WRY not? 05.18.2007

A person going by the name of “WRY” left a comment on my previous post about the MADE in China computer design:

have you read thru his 10 page design presentation in his site? i really liked it!! Chopsticks might seem to you be hard to use, but everyone in China knows how to use them like a second pair of hands since 3 years old!

From this page and this page, all available clues indicate that WRY’s real name is John, and he’s affiliated with AARIVE. According to AARIVE’s website, John’s a designer at AARIVE, and one of the people who started the group.

Indeed, John is the creator and designer of the MADE in China PC.

This should underscore why honesty and transparency is so important online. Along with the recent exodus and exposure of JPG Magazine, there are all too many examples of how a modicum of research will reveal the truth.

John asked me to look through his 10 page presentation on his site. I will. I have. And here is what I think:

When designing, it is important that you never lose sight of the end goal. A design of a consumer device should serve the consumer in all aspects of the design. Function must equate to form must equate to function.

Likewise, the interface must have the user firmly in mind. Blind loyalty to a metaphor — and especially an incorrectly applied metaphor — will only yield confusion and frustration in the end.

As for my qualifications in discussing usage of chopsticks, I have been using chopsticks since the age of 3. I am comfortable with it, and can manipulate food with it as an extension of my fingers. My extended family are also within the target demographic of this design.

Pick and Drop

The Pick & Drop. One major problem should become almost immediately obvious: on a flat, 2-D surface, both ends of the chopsticks would need to be aligned and touch the icon in question.

Picking up an object in 3-D with chopsticks is a fairly easy task. There, you have depth to work with. Even if the tips of the chopstick are slightly misaligned1, it can be compensated by moving the sticks along the Z axis to ensure there is enough grip area.

The familiarity of a 3-D is another potential problem: as users of chopsticks, Chinese are used to pulling the target towards the face, rather than dragging the target along a parallel plane.

The Pick & Drop action superficially mimics the action of picking something up with chopsticks without truly considering the effects of a 2-D display on what is traditionally and practically a 3-D action.

Actions

Let’s go through these in order, left to right.

Pen & Eraser

This is even worse than Pick & Drop. This conflates two separate domains — that of writing with a pen/pencil and that of eating with chopsticks. It might be a shock, but Chinese people are able to both write and eat. And they use different tools to do so.

The pen part of the action requires holding the chopsticks in a staggered fashion. It requires the user to write in a wholly unnatural position, vaguely reminiscent of a brush yet different enough to be alien to even seasoned brush users.

Modern Chinese are not typically familiar or comfortable writing in the long shaft, high grip method. Like most people of the world, they use pens and pencils, and keep their grips short and towards the point.

Like the Pick & Drop, this attempts to mimic the action of using chopsticks to manipulate objects, but makes an even worse mistake: it totally ignores the more obvious and relevant domain of writing.

It trades an imminently familiar set of actions for a parody of an unrelated set.

Left & Right Click

Here’s a test: grab a pair of chopsticks. Without using the other hand, adjust so that one point is staggered outwards. Then retract and stagger the other.

Hard? You bet.

Now consider doing this in rapid succession.

Because that is exactly what will be required in your standard contextual menu use case. The user right clicks on a context, and left clicks on a menu choice.

There is also, again, a lack of consistency and coherence. Why is it that it is possible to use both points of the chopsticks to select an item to drag, but it is required to use only one tip — one specific tip — to highlight an item?

Rotation

A more apt name for this would be screwdriver. Because that’s exactly what you are doing. Expect you have even less range, because of the way that most Chinese hold chopsticks.

In the standard chopstick grip, you have around a 90 degree range in both directions.

Lid

I will admit that the lid is pretty smart. But there’s also a problem with it: it is far cheaper today, and most likely in the future, to create a strong flat material that can withstand bending than it is to create a folding blind of equal strength.

If the goal is to create a cheap, practical computer for the Chinese masses, a strong flat cover would be cheaper to produce and cheaper to repair with no major loss in utility.

In any case.

I haven’t even touched on the proposed infrastructure — some of which borders on the unrealistic.

John’s comment mainly address chopsticks, and so I have focused on primarily why chopsticks are a horrible metaphor to use.

As I said in the previous post, mimicry one facet of a culture does not necessarily equal catering to that culture. Mimic the wrong facet — or implement that mimicry only superficially — and you do your target demographic a grave disservice.


  1. Misaligned points are a common problem and occurrence in all Asian cultures. One, no matter how comfortable with chopsticks, cannot simply hold them completely aligned, as the mere fact of movement and utilization will misalign the ends.