Oh Siri, Part 87

Adding containers to a shopping list.

Attempt #1: Kool Aid
Attempt #2: Cooler
Attempt #3: Containers. Hooray.

I pronounced the word “container” the same way, with the same inflection each time. This is why the reports that say Siri is better than Alexa ring false to me (or they are testing something else, like depth of trivia knowledge). When Alexa fails, it’s usually because it can’t process the command, either because I’m asking something impossible, or just phrasing it in a way that it’s not been programmed to recognize. It could be as simple as omitting a key word.

Siri is different. Siri will sometimes just fail completely, offering up a baffling “no internet connection” error when the internet is right there, or asking me to try again later because maybe someone at Apple has tripped over the server’s power cord again or worse, insisting that I have no such list to add an item to, after which I will ask Siri to show me that list and it does–then still refuses to let me add items to the list because it still doesn’t exist. But more often than these, Siri will misinterpret what I am saying, giving me Kool Aid instead of containers.

It does this often enough that it doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t even bother me, really, I just accept that it’s part of the whole Siri experience. But Siri has been around since the iPhone 4S (2011)–it really should be a whole lot better than it is. Bad Apple.

Bad ad

I subscribe to the Bookbub newsletter, which delivers a daily list of bargain-priced ebooks covering any genres you highlight as your favorites. It’s a handy way to find the occasional bestseller for cheap, but better still for finding new authors with minimal financial risk. I’ve started reading several new authors, so can recommend at least checking it out.

This post is not about the Bookbub newsletter.

Rather, it’s about the coveted ad space that appears at the bottom of the newsletter. This is where authors can highlight their efforts and reach a potentially wide market.

Most of the ads are new, but I’ve seen a few repeats. This is about one of them. It is a bad ad.

Here it is:

Why is it a bad ad?

The image of a young woman with blood splattered on her face and finger is obviously meant to be provocative, but something about it just screams stock photo. Visually, I find it dull. I guess the story is about a murderer?

There’s no description of the story, not even a pithy little blurb or one of those mash-up quotes. “It’s Jaws meets the Stepford Wives!”

There’s no title. What is this story called? Beats me. You have to click the link (where does it go?) to find out. But why would I? If the author can’t be bothered to even include the title of their own novel, how much should I care about it?

The quotes feel a little too selective. “Evocative of Stephen King” sounds positive, but for all I know the rest of the quote could be, “but fails to match the horror master’s craftsmanship.”

Also, the author expects people to know what KU is. I do, because I’ve been a longtime Bookbub subscriber, have read up on self-publishing and am familiar with Kindle Unlimited. But what about someone who is new to Bookbub? I’ll concede this part may be aimed at a more specific segment of the Bookbub readership.

This ad has come up a few times and I have yet to click on it. I was tempted to for this post, but still couldn’t be bothered enough. It’s a mystery, but not one I care to solve.

It is a bad ad.

UPDATE: But it is also a ubiquitous ad, as it ran for the next week in the Book Bub newsletter. This prompted me to finally click the link and discover that I had actually checked out the book before, then forgotten about it. I don’t blame the book for this, just my addled mind.

It’s called The Demon King and the basic plot reads a lot like Stephen King’s IT, which is where they “evocative of King” quote likely comes from. It’s also the first book of three in something called “The Bloodletters Collection”, is rated 4.5 out of 5 stars on amazon.ca, and costs $4.25 in Canada thanks to our lowly Canadian dollar. Each book appears to be longer than the previous, also evocative of King. The price is fine, but I ain’t committing to a trilogy from an author I’ve never read that spans over 2,000 print pages. But I’ll probably remember it now.

Death of a butterfly

Today Apple released the updated 13 inch MacBook Pro. As updates go it was pretty tepid. The lower end version is essentially unchanged, still shipping with 8th gen Intel processors, but now with more base storage and the revised Magic keyboard. The magic part is that it’s not prone to fail like the butterfly keyboard. The higher end models include 10th gen processors, but are otherwise pretty much the same as well.

