Broken or just sprained?

In one of my all-time favourite movies, the girl character tells the boy character that he’s “broken”. Later she revises it to “sprained” – but  before learning that he’s a professional killer.

I was recently reading Jeffrey Zeldman’s story about his dishwasher — particularly some of the astute comments — and it sent my brain madly off in all directions at the same time.

In his blog, Mr. Zeldman recounts an interesting and amusing story about his dishwasher, which is not working as he’d like it to, but which is not, in the strictest sense, broken, and so cannot be repaired.

What rings so true about this story is our general attitude towards anything we touch or use on a daily basis and how we as people react to a ‘broken’ experience.

A lot of what we use every day isn’t really broken, but it doesn’t really work right, either. If it’s something like a cd player with a sticky drawer, we live with it because our options are usually a) try to find someone that fixes cd players or b) buy a new ipod or other media player (finally an excuse) and then feel guilty about sending a perfectly (almost) good cd player to the landfill, or recycling facility, or whatever. There are lots of people for whom a dent, scratch, or sticky door means immediate replacement or repair, but for the rest of us, the seconds bin is our second home.

For me depending on what it is, something may have to be really broken for me to contemplate replacing it, or fixing it. Example: I have a Timex watch that I love. It has one of those great Indiglo nightlights, which not only lets me tell time in the dark, but lets me see whether the child I’m trying to get to sleep at bedtime really has their eyes closed. A couple of months ago, the nightlight stopped working; it still keeps great time, but no longer has the nice bonus feature I like so much.  Now I can either buy a new watch for $70, in which case this one will be garbage (just what we all need, more garbage), or my other option is to go to the Timex Canada website, print off a (very confusing) repair form, and mail them my beloved watch in hopes that they can fix it. I have no idea how long it would be gone, and I’m one of those people who likes to know what time it is. You see my problem? I’m guessing that until this watch completely dies, I’m going to keep wearing it.

How broken does something need to be for us to fix it? People like Jim Kunstler believe — and I tend to agree with him — that for humans in general to really shift their behaviour, something pretty catastrophic has to occur: think the heart attack that finally leads to a lifestyle of good diet and exercise, the financial crisis that finally makes people take notice of the irresponsible antics in the financial sector.

In my work as an Information Architect and Usability Specialist on the web, I’ve seen some pretty broken website experiences, and I’ve watched as agencies and clients ‘fix’ them in different ways. It’s interesting that what I think of as broken is often not what everybody else does. What’s broken to me is merely a sprain to someone else. Sometimes the things that I think are essential to fix are at the very bottom of the list from the client’s perspective.

At the end of the day, a lot of us just limp around on a sprained website, managing to overcome bad usability, poor form design, and wtf? moments through willing suspension of disbelief and dogged determination. We get there in the end because we really want to, or we absolutely need to. It’s painful, but we can use it.

I’m wondering what the catastrophic change has to be to shift our patience for chronic pain? Will there be one? Just wonderin’.

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Back to School

Welcome to back to school.

I am the proud father of home-schooled kids. This is the 3rd year that my wife has got our kids started on their school curriculum first thing in the morning on the day after labour day. We’ve got kindergarten, grade one, and grade three all going on at the kitchen table with our pre-schooler absorbing things by osmosis in the background.

Since we’re in a fairly traditionally structured family, I don’t have much to do with the presentation of the material to my kids, but this year we’re trying to figure out how I can contribute to their learning either by doing Saturday ‘special’ classes, or evenings. That should be fun, if I can come up with something interesting. I’ve been wondering about working with my 6 and 8 year olds on user interface design. I figure they might have insights on what works and what doesn’t. They don’t get a lot of computer time, but when they do (30 minutes per week), I am always stunned by how quickly they learn the interface and make it work for them.

Wish me luck.

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the eternal floppy drive

In my job as an Information Architect, I do a lot of web interface prototyping of different kinds of web UIs. Something occurred to me for the first time only while trying to create a nice ‘save’ button for a web form… all the save icons in the world are still images of 3.5″ floppy drives.

Thanks to Google, I know that I’m not the only one who has wondered about this (though perhaps I was the only one doing it at 2am EST when I should’ve been finishing my ‘end of day’ deliverable). See:

terminally incoherent

let’s bootstrap this world

Personally, I use Mark James’ excellent set of Silk icons for my prototypes. Interestingly, his graphic Image of a floppy disk is called “disk.png” not “save.png”. He just draws the pictures, we create the relationship.

I still have a floppy drive in my computer, but the last time I tried to view a disk of my university essays, the media had degraded to a point where all it did was error out. What will Image of a floppy disk us in the future?

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