Taking Good Interface Design for Granted

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We Mac users give Apple a lot of grief. And while some of it is justified, in other cases I suspect we've all lost a little perspective about the company that makes so many of the products we use on a regular basis.

I was thinking about this the other day, as I used a new product that's essentially a "video iPod" -- it's got a color LCD screen, a 20GB hard drive, and built-in music and video players, along with a bunch of other features. I'm still trying to get playable video onto its hard drive, so that's a frustration. But it's not my major one.

My major frustration with this product, and with several others I've seen recently, is that they seem to have been designed at random. There appears to be very little care, and certainly no creativity, going into their designs. This particular device has an interface style clearly inspired by the Mac (it's got a lot of, um, familiar OS 9-Platinum windows), but in terms of usability it's not even on the map. You use a joystick to navigate through its interface, but the (poorly marked) "enter" button is not the nearest to the joystick. The "cancel" button is. Which means half the time I'm headed in the wrong direction when I'm using this thing.

The music player interface is entirely based on its file-system, so if I don't have my music sorted in folders by artist and album (and with the individual files of each album numbered), I'm in real trouble.

From the badly labeled and poorly placed physical buttons to the confusing, unattractive interface on the LCD, this product (which, if I can actually get video to play on it properly, might be very cool in terms of what it can do) is a reminder of what Apple is so good at. Pick up a Dell DJ or Archos Jukebox sometime and compare it to the iPod. It's not even close.

Apple doesn't just create pretty pieces of hardware. When they do it right, the hardware is also remarkably functional . Even when Apple makes mistakes, it's clear that its creative people are working very hard to consider the ramifications of button placement, labeling, the position of a device's ports... plus they're taking that care with the software running on that device.

Yes, I'm the same guy who just complained about the placement of the third-generation iPod buttons. But I think the level of that complaint proves my point. Whether Apple made us care deeply about good interface design or it was our need for good interface design that led us to Apple, we really care about this stuff. And seeing a starkly non-Apple interface on a product with several Apple-like features really drives that point home.

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