This has led people to speculate that another update is coming later this year, that may include a larger display and other niceties. We shall see.

The important thing here, though, is that with today’s update, Apple is no longer selling any laptops with the butterfly keyboard. From the introduction of the new MacBook in 2015 to today that means that users have been suffering through one of the worst keyboards to ever be fitted into a laptop for five years.

Watching Apple’s flailing attempts to fix the design (multiple times) was painful. And nothing could fix the actual typing experience that some loved, but many actively disliked, or even found uncomfortable (raises hand).

At long last, though, the butterfly keyboard is dead. Hopefully it has taken along with it the obsession with thinness over function that seemed to have Apple designers in its thrall. Yes, the butterfly keyboard was thin. It was also terrible. I still find it amazing that it made it into an actual shipping product (ironically that first product, the new MacBook, was killed after only four years).

Anyway, good job, Apple, for finally purging the butterfly keyboard. But next time don’t make your users suffer through years of a deeply flawed product, OK?

Baffling design: The Staples search engine

I did a search for “network cable” (note the singular) on the following sites and here’s what came up:

  • Best Buy Canada: network cables
  • London Drugs: network cables
  • Memory Express: network cables
  • Canada Computes: network cables
  • Amazon Canada: network cables
  • Staples Canada: tables

One of these things is not like the other. I tried doing the search in a second browser that had never been to the staples.ca site before to see what would happen and the same thing comes up–tables. Table is highlighted as the search term in each result:

Here is the URL showing the search terms:

Now, if I do a search for “network cables” (plural) the site will pull up…network cables. But when you look at the results you’ll see the items listed are in the singular:

This is inconsistent and illogical.

Is it too much to expect a search of “network cable” to not show a bunch of tables? We are 30 days away from the year 2020. I do not think this is an unreasonable thing to expect. I’m just glad I wasn’t searching for a hard disk.

Bad Design: Apple’s iOS Photos app

The Photos app Apple has is roughly the same on all of its devices, if you are on the latest version of the device’s OOS–in this case I refer to iOS 13.x, iPad OS 13.x and macOS 10.15x (Catalina), but for this post I am specifically referring to the iPhone version.

Generally for looking over your photos, sharing them with friends, cursed social media or other apps, the Photos app works well enough. iOS 13 even adds a surprisingly robust set of editing tools, so the typical user will never need to use another app to apply hideous, Instagram-style filters. Smiles all around, as they say.

But let’s say you want to do something like duplicate the photo, because you want to keep two copies–the original, and the version you have applied hideous Instagram-style filters to. Let’s take this image of me holding a bottle of delicious Clubhouse La Grille Signature Steakhouse marinade. This marinade is so good I want to, I don’t know, add stars to the image or something. So I tap on the square with the arrow pointing up. This opens the share sheet, which gives you options for sharing the photo (and lots of other stuff).

And here you can see some share options (I have obscured two AirDrop contacts in keeping with Apple’s much-ballyhooed privacy). This is mostly a list of other apps. Where’s the ability to copy, duplicate or do other things? They are not here. I am very sad.

But wait, those options are actually here. Do you see the sliver of white at the bottom of the screenshot, with the rounded corners? That’s the rest of the interface, almost completely obscured from view. In fact, if you wiggle the page slightly you can make that small visible portion completely vanish, while still showing everything above it. This is bad design.

If I swipe down I get so many additional options I have to swipe again to see all of them. This is what the first swipe gets me on an iPhone 8:

This is a perfectly clear, usable list of options. Apple has listed everything in plain text with a little icon for easy visual scanning. This is all really nice–if you actually scroll down and find it.

