Form over function

I often work with usability in online development projects, but I very often also notice counter-productive hardware design wherever I go. I can’t help wondering what the hardware designers were thinking of and if they ever tested it on humans before release?

Example from my local gym: they just installed new sinks in the dressing rooms. The first thing I noticed was the beautiful new water tap with a bright red ring of lights on top:



I then tried to fill my water bottle under this tap, for my upcoming spinning class. I started to look for how to turn the water on.

My first try was to wave my hand under the water nozzle, since it looked like one of those taps that starts automatically when you put your hands under the nozzle.

Nothing happened.

So I thought: Maybe this little lever on the side is not  for lifting the sink plug as it looks like, maybe it controls the water flow?

But nothing happened when I turned the lever.

So then I figured there could only be one route left, to press the red ring on the top with my finger.

And voilà, water emerged!

But it was lukewarm, and I wanted cold water from my bottle, (in Stockholm we drink the tap water you know).

So how could I regulate the temperature? Well, now I was getting impatient and a bit irritated, my spinning class was about to start.

So I peeked around the tap and found that there was indeed  blue and red marker arrows on that little lever on the side, the one I thought was for controlling the sink plug (since that is the way a majority of sink plug levers look around the world) but since the markers are very small and turned 90 degrees to the side it is very hard to detect them.

So I thought this was rather stupid interface design, but perhaps there was a hi-tech finesse in that red light on top, it perhaps turns blue when the water is cold?

So I turned the lever in the direction of the blue arrow, and indeed, the water turned cold, but the light stayed red.

And as soon as I held my water bottle under the nozzle, the water stopped coming.

Turns out the tap is timer-regulated to save water, and I had spent 90% of the time looking for the water temperature control.

So I again pressed the red lights on the top and finally managed to fill my water bottle with cold water. All this only took me a minute, but it should not be necessary.

When I got back from my spinning class the dressing room was full of men, so I started to observe how they handled the new taps. Not a single person was able to get the water out of them without either experimenting like me, or asking others how it worked.

These taps are beautiful and probably quite expensive as they are electric and have those red LEDs on top. I wonder if the manufacturer ever tested it on real users?

Anyway, a very simple device like a water tap should not require instructions, they should be intuitive to operate.

Google acquires Omnisio: YouTube gets even more interactive tools

Google is in high-speed pursuit now of new functionality for YouTube.  Google has acquired one of my favourites: Omnisio, a US company offering a very smart and nicely designed video service. Omnisio allows you to share compilations of different videos in a simple way, but their most interesting service is a video player with embedded user comments, tagging and a very nice synchronized slide timeline.

See this example, a speech by Paul Graham, entrepreneur and founder of the US incubator Y Combinator, (who backed Omnisio):

I really like the divided video window with the slides to the left and the live video to the right, with the slide timeline at the bottom, it is intuitive that you can navigate by clicking in the time line. This is the best user interface I have seen for speeches!

The Omnisio founders say this about being integrated with YouTube/Google:
“We believe we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what’s possible with online video, and we are really looking forward to taking the video viewing — and creating — experience to the next level.”

YouTube says this about acquiring Omnisio:
“…having this kind of talent at YouTube should help us further explore ways to enhance your YouTube experience.”

Indeed! As I have said before: we are only at the beginning of a marvellous online video development!

Henrik 🙂

PS. Google and I seem to have the same nose for interesting internet-based applications 😉

  • In the summer of  2005 I tested the brand new YouTube video service and thought that it was going to become a big hit since it was so easy to use. YouTube was acquired by Google in Nov 2006.
  • I started using an online word processor app called Writely in august 2005, they were acquired by Google in March 2006 and turned into Google Documents, which I have been using heavily ever since.
  • Jaiku is a Finnish microblogging system that I am fond of since meeting the brilliant co-founder, Jyri Engeström at a conference in Stockholm in Nov 2006. Jaiku was acquired by Google in Oct 2007.
  • In May 2008 Omnisio launched their app for synching slides with video presentations, I loved it immediately for its beautiful and intuitive interface and smart annotation tools. Well, Google acquired them on July 30, 2008…

Voice-to-text is the next video killer app!

As I have written before in my post Empowering internet video, automatic voice-to-text for online videos is already here. It means that any words spoken in a video is automatically transcribed into text.

The transcribed text can be shown in the video window or be used to search for the part of the video where something of particular interest is said. This is of course very powerful for videos from speeches and seminars etc, but there are many more possibilities such as automatic translation.

I have said for some time that this will become the 2008 killer application for online video.
So I’m not  surprised that Google just started adopting it on YouTube. They start now in a moderate way with US presidential campaign videos:

Try it: search the election videos  here. Your search term is highlighted in yellow lines in the video timeline, point your mouse to the lines to see snippets of the transcript. See also an interview with Steve Grove, head of news and politics at YouTube.

I am convinced that Google and YouTube will go full ahead with voice-to-text services, for several reasons:

Video has many advantages but two major drawbacks:
1. It is hard to search video content. Most videos can only be searched by their titles or meta tags.

2. It is time consuming to watch. A 5 minute video takes 5 minutes to watch, but a text that takes 5 minutes to read normally can first be glanced through in 15 seconds to give you an idea of what it is about and let you decide to read it, all or not.



Voice-to-text solves both these problems effectively! Search engines can search for anything said in a video and it is easy to create video controls that lets the user jump directly to the interesting parts in the video, for example by clicking on a word in the text transcript or in a word cloud.


Exact information of the media content is a key factor for all kinds of monetization. Voice-to-text enables targeted video ads in a much more effective way. This is undoubtedly a key factor for Google’s interest in this technology. The obvious start is to integrate it with Google’s Adsense and include video commercials in search results. But it will be much easier for all the new online video sites to create valu-adding business models with this technology.

Another giant step for voice-to-text technology will be taken later this year when Adobe reportedly will integrate it into their Flash technology, thereby enabling it to a vast majority of all internet users.

So, 2008 will indeed be a breakthrough year for a more powerful and interactive online video!