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Living with complexity
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MIT Press, 2011.
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In Praise of Good Design

This page illustrates products that have some special positive characteristic worthy of comment. I am looking for more examples, so please send ideas, comments, and suggestions to products AT jnd.org. Photographs too, if you can get them (beware of copyrights)

But validate your claim! Best if you have used it yourself and can personally attest to the positive features. I need some confirmation that the design actually is as good as it is claimed to be. See my essay on "Industrial Design: Claims without substance."

NOTE: Positive examples only. This is a place for praise, not bashing. About time, don't you think?

The Hilton Hotel Alarm Clock Reconsidered

A few years ago I wrote in praise of the Hilton Alarm Clock. I pointed out that hotel alarm clocks are often miserable. They are purchased on price rather than on ease of use, and beleive me, late at night when groggily setting an alarm clock, ease of use is of paramount importance.

I said that "frequent travelers have come to detest (in other words, hate) the alarm clocks provided by most hotels." And then I praised the Hilton Hotel chain for designing a special alarm clock that was easy to use, with just the features guests want.

I take it all back. Nice try Hilton, but there is one other important feature you neglected to provide: the alarm clock has to tell the correct time.

I myself have experienced Hilton clocks with incorrect time. Irate users of the clocks have written me to tell me i was wrong in my praise, for not only is the time often wrong, but there is no way to correct it. (Actually, there is a way, but it requires you to unscrew the back and get into the innards. Not recommended.) Why is it designed this way? Because the goal was to avoid guests or hotel staff who would accidentally set the wrong time. This is meant to be a radio-controlled clock that always sets itself properly.

Hilton: Try again. This one was a nice try. Time for a new, improved version.

Meanwhile, if you want a good alarm clock, carry your own. I highly recommend the clocks on modern smart phones which take advantage of their numerical keypads and large, attractive displays.

PaperPro Desktop Stapler

PaperPro Stapler.jpg
Who would have thought it -- a better stapler. This is a great example of how even the most mundane, commonplace commodity can be improved. Staplers look pretty simple and their design has not changed much, until now. Many's the time I have had to redo a staple, pulling out the original, bad staple, and trying to do it right: push straight down, hard -- but neither too slow nor too fast. Bah.

PaperPro completely rethought the operation. On the outside, the stapler looks just like the old-fashioned kind, but try it once and be convinced forever. Pushing down on the top cocks a spring. Then, the spring releases -- bam! -- all the energy at once, and the staple shoots into the paper. Effortless. And in my many uses, never a single failure. And I staple a lot, especially as I crank out draft chapter after draft chapter. My stapler says it can do up to 25 pages, but in actuality, it does a lot more.

Hurrah for those who look at old things in a new light. Brilliant. On top of all, no batteries, no electronics. Just simple mechanics.

The company is called Accentra, and PaperPro is a brand. My stapler also has the name “Prodigy” on it. It’s a new company, so the naming strategy seems to be in flux. Moreover, I think they should rethink their branding/design strategy. A truly different product, which this is, should look different. But no, this looks like the plain, old stapler that we have all learned to treat with caution. Oh sure, it has some bright colors and a little flair with the curved base, but basically, it looks like all other staplers. Think big, PaperPro. Make a significant design statement: make products that work differently and better look distinctly different and better. What a missed opportunity! But it is not too late: Hire a great designer (not a good one, a great one) and make a statement. Make the stapler look as different as it behaves.

The Stapler is great. Wired Magazine loved it, even though it has no wires. (Oh, I get it: if something is completely mechanical, why it is wireless. Duh.)

The Hilton Hotel Alarm Clock


Frequent travelers have come to detest (in other words, hate) the alarm clocks provided by most hotels. I just stayed at a fancy, expensiveFour Seasons Hotel and was driven to distraction by the idiotic Nakamichi alarm clock. Oh yes, it was very attractive. It even had a built-in CD player. Problem is, I could never figure it out, and I like to think I am pretty good at these things. Even though it had printed instructions, in my week at that hotel I never mastered the clock, not even once.