Obscure UI is something that has been discussed a lot with the touch interfaces used on phones and tablets. Without the “traditional” scrollbars, arrows and so on, a lot of the options you may have at your disposal are effectively hidden like treasure, waiting to be uncovered by swiping or long-pressing or tapping x number of fingers on the screen, or something else entirely. Some suggest that Apple’s own 3D Touch (or Force Touch) was removed on the 2019 phones (replaced by “Haptic Touch”, which is just a long press with a bit of vibration attached to it) because no one knew it existed. Most discovered it by accident–by pressing harder than needed for a long press and invoking the 3D Touch pop-up.

3D Touch is pretty handy once you know to look for it, but even then it’s not a system-wide feature. Apps don’t have to support it, and since Apple always sold phones that didn’t include it, a lot of app developers ignored it. And now it’s gone, with a lot of people never knowing it existed.

But back to the Photos app–burying a long list of options at the bottom of a page is not a bad thing in itself. Where Apple fumbles here is not giving the user any concrete visual clue that the options are even there. A few obvious fixes come to mind:

  • Add a “More options…” button to the initial photo screen. Currently there are three choices: Share sheet, Favorite and Trash. They could squeeze in another icon here.
  • Another choice would be to add it after tapping the Share sheet icon. And look! Do you see at the top where it clearly says Options already? You might think that’s where you would find all of these extra options. But instead it’s where you find exactly two options concerning sending the photo as “automatic”/an individual photo/iCloud link and whether to include location/all photo data. The additional options could simply be added here. But this has two problems of its own: it adds an extra tap to get to the options, and it doesn’t necessarily address the original issue, which is the options not being clearly visible.
  • A third choice, then, is to make the additional options more obvious. One way would be to turf the AirDrop contacts, since there’s already an AirDrop button and I suspect people are not AirDropping photos all over the place, anyway (I could be wrong). This would leave enough room for the list of other options to be more visible.
  • A fourth choice would be to provide a visual indicator that there are more options available if you swipe up. This could be done several ways:
    • Adding a scroll bar. This will never ever happen.
    • Adding a floating arrow pointing down to indicate you can swipe to see more. This has the advantage of being something that could be used universally, much like scrollbars.
    • Some other visual indicator that I haven’t thought of. Let’s face it, I’m not a UX/UI designer, I just know bad design when I see it.

I have no expectations that Apple will move away from the “obscure gesture” interface. One need only look at iPad OS to see how, if anything, they have embraced it even more. There are now large swathes of the iPad interface that most people don’t know about–and never will. This is in part due to obscurity, but also in part due to questionable interface choices. But that’s a whole other post. Soon™.

Promotions gone horribly not-quite-right

Two I’ve seen lately.

First up, Microsoft wants you to get a Surface Laptop 3…maybe never? As of this post, trying to order some Surface devices from the Microsoft Store site still gives Invalid Date for when you might receive them. This seems to be related to new Surface devices, so maybe the store is just reflecting the general glitch level of the new Surface devices.

Next is this promotion to get a flu shot. Every time I look at this it reads to me as FU season is here! Which, if you end up getting the flu, is perhaps not an inaccurate way to describe it.

Bad design: Deliberately restrictive sales

This one is old as the hills, but tech companies are still trotting out the “enticing sale with decent discounts that excludes almost everything you’d actually want to buy” offer. This particular offer also has a bonus loot box component where the promotional email gives you a random code for a discount between 10-25%.

In this case, the offer came from Logitech. My alleged discount was 25%.

I clicked the enticing CLICK TO REVEAL button and was given the 25% off code. I’ve been thinking of acquiring a full keyboard with keypad again for times when I might want the keypad and the Logitech Craft gets good reviews–but is also ludicrously expensive, selling for around $200 Canadian most of the time. This discount would bring it down to a more palatable $150.

I then read the not-so-fine print at the bottom of the email that lists the items excluded from this offer (remember, the discount starts at a not-exactly-gigantic 10% off). There are not 33 items on the list (which would already be a lot), but a combination of 33 individual products and entire product lines:

You can buy anything that is old and cheap, however.

