Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It's All About the Interface

I've previously mentioned the Ether-IR project I'm working on. Part of the motivation for this project is the horrible operation of our current, somewhat expensive RF (radio frequency) A/V (audio/video) remote. The remote sends an RF signal to a module inside our "entertainment closet" which then broadcasts an infrared signal to the A/V devices in the same closet. This allows us to hang the LCD TV on a wall and hide the A/V equipment away from sight, but the remote's operation is marginal at best. Sometimes, such as when our Maytag dishwasher is running, the remote doesn't work at all as it gets drowned out in RF noise emitted by the dishwasher (a quick check found that most home appliances are exempt from FCC regulations). Enter the Ether-IR, which will work over the home network, including our reliable Wi-Fi network (which is immune to dishwasher noise!). The Ether-IR will also allow us to get rid of yet another device (the remote). Our laptop, Wi-Fi enabled phone, etc., can take over the remote's functionality.

So, when I had the major functionality of my Ether-IR set up and running, I proudly showed my wife and informed her that her channel changing woes were over. I was then expecting her to jump into my arms lovingly, wooed by her 'hero engineer'. Instead, I got a "eh, I don't really like how the interface looks." I made sure to inform her the current interface was just a proof of concept, and that I would pretty it up, but the reaction seemed pretty typical based on previous projects I've worked on (she did then say the functionality was great – but, she has to). Great functionality can be meaningless without a decent interface to go along with it, and it seems that people's expectations of human-device interfaces are constantly increasing.

Eh Interface

A recent project at work involving a color display has had me doing some research on user interface design. One of my favorite Author's on the subject is Niall Murphy, who routinely writes about how to design intuitive user interfaces and gives some great examples of what not to do by reviewing some poor user interface designs. An interesting message from Niall is that, if possible, engineers should not be put in charge of designing user interfaces. Apparently, we think differently than "normal" people and tend to design interfaces BEFE (by engineers for engineers) that may not be anywhere near intuitive for the average user. We may also tend to play down the importance of a good user interface and focus more on the products functionality. As with anything, however, I think a little education can go a long way in turning engineers into good user interface designers (aren't user interface designers just another type of engineer anyways?)

As time goes on and people seem to be coming ever more conditioned to expect great interfaces such as put out by Apple and other commercial electronic companies (probably with entire user interface departments at their disposal) expectations are going beyond merely intuitive and properly functioning interfaces to include good looking, attractive interfaces. Looks don't seem to be much of a concern to Niall (just look at his website) but deserve some attention. We are all visual beings, and an attractive interface can go a long way in improving a user's experience. Even if it can't do anything to cover up a poorly designed, unintuitive interface or a product with sub-par functionality, it could easily be the deciding factor between two otherwise equal products.

So in addition to the other hats an engineer must wear, it seems like at least some study in user interface design, and maybe even in artistic design, could be very valuable. A redesign of the Ether-IR interface (with my limited web-design knowledge), as seen below, improved the interface greatly (and I am now my wife's engineering hero). It's still a work in progress, however, and if anyone has any suggestions on improving the interface, I'd love to hear them.

 Updated Interface

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