The Steam Room

design. data. form.

The Design of Everyday Interfaces – 3 (The confusing system image at Udacity)

Part 3 of the series on the design of everyday interfaces.

We all build conceptual models of the world around us. John Medina explains in his very entertaining book that the brain processes information visually though the input may not necessarily be visual. For example, the visual model of a classroom will contain the image of the teacher writing on a black(white nowadays) board.  In this image, the hand that writes will be on top of the content that is being written. This is so fundamental that it is difficult to even thin otherwise. That is until you watch any video on a Udacity course where the instructor is annotating a slide on screen. The following is a screen grab of one such instance (taken from the course – The Design of Everyday Things):

Udacity - A

Do you notice something strange? The hand is behind the content! This is weird and it actually makes it difficult for me to concentrate on the content. My mind is stuck with this counter-intuitive way of writing on a board.  I cannot think of a good reason for this design. Maybe the designer had a conceptual model for live annotations that is not apparent in the system image. To know more about the difference between a conceptual model and a system image, read this article by Donald Norman. Search for the text “Conceptual Models & User-Centered Design” in the article.

Can you think of a reason for the strange design of the annotation feature of a Udacity course video? Please post it as a comment to this post.

Older articles in series:

Part 2   Part 1

The Design of Everyday Interfaces – 2 (Why meddle with the layout of a regular keyboard)

Part 2 of the series on the design of everyday interfaces.

The keyboard shown below is the standard issue keyboard at my workplace.  The top part of the picture is the old keyboard. Someone wanted to “design” something and came up with the near identical keyboard shown in the bottom half of the image – except for one crucial key (at least for me).

Notice that in the new design, the size of shift key on the left hand side has been reduced by half to make way for a duplicate of the ‘\’ key. Being a heavy user of the Shift key on the left end of the keyboard, I find myself pressing the ‘\’ key by mistake every time I intend to press the shift key. This is not a laptop keyboard where you are constrained by space. If there was a real need to have a duplicate of the ‘\’ key, I would rather provide a general purpose programmable key that a users can map to any key of choice. 


Can you think of a reason for the extra ‘\’ key? If yes, please post it as a comment.

Older articles in series:

Part 1

The Design of Everyday Interfaces – 1

Donald Norman is a legendary figure in the field of product design. His book The Design of Everyday Things first published in 1990 stands out as classic that has managed to retain its relevance in the face of the incredible changes we have seen in the past 20 years. I could never look at a door handle or knob the same way after I read his book. A new and updated version of the book was released in November 2013. Donald has also partnered with a couple of other folks to offer a ‘mini’ course on design at

Inspired by the book and by the course at Udacity, I am planning to document interfaces that I encounter regularly that either frustrate me or make me want to cry because of their sheer beauty (usability). This is part 1 of the a series. I am using some of the content I submitted as assignments for the coursework.

This post provides an example of a good signifier. A signifier is a visual or perceivable signal to the user of an object about an affordance of the object. Affordance is a word invented by Donald Norman. It represents a relationship between a property of an object and the capability of the user. For example, a regular chair provides the affordance of sitting to a person. It, however, does not present the same affordance to an elephant.  The following is an excellent example of a signifier in a Sennheiser Px-100 headphone.

Sennheiser headphone

The dots that you see are only on the left hand side of the headphone. The headphone distinguishes between the left and right side speakers and will fit snugly only when worn the correct way. Normal headphones would have a mark like “L” or “R” to indicate the side. These marks can be hard to read especially in low light conditions as they would be in the same color as the body of the headphone for better aesthetics. I love the fact that someone was thoughtful enough to provide a “physical” way to identify the left side of the headphone.


Network Art

Network CableI found this cable in this state in a meeting room today…

Does this qualify as deliberate art or a passionate expression of incredible boredom during a previous meeting???

Feynman on knowledge and learning

My father knew the difference between the knowing the name of something and knowing something
-Richard Feynman in “The Pleasure of finding things out”

My qoute for the day

Amateurs built the Ark… Professionals built the Titanic…

~author unknown


noahs_ark  Titanic BW

Image sources:

Murphy’s law of Tennis

Murphy’s law of Tennis –

The top of a tennis net will attract the ball towards itself.

This is the only explanation for a ball that meets the net that would otherwise sail over it. All the laws of motion indicate that the ball should reach the other court but the law of attraction between the net and the ball has the final word!