Elsevier’s Identity

Elsevier's Identity Design

For days I have been going through papers published by Elsevier. It was only by sheer chance that I discovered their identity. What an effort for a print based solution! Not only is it dense and full of details, it also seems to convey Elsevier’s image to its audience.


I worry about Interfaces.

“I worry about Interfaces”.. I guess I could say this after being for a while in a state of utter discomfort with narrower definitions of Interfaces.  Such a state has often brought me to say that “I’m not going to do UI design at all”.

But now I’ve come to believing that the definition or rather an understanding of User Interface is a problem. Most of the UI designers deal with Interface design at levels of digital interfaces, Web applications, Mobile and Tablet apps. What they deliver is a set of Wire-frames and UI screens depicting task flows and user interactions. And perhaps that’s where the idea of User Interface design seems to cease. This cease of imagination is often coupled with a bit of bitterness of doing the same job again and again. It is precisely here that the industry and the UI designers need to expand the understanding of User Interfaces. Probably with an expansion of the definition industry will be able to find diverse clients and could discover newer sectors. On the other hand it would for sure bring some satisfaction to a UI designer’s job.

So what this expanded notion of User Interface is? I would introduce you to Bruce Balentine here. I’m bringing him in this discussion not because what he explains as Interface is music to ears but more because it encompasses a larger picture of Interfaces. He says that interfaces can be thought of a layer sandwiched between two different and incoherent systems. These systems are incoherent to the extent that it would be unimaginable for these systems to communicate without the presence of an Interface layer. Thus, in a sense, an interface layer is a double sided tape that sticks to one system at one side and to the other system at another side. It exists on the condition that it can facilitate better communication between the systems at either sides. It ought to have connections for each system. Maintaining this differential while supporting communication between two incoherent systems at either sides is the primary function of the Interface. This is quite insightful indeed. Imagine a washing machine where at one end is a complex circuitry of electric motor, driving belts, washer and drier and at other end is a human agent. In an absence of  Interface i.e. a series of buttons, knobs, scales and readers; it would be almost impossible for a human  agent to operate a washing machine. The interface layer carefully hides one system from another but assists communication between them. With such a lucid but flexible idea of Interfaces one can say that we have always been designing interfaces if not the products. Most of the things that we see around now, ranging from transportation, household appliances, safety appliances to numerous other discrete products are simply Interfaces in one way or the other. Isn’t it?

Buy first the sleekness and then grave for staying sturdy.

The hand held gadget market is rolling at its best these days. Its not rare to spot smart tablets of different sizes and cell phones with bigger screens supported over android or apple platforms. The consumers seem to be happy too though I have few of those walking towards me while trying to establish a Wifi internet connection. Anyways I don’t intend to comment on the software of these products in this post. Instead I would love to write about an interesting observation here. These smart tablets and iPads typically have sleek, minimalistic and clean designs with rounded corners. With a glossy finish these products look wonderful in a consumer’s hand. But stay there for a while and you will see that the person is barely in a position to keep these hi-end tablets and pads in his hand confidently. Most often he could be seen taking special care while handling these products. The fear that the tablet or the cell phone will slip off from your hand is quite evident. And then just next to the tables where these gadgets are put for sales, lies a series of bags and jackets. The manufacturer of these bags, jackets and stands advertize by saying that they know how to keep your favorite gadgets ‘safe’. And then you spot the same consumer with a reincarnated version of these gadgets in their reinforced skins. So whats the point? The aesthetic for which one buys these gadgets gets compromised so soon. I wonder how designers would address this? They have rounded off the corners to make it look sleek and humanistic but they had to also offer you additional ‘designed’ material to make these corners sturdy. Doesn’t it ask for a little more- in terms of considering the overall ecosystem of the product.

A $2 app – fun unlimited

For the past two days we were working towards creating an iPhone app for the hearing impaired users. The application will enable an iPhone to be used as a hearing aid. Figures show that people with partial or complete loss of hearing includes a large number of elderly population. We thus choose elderly as the target user group for this application.

We try to suggest  a design solution at three different levels:

1. At the level of information architecture: We decided to keep the application essentially a simple one. We had to drop some of the advanced features for the pilot release. The application currently enables this user group to hear the surrounding sounds with an amplification. However users have also been provided with an ability to record different sounds which they consider as noise and then use this application to cancel these sounds as noise filters. Advanced features like managing noise profiles according to different usage scenarios are not taken into consideration at this stage.

2. At the level of usability: A short user study revealed that elderly users often find themselves lost while trying to understand visual clues like icons or graphic based buttons. Rather they prefer a step wise approach by carefully reading the text based instructions. Now the challenge was to come with action buttons with explicit text messages while staying crisp and precise. We also considered resizing the default “active or hit” areas for these buttons to be of a little larger size.

3. At the level of visual design: An apparent strategy of creating a visual contrast is followed. Besides we use iPhone library for creating visual design for this UI.

We plan to improve this application and are looking forward for any user feedback. The application is currently priced at $2. By-n- large as a short project, it was quite a fun for everyone in the team 🙂

For app news, Click here.

Managing a research group vs. a product group

Today we got an opportunity to listen to Dr. Richard (Rick) Rashid who came to deliver a talk at IIT Bombay. He has an acclaimed career first as an academician at CMU and then as Senior VP Research at Microsoft Research Worldwide. He deliberated on relevance of basic research and its values. Reacting to one of the questions at the end of his talk, he said something quite interesting. He pointed out the difference between managing a research group and a product group. From a stakeholder’s perspective, it is more productive for a research group to be adventurous in spirits and to be able to take higher intellectual risks. But this demands that they should be given a highly stable platform. On the other hand a product group operates by aligning itself to well defined deadlines and deliverable at different stages. They work by committing themselves to established process charts and guidelines. They often run into dangers of being redundant in the changing market environments. It is seen to be important many a times to reshuffle the composition of a product group to account for changes in market requirements.

One can thus say that a research groups relies on stability to produce varying (unstable) results while a product group suffers from instability its composition owing to its commitment to produce stable results. Insightful, isn’t it?