I don't want much from an alarm clock. I should be able to see both the actual time and the alarm time. I should be able to tell when the alarm has actually been set and is active. I should be able to tell whether the time of day is indicating AM or PM, and whether the alarm is set for AM and PM. And, above all, it should be easy to use.

Hurrah for Hilton Hotels. They listened to their guests. They designed a special alarm clock that truly works. It does everything I want, and more. It has several buttons on top -- just push the appropriate one and a pre-tuned radio station plays the kind of station marked by the button (rock, classical, news, public broadcasting, ...). And it even has a plug for a music player, so it is easy to play an MP3 player or iPod.

Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah. Hisses to the Four Seasons. Kudos to Hilton.

Maybe. I now realize that my initial enthusiasm was premature. I have been so frustrated by the truly crappy clocks in most hotels that when Hilton took a major step forward, I turned off my normal critical eye.

My Readers Disagree

The Alarm Clock Has Modes and Is Difficult To Use in the Dark

My posting of the Hilton Alarm Clock as an icon of good design has prompted many to write me. William Bakker proposed another example of a simple design which he experienced at the Odakyu Hotel Century in Tokyo: See his blog "The user experience of hotel alarm clocks." Others have debated my choice, pointing out deficits in the Hilton design. And it is true, the Hilton alarm clock is flawed.

The clock has two major problems: 

1, the controls cannot be read in the dark; 

2, the button labeled "Alarm Off" does not shut off the alarm. 

Both ailments can lead to problems. One correspondent pointed out that when he wanted to ensure that the alarm was indeed off, he pushed the "Off" button, assuming this would guarantee the state, only to be awakened at 5 AM the next morning by the alarm. Hmm, it seems that the button cycles through alarm states. Who on earth is it labelled "Off"?

After receiving his note, during my next stay at a Hilton Hotel I re-examined the clock. Oops. Hilton Hotel: what have you done?

The "Alarm Off" button actually cycles the alarm through several states: off, wake to music, and wake to alarm. So if you don't know that the alarm is already off and you push the off button just to make sure, it turns on the alarm (if memory serves me properly, to awaken the person to a radio station). Bad, bad bad. This is a mode problem, and since the dawn of interaction design, modes have been known to be bad.

Why not have several buttons: Awaken to music: awaken to alarm: Off. (And perhaps, awaken to both music and alarm.)

It Takes a Long Time To Set the Time

A second correspondent pointed out that: "from the photo, it looks like it uses the same two-button controls for setting the time that all digital clocks these days use -- one button to make the time later, presumably a minute at a time, and one to make it earlier. This is terribly awkward."

I disagree. Yes, It has two buttons, one to increase time, the other to decrease it. Holding either button down increments the time at the rate of two minutes per second. If the button is held down for 5 seconds, the setting time then increments at the rate of 10 minutes per second: it this increments an hour in six seconds. This is slow enough to stop close to the desired setting, yet fast enough not to be a burden. Because it is possible to go both forward and backwards, even if you overshoot the desired time, it is easy to get to the target. But because you can go backwards, you should not ever have to cycle through more than 12 hours, which takes 72 seconds.

I have found these two-way buttons (forward and reverse) plus dual speed, to be very effective -- I prefer them to analog dials which require considerable twisting. The only thing more effective is a keypad, and that would be too expensive.

Note that it isn't possible to set the time of day on this clock: a most interesting and non-obvious feature. The clock listens to the radio broadcasts of the government's standard time, so that as long as the time zone is set properly, the clock will always display the correct time, even automatically adjusting for the start and end of daylight savings time (summer time). Note that the Odakyu Hotel Century clock similarly does not allow the guest to set the clock time. This eliminates a common error -- accidentally and unknowingly -- changing the time of day setting, thereby messing everything up.

Alas the Odakyu clock seems to make it too easy to change the alarm setting. Many clocks have this failing, allowing a single button press to change the time or alarm setting. As a result, a single button error changes the setting, and in a device meant to be used by sleepy people, in the dark, errors of this sort are guaranteed. Better clocks require simultaneous depressing of an "Alarm Set" button to change the alarm time, thereby eliminating accidents. (The Hilton clock requires the clock to be in "Alarm Set Mode" which solves the problem.)

