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Designing for the Future

Throwing out some ideas for improving designs to the end of making things less cumbersome.

Between the death of one world-renowned designer and one tech-world-renowned designer (Steve Jobs and Dennis Richie, respectively), the world needs to keep thinking about design. While I’ll be the first to admit that the final word in design is evolution, that doesn’t mean we can’t design for evolution, rather than simply waiting for it to decide our fate.

I’ve been reading Just for Fun, a book co-authored by Linus Torvalds (who started and maintains the Linux Kernel, which is the piece of software that bears a fair share of responsibility for re-democratizing the UNIX-type operating system).  In the chapter on the future of technology (Part Three, Chapter Three, The Amusement Ride Ahead), he states:

[…] What everybody wants is this magical toy that can be used to browse the Web, write term papers, play games, balance the checkbook, and so on.  The fact that you need a computer and an operating system to do all this is something that most people would rather not even think about.

And that’s true for a lot of things, so today I’ll throw out a few ideas along those lines.

Chewing your teeth clean

Although this idea had floated around before that time, it’s actually come close to a reality: from back in 2005, we have US army develops tooth-cleaning gum.  The article discusses the concept and invention of a chewing gum that is enhanced to clean teeth.  This just makes sense: the food particles get onto your teeth from eating, not by brushing them on.  Thus, using the same mechanism for cleaning should provide for a more thorough and less cumbersome process.

Not only is this a great idea for soldiers that can’t spare the water or the time to practice traditional hygiene, it could also improve dental health in the developing world and other low-income areas.

Automatic detergents (etc.)

When you load a dishwasher or clothes washer, you have to add detergent.  This extra step is likely due to lobbying by the commercial cleaning companies that want every load to cause you to have a nervous fit trying to decide which of their brands will do what you want.  But 99% of the time you’re using the same detergent repeatedly, so it would make a lot more sense to have an attachment-area where you would attach the entire container of detergent, bleach, etc.  You could then either let it automatically decide how much to dispense or still set an amount manually.

The idea here is one of minimizing interactions.  As with the chewing gum, it simplifies things, but it also reduces the likelihood of spills or other user error, and it dispenses with a moving part that the user must interact with.

Redesigning the Jump Start

When a combustion vehicle has a dead battery, it often needs a jump start to allow it to operate until it can be recharged or replaced.  The problem here is that it’s more complicated than needed to perform a jump.  That creates a case where people are reliant on the experienced to operate what’s considered a ubiquitous technology.  In the same way we don’t want to necessarily think about our computers or operating systems, why should we need clamps to jump-start?

So, having a new interface would be useful.  It would consist of a special pair of plugs that would have forcing-functions built-in to make the process simple enough for anyone to perform.  It would also ensure that the process occurred in a way that prevented damage to the good battery.

The actual design would take time to be certified and adopted, but would basically consist of two three-prong plugs connected by a wire, with each plug having a switch to engage it.  It could be designed so that the positive would need to be engaged before the negative, and so that the switches of all the prongs would need to be disengaged before connecting/disconnecting.

The Human Microphone 2.0 and Goes to Congress

Down at the Occupy Wall Street protest, they are forced to use the Human Microphone, which is a process whereby the speaker yells a short phrase, which is then re-yelled by one or more groups of people, to allow the manual/collaborative amplification of the speech.

Foremost, a system could be devised, in order to improve coordination between the speaker and the microphones.  That might simply be hand signals, or it might be lights or even appending a specific word like the telegrammatic stop bit (ie, each phrase would have “STOP” appended to it, and no further progress from each side would be made until that part was spoken.

But the other idea here would be to actually require that the legislative bodies begin using the Human Microphone.  That would mean that they would have to pay enough attention to the speech in order to repeat it.  That might actually cause them to think about it a bit, in order that they should actually have conversations and thus enable progress.

To some extent the Human Microphone makes communication a scarcer resource, which means that what’s said can tend to be more important.  If you’re relying upon 30 people to repeat your speech, I’d think you’d be less likely to waste their time by spouting bullshit, lest they shut your mic off.

In the former case, this probably still constitutes a design of the sort being discussed.  In the latter case, this represents a much-needed regression.  Congress currently revises and extends its comments on everything under the sun by shoving it into the record without ever needing to let it pass their lips.  I’m pretty sure that group of monkeys has successfully recreated the works of William Shakespeare, and if I was bored enough I’d dig through to find out.  This regression would mean they had to start synchronizing their brains with their mouths again.

URI Extensions

This is the last of the batch today.  I’d like to see some form of extension to the URI that makes it easier to create groups and hierarchies for things like links, bookmarks, tabs, etc.

