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Yesterday I was talking to Jason, throwing around ideas for future directions in technology and media. A couple of posts back, I had a think about the MS Portable Media Centre and why I think that it is the wrong direction to be heading. Ideas like the Media Centre are a great example of features being added just because they sound cool, without thinking about whether they will actually be useful. I have the desire for a small, unobtrusive device that can play music. Unlike music, television and video are severely affected by the move to a small device. Taking this example, watching a video on a small screen is a far worse experience than listening to music on a pair of earphones.

One of the points we came to was that it is far better if a device does one thing and does that thing well, than is the jack of all trades, master of none. The Media Centre definitely falls into the latter category, at least at first glance. It’s large and heavy (comparatively) and so fails to be a conveniently small media player. It’s too small, though, to form an effective video watching platform and so isn’t attractive in that context either. Given the choice of other devices on the market, it’s hard to see any really attractive features in the product, at least from my point of view.

Far better is the device that does its single job well. The television has a nice large screen which is perfectly suited to watching, well, television on it. It remembers the channel you’re watching, to save you the time of changing to it repeatedly. A hi-fi is perfectly suited to playing music, with a design aimed at allowing you to listen as soon as possible. My hi-fi is full of small time-saving features. Instead of using the power button, you can just hit the Radio button to turn on the radio. Similarly, I just have to press the play button to play a CD. There is no searching through menus and hunting for the correct button to press.

Thought has gone into the use-cases of these items, to allow me to use them a simply and easily as possible. Buttons do what you expect them to. The display shows you what you expect it to. And so on, all features combining to give you a satisfactory experience of using the product.

Compare this to a device such as the Media Centre. Where is its focus? If I hit a play button, should it play my last video? My last song? Who knows. The interface has to be one of two things. Either it is the same for all functions, producing a consistent interface. Though consistent, it is one that neither excels for one thing or the other. The other option is to design different interfaces, designed for each type of media. This produces the best solution for each media type, but at the expense of consistency. Two differing interfaces on the same device would be exceedingly jarring for the user; involving mentally changing modes as you change media.

Having two devices allows for having two different interfaces in a much more friendly manner. Though the way I interact with my hi-fi differs substantially from the way I use the television I have no problem in using either. I think this is due to there being two separate and distinct physical devices. Humans are physical things. We are much better at differentiating between physical objects than purely visual ones. The two physical devices allow our brains to easily associate various usage patterns with each, rather than having a kind of ethereal switch between interface models present on hybrid devices. Physical cues are easier for us to interpret than purely conceptual ones.

At the moment there is a trend towards fitting as many functions into a single device as we possibly can; phones that play mp3s and other such things. I’d like to see some of the more clashing combinations, mp3 phones high amongst these, return to separate devices. Give me a phone to phone people and an mp3 player for mp3s: interfaces designed to help me phone and listen as easily and quickly as possible, rather than having to fight my way through a raft of complexity to do what should be a simple task.

Simple is where we should be heading, for none of us can be bothered to read the user manual. The best design is design you do not notice; subliminally conveying its message to you so that you do not have to think about how to use something, just about what you would like to do. The sooner everyone realises that, the better.

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