The Time Can Be Wrong

"The clocks are stupid," wrote one correspondent. "I'm in a two room suite right now at the Austin Hilton with one clock in each room and neither clock has the correct time. I just synched my computer clock with the NIST clock -- 9:43 EDT. One clock in one room says 8:52 CDT; the other says 8:47 CDT¦ Regardless of any other features they do a lousy job of simply keeping time. This makes them useless."
Well, it is hard to argue with that. It doesn't matter how usable the design is, if a clock doesn't tell the correct time, it is worthless. This is the downside of using a radio-controlled clock. When it works, it is very accurate. When it can't get the radio signals, it can be useless. Why didn't Hilton notice? beats me.

You Might Have To Disassemble the Clock To Set It

Not only is the time often wrong, but then, there is no obvious way to correct it. One irate user of the clock sent me this message:

"I couldn't stand my incorrect time on my Hilton hotel clock. There is a way set this alarm clock! I tried uplugging and removing the batteries with no luck. The answer lies under the fascia that surrounds the buttons on the top of the clock. I discovered it by accident after becoming very frustrated with a clock that was set an hour slow and pm instead of am. I was lucky in the fact that it appears that there is supposed to be a screw in the back to hold this fascia on. There was none on mine. Pulled it off (or in my case fell off when I picked it up by the top) and there are all the setting buttons there for date/year, time zone and time settings.


"Hopefully you will post this piece of advice proudly for other irritated travelers to find."

I take it all back: If you want a good alarm clock, carry your own. I highly recommend the clocks on modern smart phones: Both the iPhone and Android Phones have easy to set, efficient alarm clocks. (Other phones might also: my experience is only with these two.)

Hilton: Time for a new release!


Purchase Information:

The alarm clock can be purchased at the Hilton to Home Collection.. An excellent review can be found on the Gadgets Page website.

Conclusion: Hotel alarm clocks are getting better, as two examples show. But they are still imperfect. Kudos to Hilton for trying. Now it is time to bring out Version 2.0. By the time you do 3.0, you should have gotten it right.

Teapots Teapots

My book Emotional Design (correctly) gave the impression that I enjoy tea. But the result has been a surplus of riches: my readers provide far more suggestions of tea-brewing products than I can possibly evaluate, let alone use. But here are two, culled from the many suggestions.

The bodum Chambord teapot

The teapot I actually use is not one shown in the book. I use the bodum Chambord Teapot. Simple, elegant, easy to use, easy to clean.

Readers frequently suggest other teapots. One that seems especially attractive and functional is the "teashirt" by the Danish design store eva solo.

The eva sol teashirt teapot

I haven't actually used this one, but the video on the store website is compelling.

Bad Doors Do Good (?)

I know, this is supposed to be about good design, but I couldn't resist adding this wonderful story: Robbers foiled because they couldn't open the doors into the restaurant they planned to rob. They pushed, pulled, and kicked), but they were sliding doors. Yes, there was a sign, but as you all know, if it needs a sign, it's badly designed.

In this case, bad design led to a good result. Hope this doesn't entice others to do badly in hopes of similar good results.

The story was forwarded to me by a correspondent in Australia. Alas, the Illawarra Mercury, the source of the original story, no longer has it on its website. You can find quotes at two sites: Blog of Stupidity ("Celebrating stupidity around the world") and Usability News.

WMF Whisk -- with wire

The WMF-Whisk with beaded wires

Who would have thought it? The standard kitchen whisk can be improved. The German culinary company WMF has created this novel whisk thathas separate strands of wire with a ball at the end instead of wire loops. Attractive and, if commentators are to be believed, far superior to the ordinary whisk. As Wilbert Bann said in his email that told me about the product: "The design makes it work faster and it is much easier to clean. It's great that a simple thing existing for decades can still be enhanced."

