We’re quite excited about the launch of the iPad. Yes it’s the subject of much controversy (isn’t it just a tablet PC nearly 10 years on from Microsoft’s first announcement? Is it a computer or an oversized phone? Won’t it be useless without a keyboard? …and many are uncomfortable with its closed software model), but for me it’s exciting because it looks set to take this form to a wider market than ever before. What’s the point of the iPad? I can’t tell you right now, but by creating a broad market, the market will define its purpose, and in turn will spur innovation across portable computing. The iPad may not be obvious today, but I am willing to bet it will have a significant impact on the PC market over the next decade.
Jonathan Ive is the darling of the product design world – he is credited with a host of innovative designs that have characterised the Mac world from the late 1990′s, including the iMac, iPod, iPhone and now iPad. For a designer to have created one of these ranges of technology would be an achievement, but to be able to wow the world time after time requires genius! Product design is all about solving problems that the end user never even knew existed; Ive does that so magnificently that he wraps his solutions in forms that are also highly desired.
I like the iPhone, it’s a great device, but there’s a design flaw that bothers me, and from the pictures released of the iPad to date, it looks as if it is about to be repeated! I’m going to call it the ‘orthogonal interface transform paradox’ partly because that sounds grand, but also because the flaw is difficult to summarise briefly! Maybe the problem has been identified before and described elsewhere – I’d be interested to hear comments from product designers who might know? It’s not peculiar to the iPhone, but this is how it manifests itself on this device…
Volume on the iPhone is controlled with a ‘volume rocker’ situated on the top left of the device as you hold it upright. Press the top to increase volume, and the bottom to decrease volume. So far, so good: up is louder, down is quieter – and that’s what common sense dictates. One of the neat things about the iPhone is it’s ability to detect which direction the interface is oriented – rotate the phone sideways and in some applications, the display rotates with you.
The natural orientation for video playback on the iPhone is in a landscape mode. In iTunes you can rotate either clockwise or anti-clockwise and the video player rights itself accordingly. On other applications that play video, the natural orientation requires an anti-clockwise twist to view correctly. Unfortunately, an anti-clockwise transformation now sees the volume rocker working paradoxically – now you have to press left to go louder and right to reduce volume. The onscreen volume control works as you would expect – drag right for loud and left for quiet. Suddenly there are two volume controls available to the user, but ‘loud’ and ‘quiet’ operate in opposite directions on each.
As I mentioned, this isn’t the first technical device to suffer the ‘orthogonal interface transform paradox’. The paradox arises because a fixed physical interface doesn’t adjust to a dynamic display of information. I first noticed this with television remote controls. TV remotes have a channel rocker – press the top to go up a channel, and the bottom to go down. If they don’t have a single ‘rocker’ button, they will have two separate ones to navigate up and down through channels. If you are watching BBC1 and wish to navigate to Channel 5, you simply press ‘Channel Up’ four times. To flick back to ITV1, click ‘Channel Down’ twice. That seems pretty logical – BBC1 – UP – BBC2 – UP – ITV1 – UP – Channel 4 and so on… However, bring up the onscreen channel guide, and channels are listed with BBC1 at the top. Place the TV pointer on BBC1 and in order to get to Channel 4 you now have to press ‘Channel DOWN’: BBC1 – DOWN – BBC2 – DOWN – ITV1 – DOWN – Channel 4. The interface is completely reversed.
This isn’t a hugely serious issue, it’s unlikely that it’s led to loss of life, but it is a problem that product designers should look to solving in order to give a consistent interface experience. Furthermore, should such flaws ever be resolved, then we will all forget that they ever existed. As you can see, there’s little ‘thanks’ returned to the good product designer – all the problems were resolved before we were ever aware of them and the genius of the likes of Jonathan Ive goes largely unnoticed. Perhaps a future version of iPhone or iPad will switch the behaviour of the volume rocker in software as the device is rotated, then it’ll just be another neat feature designed into the device that is lost on most of the punters!