Designing for the Dark

Aug 3, 2016 | Design | 0 comments

I used to love Apple’s products. Like, really love.

Now it seems that much of the industrial design in their newer products prioritize minimalist aesthetic beauty, and less and less to usability. While we do spend some time looking at these product, we interact with it far more, and it just feels like this aspect of the design is waning. Sure, those clean lines and brushed metal make for great promo videos featuring men in monocolored t-shirts, but drooling over videos is not the same as having the product in your hands every day, and using it in a variety of situations.

Jumping to the point — Any physical product that needs to be interacted with in the dark, should be designed with that in mind. Now, not all products are envisioned to be used in the dark, but a lot of them are used either in low-light conditions or in pitch black rooms. By thinking about industrial design in this way, design choices that focus on the physical experience can be the priority.

Lots of our devices now have boring flat touch-screens, and while we do have visual feedback, we have also lost something. We used to be able to text with our phones in our pockets, just by the feel of the buttons, something we can’t do anymore. Accessibility also begs the question: How do blind people dial a phone number on a touch screen? There is VoiceOver, a great text to speech option on iOS, but with a touch screen, we’ve lost an important part of industrial design: tactile affordances.

First, let’s look at a very simple example: The light switch.

Sunset Lightswitch c/o Martin Cathrae

As Don Norman points out in The Design of Everyday Things, the light switch is a simple industrial design intended to toggle between two binary states, on and off. It’s a switch, and like most switches it goes up and down.

The brilliance of this design is that in the dark, it’s super easy to find simply by touch. The affordance a light switch presents is two fold.

First is its location: You can feel the electrical plate to find it’s border along a wall. It doesn’t take long to learn that most switches are located in the middle of the plate.

Next is its operation, and the most important aspect: Depending on which country you live in, you’re presented with an extruded, sometimes curved to the finger, piece of plastic, the status of which you can feel almost instantly because it is asymmetrical by design. Either up or down, the current state is clear, and all you do is flip it to turn the light on. Even the flipping experience tells you something about the product in the dark. You can feel the asymmetry to it, change the state of the switch and you’ll know exactly what’s changed. Better still, if you press or pull on the side that will toggle the light, it has some give to it, like pulling on a rubber band. You can flip or press on the switch a percentage of the way before the light turns on, and you have a satisfying tactile snap when it does, accompanied by a clicking sound.

Asymmetry in industrial design is crucial to designing for the dark. We innately create mental images of objects we feel and asymmetry helps us to do that. Without it, consumers and users literally can’t know which way is up.

Case Study: The ‘new’ Apple TV Remote

When the new Apple TV was announced last year, we had the promise of 3rd party apps, games and a myriad of other features, one of which was a new remote. While the remote looks, well, very Apple-ish, one thing that struck me after using it for a couple of weeks had to do with symmetry.

When watching TV, you’re not always in a lit room, so you can’t rely on the light to provide visual feedback on what you’re using. Also, with a TV, you’re ussually looking at the screen to provide feedback when you press a button on your remote, not the remote itself. TV remotes with the big channel rockers and volume rockers were and still are quite easy to understand, once you get used to the button layouts. Without light, we learn to know which way is up given the configuration of the buttons, and the weight of the device. The new Apple TV remote doesn’t have that many buttons, is very light and to its detriment is symmetrical.

The touchpad at the top is great, letting you navigate with a swipe in any direction, and though some users do find that they miss the directional ‘clicking’ of the old remote, the touchpad seems to lend to gaming more than navigation. The touch pad has a very subtle textural difference, but on cold days or days when you’ve been using your hands outside, you can’t really tell the difference in texture between the top and the bottom. This is where symmetry comes in.

In the dark, the remote is picked up and all you have is the shape and location of buttons to tell you how you’re holding the remote and in which orientation you’re holding it. Sure if you’re holding it buttons down, that’s asymmetrical — you notice right away and flip it over, but when you’re holding it buttons up, it becomes a bit more confusing.

Here, outlined in black, are the tactile affordances you feel when holding the remote. The top shows the up (correct) orientation and the the bottom shows the upside down orientation. As we generally use our thumbs to use a remote, starting from the touch pad and feeling around for tactile affordances is how we orient ourselves.

As you can see, it is perfectly symmetrical. The touch affordances we feel, either upside down or right way up are identical and don’t provide adequate information to use the remote properly.

As a result, we think we’re holding it right way up, press the ‘menu’ button and the volume decreases, or we try to swipe around, only to see nothing happen on screen.

By designing products with build in asymmetry, it provides users with a tactile experience that assists them in creating a mental image of the object, making it easier to operate in the dark.

The Future: Volume Rockers on iPad and iPhone

A couple of years ago, Apple did away with the orientation / mute switch on the iPad. This was a change that wasn’t entirely necessary and doesn’t really affect the day to day use of the iPad. Using Control Center with a swipe up from the bottom lets you lock your orientation, and seeing the volume HUD appear when you change the volume is good enough feedback. While we do use our iPads in the dark, simply being an iPad, they have a light (the screen) build in, so nothing wrong there.

A few days ago, I read a rumor that the iPhone 7 will also do away with the mute switch. Luckily it seems like it’s back in, but here’s something to ponder…

What’s the difference between removing it on the iPad versus the iPhone? Well the iPhone is typically used in the dark much more, and while it has a light (the screen), the smaller size means we use it without looking at it much more. Again, design for the dark.

When we go to the movies and we see the inevitable ‘Silence your Phone’ message appear. We reach into our pockets, flip the switch by way of tactile affordances, feel the vibration and know that our phone it set to silent. Without that switch, we couldn’t be absolutely sure that we’re doing what we want to be doing with the device without seeing it. Sure, one could argue that without the switch, we could volume-down the device until we feel the same vibration, but that simply isn’t as easy as a switch. We’d had to feel around in our pockets, make sure that we’re touching the volume down button, hold it for a few seconds, hoping the phone is stepping down incrementally in volume, then wait for the vibration telling us it’s on silent.

Of course we’d still have asymmetry through the location and orientation of the buttons, but the steps to get from A to B would be increased, thereby decreasing the usability of the device at the cost of aesthetics.

When you think about Apples other devices that use symmetry as a means to increase aesthetic appeal, like the Magic Mouse, the same issue appears. Another rumor points to a potential buttonless iPhone, which has no home button, but a 3D Touch button built in to the front bezel of the phone, making the front of the iPhone close to symmetrical, raising the issue yet again.

Takeaways: Symmetry and Mental Representations

When designing products that people may use in the dark, or that you want blind people to be able to use easily, think about how your design decisions will affect usability in these situations. While symmetry does increase the aesthetic appeal of a device, is there a way to build in asymmetry to assist users in creating an easily recognizable mental representation of the object without having to see it.

Designing your products in this way increases usability, and increases their frequency of use through reduced frustration. In short, be like the light switch.

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