Three cheers to WMF

LeapFrog's "Twist and shout multiplication"

Picture of LeapFrog's twist and multiply childrens toy

The company LeapFrog has a wide variety of truly excellent children's toys -- both fun and educational. Elton Billing told me about their toy for learning the multiplication table.

Billing described his experience with the toy this way:

"My children were able to use the device by simply exploring the controls on the product. In fact, the user guide is really only useful to keep parents distracted a few minutes so that children can learn the device without being interrupted by pesky adults.

"Other important features:
* It looks like a toy
* It makes sound
* The sound is loud enough to annoy parents if used for hours while in the family car
* Two or more can use it together"

Fun. self-explanatory. Educational. What else could one wish for?

The Tyg

This three-handled cup, a Tyg, was used in England in the late 1700s to allow easy passing of a cup from person to person. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that "three different persons, drinking out of it, and each using a separate handle, bring their mouths to different parts of the rim." It's a brilliant design -- why did it pass out of favor? It works brilliantly today -- I wish these were more readily available.

But I wonder about that OED definition: shouldn't each handle be marked or colored distinctively so each person could remember which handle was theirs?

This particular Tyg was handmade at the Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth, MA) by a Museum Potter. I had long discussions about the origin and history of Tygs with a potter at the Plimoth Plantation (July, 2003) and a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Oct. 2003).

Tygs were originally brought to my attention by Joseph 'Jofish' Kaye at a conference run by Ted Selker at the MIT Media Lab, Dec. 2001.

OXO Measuring cup

Clever redesign that allows quantity to be seen from above. They work! (I own two.)

Apple iPod music player

Brilliant design: High on all three levels -- Visceral (beauty); Behavioral (usability); and Reflective (Pride of ownership)

Casio Camera

Also high on all three levels. People look at it and say "I want it." It is easy to use. It is fun to show off.

Google's non-error Messages

For years I have been trying to convince people not to use error messages but rather to interact and explain the problems. Misspell something in Google and it searches anyway, but also offers a link with the correct spelling. Have your cake and eat it, too.

Type "emotionl design" into the Google search field and it both returns whatever it can find and also asks:

Did you mean: emotional design

(Hyperlinked so that clicking on the blue searches for the suggested terms)
Turns an error into a good feeling about Google. What a powerful idea! --- the same philosophy can be applied lots of places, by almost everyone. Eliminate error messages from your system. Always turn an error into an opportunity to help.

Microsoft Outlook date handling

Hurrah for Microsoft! Too many companies force you to enter dates in their preferred format (and often they only tell you after you do it wrong. In Outlook calendar, you can type almost anything, and it is interpreted properly. For example, "tomorrow," "day after tomorrow," "next day," Wednesday," Wed." Oct. 24, 24 Oct, 14/10, 10/14, etc. Kudos to Microsoft

Microsoft Outlook Telephone number handling

Don't you hate it when people insist that you enter the phone number with dashes or space or no dashes or no space or ...
Well, Microsoft, once again, has done it correctly. Enter the phone number any way you like and Microsoft does an excellent job of interpreting it. Use spaces or not. Periods or not. Dashes or not. Parentheses or not. Start with + for foreign numbers (or not). Thank you, Microsoft.

Namiki (Vanishing Point) Fountain Pen

(Made by Pilot)

Beautiful to look at, smooth writing, and very cleverly designed. It never leaks, not even on airplanes. Note that it is a retractable point -- the only such fountain pen. Also note the design features. When closed and put into a pocket, the point is upwards, reducing the chance of leaking. There is a tiny door (invisible, because it is inside the pen, just below the mouth) that shuts when the pen is retracted, preventing the tip from drying out. And the clip both prevents the round pen from rolling when placed on a flat surface and also guides the fingers to hold the pen in the correct writing position when the pen is in use. Namiki website.

Harmony Remote Control

Ugly, but it is activity-based, which is the correct way to design a control. This makes the harmony superior to most of the other controls on the market. Alas, the new model increases the perceived complexity far beyond people's comfort. They have taken a perfect product and, because they listen to their techy users too much, they are in danger of losing their ordinary ones. See my essay.

