them. What it bothers me about this patent is that such things should be widely accessible and not patented.

Too many buttons? To many functions?

Some interfaces are designed for purpose. One of them is certainly (yet another) computer mouse with a lot of buttons - the WarMause. When I read the news about it on Monday (28th) and I had to see this thing. I can imagine how this mouse could be used in a CAD software or computer games (I'd actually rather use designed input methods for a game rather then multiple purpose mouse). But I don't see its value in a day to day work (like reading and answering emails or writing a letter or even browsing the web). On the other hand Douglas Engelbart envisioned that we will have a computer mouse in one hand and a 5 button keyset in the other hand for everyday use which is something similar to multibutton mouse.

This mouse has so far 90 (!!!) modes (listed as one of main advantages of this product). To remember all these can be a challenge and can result in a huge cognitive effort. Besides there are "only" 20 buttons (which I can see) and a wheel. I would probably use a few buttons but the rest would just be unused.

One such example is a microwave I have at home. It has 20 buttons and it does miracles (probably more than 100 modes). But I only use one button for everything. It's a predefined "warm a cup of X" button which lasts 25 seconds. If I want to warm up a plate of soup I just press it twice (50 seconds) or three times (1:15) and so on. If I want to warm up a piece of pizza I just stay there and stop the microwave after 10 or 15 seconds. Really simple. And I bet other people do something similar.

But we also learn interfaces "by heart". For example I never look at the car radio and I know probably half of (15) buttons' positions and their functions. The rest of buttons I simply don't use. Or a TV remote controller. How many of us use it without looking at it? But do we use all buttons? Probably not. I'd guess I use 2/3 of them.

The question is where to draw a limit. While industry produces new toys/appliances/machines with millions of functions, and for as long as people are going to buy these just because a functions list is really long, we will have poorly designed interfaces. Which means more buttons with even more modes and not that designers did not put effort in the design - I bought my microwave only because its design (shape, colour) was superb and I bought my TV not based on a remote controller. How many times do we hear people praise their Mhz/GB/PPi/etc and they don't even know what these mean?

PS: another such mouse is Razer Naga