The tab I write this post in currently has five other tabs that pertain to it.  Websites like Reddit have a comment link and a content link, which get separated as things currently work.  When you pull some research out of the web, you often want to keep it together for later, which means either tagging it or creating a folder.

I’m honestly not sure if this should entail extending the URI Specification, or simply creating some new HTML element or just shoving it into some JSON that can wrap the URIs together in various ways.  But I am pretty sure that this shouldn’t be continually handled by humans when our benefactors (ie, the computers) could handle it.

In the case of Reddit, the workaround is to use their iframe feature, which loads the content in an iframe below a little bar that contains the submission information and links.

But the basic paradigm of design that is unearthed every time is to take what exists and look at the extra, repeated steps around it, and try to pull another step into the design itself.

Food Regimens

A lot of people just don’t know what constitutes a healthy, simple, low-cost meal. So they resort to the convenient and available options, like the beeramid.

The Food Wheels

The FDA has unveiled a radical, new representation of what you should eat and drink.  They come in the form of two circles, meant to represent a plate of food and a glass of drink.  The website is USDA’s

Worth noting that this comes years after the United Kingdom’s National Health Service added its own “Eatwell plate” (NHS.UK: Eatwell plate).  Their plate is a little different, being that they eat different things.  They include their drinks on the plate, for example.

So the problem with the plate.  Biggest one is that judging how much of each category should be eaten isn’t easy.  At a glance it looks like you should eat equal portions of vegetables and grains, and equal portions of fruits and protein, with the fruit and protein categories being smaller than the vegetables and grain categories.

And you should drink some dairy, in an amount that looks to be smaller than the fruit/protein portions.

Thing is, the design is nice enough.  But you should eat several plates a day, and you should drink water too.  And a little alcohol is probably good for you, but not too much.

When you actually start to delve into diet, you start getting confused.

Take beans and peas.  According to the website (USDA’s Dry Beans and Peas in the Food Guide), they are unique foods that you can count as vegetables or protein, depending on how much vegetables or protein you eat.  If you eat a lot of one, they’re the other.

It’s some kind of Heisenbean Uncertainty Principle, though, because you could have beans with breakfast as a protein, but by lunch time they could have magically become vegetables.

While the nutritional information is useful, I can’t help but think that they should have spent the money on smartmobile apps whereby you take a picture of the thing you’re considering ingesting and upload it.  The app would then tell you if you should or shouldn’t ingest that.

For example, that old children’s song, Found a Peanut (Wikipedia: Found a Peanut) could have been avoided, not with the MyPlate or Eatwell Plate or Food Pyramid, but with  It could also prevent cannibalism.

Okay, so maybe that idea’s a dud.  But I think a better one would be to actually publish some examples of people with healthy diets.  The diets, not the people.  Because a lot of people just don’t know what constitutes a healthy, simple, low-cost meal.  So they resort to the convenient and available options, like the beeramid.

Discoverability in Software

Certain UNIX text editors have extensive tutorials to help people learn their commands and behavior. And the evidence is compelling that once you learn them it makes you more productive. But, learning them is still a fairly big hurdle, even with tutorials. This is purely a discovery issue.


One of the big challenges in writing usable software is making all of the features and options apparent to the user, particularly to the novice.

Menus do a good job, by being visible and readable (including by accessibility tools).  But keyboard shortcuts that are not menuized have poor discoverability, as do some mouse actions (gestures, uncommon or inconsistent button behavior).

For example, you’ve probably repeatedly clicked on a text field in software before and noticed portions of the entered content are selected.  It’s not obvious what happens if you aren’t paying close attention.

The general behavior here is that a single click moves the cursor while a double click will select some portion of the entered text.  The double click rules are basically:

  1. Select the word the cursor is over (if it is a word).
  2. Otherwise, select the surrounding word(s) (if over a space).

But there’s also the triple click here.  Triple clicking will select the entire paragraph.

How would you determine these behaviors, other than having been told or experimented?  Unlike a checkbox, which has some kind of indication that clicking it does something like erase or add a check to it, text gives no such indication.

There are regular threads across the internet where people discover that shift and middle click both have myriad uses in Firefox.  Having an about: URL that gave the full list might be useful, but even that wouldn’t be too discoverable.  And the sidekick of discoverability is remindability.  If the user reads a long list once, they won’t necessarily remember for the next time they could use that action.

Certain UNIX text editors have extensive tutorials to help people learn their commands and behavior.  And the evidence is compelling that once you learn them it makes you more productive.  But, learning them is still a fairly big hurdle, even with tutorials.  This is purely a discovery issue.

One of the best possible solutions I can imagine would be to create video games with the UI for these applications.  If you had to kill space aliens (no offense to any space aliens reading this) while playing a game version of vi, you would learn the commands much faster.  Same goes for killing zombie tabs and zombie bookmarks in Firefox.