HP Vertical Scanner (scanjet 4670)

HP has typically been thought of as an engineering company: products made by engineers, for engineers. Solid, advanced technology, reliable -- but not particularly exciting. Well, there is a new HP now and their products are indeed exciting, with tasteful, colorful industrial design. And in this case, ground-breaking design. A scanner that sits vertically on the desk, taking up less space. And transparent, so you can see what is being scanned. And movable, so you can hold it against the wall, or move it across a large object (say, a two-page spread of a newspaper), stitching it together later into a seamless image. Kudos to the new HP! HP website.

Suitcase with built-in baby stroller.

website for Ride-on-carry-on

Normally, I'm not a fan of combination objects, but I do favor them where they fit the needs — such as in traveling. Parents need some way of carrying children, and the normal stroller is big, huge, and bulky, and even though airlines will let you wheel it to the door of the plane, it is hugely inconvenient and often delays the travel. So here is a clever, solution. ("Designed by a flight attendant mom," says the website. I don't doubt it at all.)

Actually, the title of this note is misleading. As an astute reader pointed out, “what you describe as a suitcase with a built-in baby stroller is actually a foldable chair that you attach to your wheeled luggage so that your kid can ‘ride’ along.”

The"IceDozer Plus."

By The Innovation Factory

A truly innovative ice scraper. Strongly recommended by Dave Farber (on his "interesting people" mailing list. Even if you live in sunny climates, take a look.

October 2004: The company seems to have disappeared. So the URL above is for amazon.com (which states that the product has been discontinued.)

Wild Country Cams -- Climbing Equipment.

Wild Country Website
I have long maintained that sporting equipment is among the best designed products, usually because the designers use them themselves. This example was submitted by Mark Lowe, a reader, who had this to say:

"I bought one of these rock climbing 'camming' devices in 1979 when they first came out, and despite an incredible amount of use (with some repairs to the trigger wires) my 'Friends' still work as well as the day I bought them. They have saved my life and prevented serious injury on a number of occasions, both on the crags and in the high mountains.

"They are beautifully engineered, highly durable, flexible (one size fits several crack widths), reliable, and 'aesthetically a pleasure to use'. Yes, there is a real emotional impact in using these - especially when you are putting your life in hands of these 'Friends'.

"I believe there is no product that better exemplifies the creation of a device to solve a long standing problem, fusing art, fine engineering, functionality and pure aesthetics/kinesthetic use into a single package. 10 out of 10."

The Chatsford Teapot System, made by The London Teapot Company, Ltd.

The example -- and the photographs -- were submitted by reader Justin Akehurst, who pointed out that they have all the virtues needed, yet so seldom provided. To quote his email:

"The teapot comes with a built-in tea strainer which is made out of plastic. The mesh on the filter is very fine-grained. I never have a problem brewing a powdery tea with the pot and have pieces leak out and into my cup.

"The teapot has a small opening at the top to allow the tea strainer's plastic tab to stick out, to allow for easy strainer removal.

"The strainer has an opening at the back to allow the tab on the bottom of the teapot's lid to catch on the underside, so that the lid won't fall off when you pour the tea.

"The teapot pours very nicely with no dribbles to clean up."

Eveready Energizer EZChange and DURACELL EASYTAB Hearing Aid Battery packages

Hearing aid batteries are tiny, and the hearing aids themselves small and difficult to work with. The batteries have to be changed frequently, which used to be a truly difficult task. Moreover, the batteries would often run out in inconvenient locations (dark, crowded places), and people who have hearing aids tend to be elderly, with restricted vision and sometimes poor hand coordination.

I think Everyready first noticed the problem and came out with a clever holder for the batteries that extended an arm that held the battery, allowing for much simpler insertion. Duracell soon followed with a simpler mechanism that in my limited tests, is somewhat superior.

But kudos to both companies: a real aid -- and not just for the elderly: it simplifies the job for everyone.