The Craft keyboard is among the impressive list of exclusions. Almost anything new or on the pricier side has been left off the sale. Why? Because Logitech wants you to pay full price for those. Perfectly understandable. For profit companies like profits.

But this promotional offer–even if you overlook the skeevy loot box “What did I get?” aspect still stinks. The unspoken hope here is that the potential buyer will not read over the list of exclusions and if they try to buy something that isn’t part of the promotion, well, they’re already on the Loigtech site, so maybe they’ll end up buying something else. Or shop around and get ideas, even if they don’t buy something right then. This is questionable marketing at best, and dishonest at worst. It trains customers to not trust you when you offer something. If I got another offer from Logitech, I’d immediately ask myself, “But what’s the catch?”

But that won’t happen, because I’ve already rewarded Logitech by unsubscribing to their offers. Well done, marketing geniuses.

(The unsubscribe option is simple and didn’t even ask for a reason, which is too bad, because I wanted to tell them!)

Lousy keyboards of yore

UPDATE, November 13, 2019: Apple today announced the long-rumored 16 inch MacBook Pro. It’s a direct replacement for the 15 inch model (it’s still the same price, even), but the most interesting part is the keyboard. This is the first Apple laptop since 2016 to not use the butterfly switch mechanism. And it’s probably just the first of what will eventually encompass the entire MacBook line: the 13 inch Pros, the Air and, well, not the MacBook. Because they did kill it, after four years (of which it received refreshes for only the first two).

Here’s how Apple describes the new keyboard. Yes, it’s Magic, which might be Apple’s word for “reliable.”

The 16-inch MacBook Pro takes workflow efficiency to a new level. The new Magic Keyboard features a refined scissor mechanism with 1 mm travel for a responsive, comfortable and quiet typing experience.

Original post:

The Wall Street Journal published a column today by Joanna Stern in which she reports that Apple’s butterfly keyboard used on its MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops is still having issues three generations in. This prompted Apple–currently facing a pair of class action lawsuits over the design–to offer an apology of sorts:

“We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry. The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.”

Apple didn’t say they were sorry for first or second generation butterfly keyboard owners, likely because every one of those keyboards is guaranteed a free keyboard replacement up to four years after purchase.

Apple has effectively admitted there are issues with all three generations of the butterfly keyboard. I have gone from hating the feel of the keyboard (mine is the dreaded first generation) to tolerating it. I’d prefer to have more travel on the keys and have them be quieter/less clicky, but could otherwise adapt to them. The third generation, with its silicone membrane is apparently a little less noisy, but I’ve yet to test it out in a quiet-enough environment to notice a difference. Also, the membrane apparently contributes to heat build-up, creating a new avenue for issues to arise.

All said, what John Gruber calls “the worst products in Apple history” are perhaps hopelessly flawed. I mean, if issues are still coming up after multiple fixes, maybe it’s time to move on to another design entirely?

The MacBook is overdue for a refresh. If Apple doesn’t kill it, the next version of it may show if Apple is staying all-in on what appears to be a fundamentally broken design, or gives up and goes for something else, like adapting the low-profile scissor switch design used in their external keyboards for their next generation of laptops.

I’m leaning toward the latter at this point, mainly because of today’s apology. It feels like the beginning of the groundwork to kill the butterfly design and bring in something butterfly-like, but with none of the fragility.

And while reading about this today, I came across PCWorld’s The 10 Worst PC Keyboards of All Time. The butterfly keyboard isn’t on the list, as it dates all the way back to 2007. Still, it’s a fun–and horrifying–read. It’s kind of amazing how many computer keyboards didn’t have a backspace key.

