Sunday, January 17, 2010

Can You Feel Me Now?

General-purpose touch-screen devices have delighted users since the HP-150 debuted in the early 1980s. Today, three years after the iPhone's introduction, nearly all "smart" mobile telephones have touch screens and their interfaces force interaction almost exclusively through this means.

Which is great unless the user is a fat-fingered, myopic palsy victim.

I upgraded from a Moto RAZR v3 to an LG Xenon (AT&T) this year. I wanted the keyboard because I am fat-fingered, myopic, and now thanks to middle age, presbyopic (TANJ!). Despite the tiny keyboard, the interface seems to demand I use the touch screen to accomplish most tasks.

My daughter taunts, "Daddy, you're such a slow texter."

"Bite me, kid. I'm a QWERTY touch typist and T9 sucks at 1337."

The crux of the problem is this: the touch screen doesn't feel me. The screen's touch points, despite training, are inaccurate or unresponsive. Forget typing via touch screen using 'ABC' or T9 mode. Sometimes I jab it several times to get it to read once.

The reason is my fingertips are callused, their skin dry. If I lick the tip of my pinkie and use that finger, it works great. Of necessity I've personalized the phone with my own slobber. Ew.

For whom are these touch interfaces designed? Tiny, moist-fingered kogyaru? Racoons?

The Real Problem

Humans vary widely in size and physiology, as do the environmental conditions under which they work. Interfaces must work under these conditions, too, or offer clear workarounds when they cannot.

Vendors of course put the cheapest interface device into the phones because phones are disposable commodities. My LG Xenon cost nothing on promotion so long as I signed up for another two year tour of duty aboard the Death Star Phone Company.

The Getting Started guide that ships with the AT&T-branded LG Xenon is a thick pamphlet with little info. The 146-page version of the full manual, once hunted down online, offers a list of features matched to buttons and screen symbols, but no help for sending a text message when the on-screen send touchpoint won't react. After a hour's fiddling it turns out that pressing the SEND key (labelled with a green telephone handset icon) steps through the SMS select destination and transmit message sequence.

Happily, the HANGUP key (labelled with a red handset symbol) is the go back in sequence key. Except when it isn't.

Fixing the Design

Designers must consider more than happy path operation when the device offers multiple physical interfaces. By comparison, Microsoft does multiple interface paths well enough. They code and document keyboard shortcuts that make Windows fully usable without a mouse.

Test interfaces with various pointing device types, widths, and surfaces. Fingers may be wide or slender, wet, dry, greasy, sticky, dirty, bloody, or damaged and misshapen. Styli may be fingernails, real nails, pens, pencils, pencil erasers, screwdrivers, paper clips, dowels, coffee stirrers, and so forth.

Try operating them under common, real-world environmental conditions. Range from humid to dry and include insult conditions such as heat, cold, drizzle or rain, soda pop and coffee spills, oil, grease (skin lotion or sunblock), and paint (fingernail polish). Is the phone usable after Junior scribbles over the touchscreen with a Sharpie?

What is the workaround if the touchscreen fails to react altogether? For many applications, the phone is now bricked. Not so bad if a replacement is available, but potentially lethal in an emergency situation, say, after an automobile crash.

Document not just the feature set and the normal way of operating, but also the alternate, non-touchscreen method for getting work done. It's only paper.

And please, ship the real manual with the product. At least print the URL on the box.


Monday, January 4, 2010


"URRRRAGHH! DAMNIT! I KEEP GETTING PWNED!! I just can't play this game."

"What the hell, dude."

My second son had come home from UCSD over winter break. We had just rebuilt one of his machines to modernize it for gaming. We had set up his rig in my office so he could relax from his double major (Physics/Math) and lab responsibilities by playing "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2".

I looked over at his screen. He was playing online in a team. Target identifiers in pastel green and pink flashed over other players as they popped in and out of view. How handy: IFF for grunts. Totally unrealistic and totally useless for my son.

He's colorblind.

Not profoundly, but with enough red/green confusion to make the transparent target tags indistinct, and especially indistinct when they briefly flash during a mêlée.

In-game avatars are unbelievably swift and jumpy. Coupled with lag and server processing time, it may be too late to aim and fire anyhow, and especially too late if a player's reaction loop requires him/her to figure out something's color.

Double pwned.

The Real Problem

Between 5 and 10% of caucasian males are colorblind. Since most live in North America and Europe, their 18- to 34-year-old demographic is exactly who buys and plays games like CoD:MW2.

InfinityWard, CoD:MW2's producer, has knee-capped 1 in 12 customers.

It's just about unforgivable. Red-green confusion has been known since the 90s, that is, the 1790s. The US military started testing for it in the 70s, again, that is the 1870s.

To make matters worse, much of the in-game heads-up display renders info in reds, greens, and yellows with a high alpha blend, making them transparent. CoD:MW2 also places HUD items at the visual periphery of the screen. HUD placement and coloring makes them useless for colorblind players and difficult for everyone else, too.

Here's why: human peripheral vision has very little color sensitivity. Try it yourself: hold a small red or green colored lamp (an LED is ideal) a meter away and view it from the corner of your eye. I defy you to answer honestly what color it is when viewed from that vantage. It should appear somewhat yellowish-bright, nothing more. Now, try this experiment with the indicator lamps on your car's dashboard. You will appreciate (or despair) that the layout makes clear (or obscures) the meaning of each lamp.

Fixing the Design

Red-green confusion and its fixes are so well known that InfinityWard's design lapse is astonishing. This defect should never have made it to the marketplace — unless, of course, the company has a military contract to discover who's unfit for duty.

An easy patch: replace green with blue.

Next easiest: make a distinct mark or shape part of the target HUD; don't require the viewer to read it. There's a reason why financial statements indicate negative numbers in parentheses: they jump out without color.

Ensure peripheral information displays distinctly so it works from the corner of the eye. On a single screen, where the focal area and attention are close, vision detects color and shape reasonably well. As screens enlarge or become multipanel as in AMD's Eyefinity, moving visual cues outward will significantly degrade their color visibility.

And know the market. Don't kneecap your customers.