Bad design: Relying on images for words

A featured deal on the Kobo eBook site looks like this (this is not clickable and the deal may have ended ten years ago by the time you see this, so apologies if this was your most-anticipated book ever and you can’t buy it at the price shown):

Seems fine, right? Now imagine if for some reason the site wasn’t rendering the image of the book properly. Here’s the same ad, with the book cover obscured:

No big deal, right? But let’s say you don’t have time to click the Learn more link when you see it, so you make a note to check later. But later the ad is no longer in rotation. Still no big deal, because you made a note of the title of the book–oh wait, you didn’t, because if the image doesn’t display, the text has no mention of the book title anywhere. Whoops. And this is applied inconsistently as well, as here’s another featured ad from the same page and it does mention the title in the last paragraph:

This isn’t world-ending bad design, of course, it’s really more of a nitpick. Still, an ad for a book should perhaps mention the book, no?

Bad Design: SkyTrain stairs and elevators

There are various issues with the location and design of stairs and escalators across the entire SkyTrain system and I have posted about issues specific to the Canada Line, but for this I am going to focus on the station closest to where I live, as it is a good example of bad design.

First, let me note that the Millennium Line, opened in 2000, is overall an improvement to the Expo Line and its stations. The Millennium Line stations are spacious, completely covered for inclement weather (important for an area that gets a lot of rain), feature glass-enclosed elevators for better security, and each station has its own unique look, getting away from the cooke-cutter design of the Expo Line.

One area in which they went cheap was escalators. A lot of stations follow the one staircase/one escalator rule, where there is an up escalator to get people up to the platform, and a staircase to get them down. As cost-cutting measures go, it’s not the worst, but they are moving away from it now, because crowded stations and stairs are inefficient for getting people in and out quickly (see Lougheed Town Centre station, which added a down escalator at the north end, around the same time its third platform opened for the Evergreen extension).

At Sapperton station, both sides feature the one staircase/one escalator design. The problem here is that designers did not anticipate how people act. A lot of people will—quite logically, you could argue—take the path of least resistance. In this case, when someone exits a train, they will veer toward the closest route that will get them off the platform and out. At Sapperton this is the staircase, as it is closer to the platform than the up escalator. The up escalator requires the person to cross over the platform.

Now, you could argue the logic of this design is that having the staircase closer to the platform is more important, because it makes it easier for people to board a train. And that’s true. However, by putting the staircase closer, you inevitably increase the number of people using it and ignoring the escalator, which is farther away.

The end result is you get people both going up and down the stairs. This impedes people trying to get to the train, the very thing the designers were presumably trying to avoid. It also creates cross-traffic on the platform itself, as people exiting a train and using the up escalator must cross in front of the stairs.

During busy times, it’s a bit of a mess.

Now, if the stairs and escalator were reversed, you’d encourage people to take the escalator to leave the platform, plus you’d keep them from getting directly in the path of people coming down to board. People coming down would have to move slightly farther to get to the staircase at the top, but this would almost always be more efficient than putting them into the direct path of people leaving the platform.

Unfortunately, this design will never get fixed in existing stations and really, it’s too expensive to be worth the improvement in traffic flow, as nice as it would be. More happily, as mentioned earlier, it appears Translink is largely scrapping the use of stairs. An example is the remodelled Metrotown station, which previously had a single staircase and escalator at its east end. It was a huge bottleneck. The remodel opened up the west end of the platform and now there are four escalators (two up, two down) at both ends, vastly improving the efficiency in getting people in and out of this often crowded station.

So this is a case of bad design, but bad design recognized. Thumbs up, I say.

Bad design: The Canada Line

The Canada Line is the ALRT that runs from downtown Vancouver to Richmond, splitting off to either the airport or central/”downtown” Richmond. It opened for service in 2009 and one of its intended functions was to help move people from the airport to Olympic venues during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Obviously the construction of a subway is always going to be disruptive to the neighborhoods it goes through, but the Canada Line’s first bad design was the decision to use cut and cover tunnels for most of its route. Cambie Street is the main route the line follows and it literally follows it–being cut and cover, they dug up Cambie Street, keeping two of its six lanes open during construction–and laid down the subway route along the road, following the same route, including a prominent “bulge” around Queen Elizabeth park. Businesses sued over the construction, some went under or moved and in the end it was declared such a mess that the entire Millennium Line extension from VCC-Clark to Arbutus is going to be a bore tunnel.

But the construction was only the first tangible aspect of the bad design. Once open, the line revealed its other flaws to the public. Namely, it was built on the cheap and with no thought put into expansion.

  • The system only runs two-car trains, severely constraining capacity (it’s already maxed out at rush hour)
  • Stations are very small and often have multiple bottlenecks, leading to serious crowding issues
  • Fare gates are often too close to the platform, again because of the tiny size of the stations
  • The small stations means that even if they expanded trains to four cars–which they could do anytime–there would be no room for the trains at any of the current stations. They would literally have to dig out new space everywhere except for the above-ground stations in Richmond. Compare this to the Expo Line opened in 1986, where all platforms can accommodate six-car trains, even though they only ran four-car trains for many years.
  • Adding insult to injury, the Canada Line even started removing seats from some cars to allow more people to squeeze in, a terrible solution to overcrowding that will only drive (ho ho) people to seek alternatives. They fortunately stopped this after gutting a couple of cars, but the fact that they did it at all shows how inept the leadership is.
  • The terminus Brighouse station in Richmond is specifically not designed to accommodate any expansion of the system. When the train leaves the previous station, Lansdowne, it switches over to a single track. The Brighouse station is built specifically around that single track, meaning any expansion would require a massive and expensive retrofit. Compare this to the Millennium Line, which anticipated a future expansion to the Tri-Cities called the Evergreen Line, leading them to build the base infrastructure for a third platform at the Lougheed station, where they expected the Evergreen Line to hook up to the rest of the system. When funding finally got approved for Evergreen–more than a decade later–crews were able to build on and around the existing third platform, saving time and money.
  • The trains are seriously noisy when going around corners, the wheels shrieking like crazy. This does not happen to the same degree on the underground sections of other lines.
  • Even the choice to go with a Korean manufacturer was short-sighted, as it meant the system could not integrate with the two existing SkyTrain lines, perhaps saving money in the short term, but hobbling any overall integration in the long term.

Much of this can be laid at the feet of the former BC Liberal government, who wanted the line built cheap and fast. They got both of those, but what they didn’t get was the unspoken third part–good.

Fixing the Canada Line would be difficult and costly, but it will likely have to be done eventually, simply because it’s already reached its capacity. There’s no happy ending here.

Bad design: The easily-circumvented no-biking-for-you gate

Usually at lunch I walk the loop around the Langara Golf Course. It’s about 2.7 km total and is pleasant enough if the weather is decent. The path does not allow bicycles and there are a few signs to that effect at regular intervals.

Recently the point was made even clearer through the erecting of a pair of gates that are tricky for pedestrians to navigate, but downright hostile to cyclists. These are meant to discourage and turn back cyclists and in theory they should do just that.

Here’s one of the gates.

To bike: You shall not pass. Bike: Well, actually…

You can clearly see some people are winding their way through the gate. You can also clearly see enough people are walking around it to create two distinct side paths, one on each side. I am one of those people.

I have yet to see a cyclist navigate around this gate, but I’m reasonably confident that in time I will.

The other gate is up against a fence, so only one side can be passed on the outside, and it’s narrower, but people are working on it.

This is bad design.

These are probably prefab pieces or otherwise made to a standard size. But if the actual location they’re being used in makes them trivially easy to avoid (and it is trivial–in the one pictured above a jogger can deke around the gate without slowing down), there’s not much point, really. You’re just adding an inconvenience for all the people who walk the trail.

My preferred solution in this case would be to remove the gates. Unless there is a serious problem with constant crazed cyclists, there’s little value to be had in placing these obnoxious, easy-to-avoid barriers.