The 0-1-N Fallacy

I don’t remember where I first heard the term “0-1-N Fallacy” (and Google doesn’t want to help), but I’m pretty sure I didn’t make it up. If anyone knows the source, please let me know so I can give credit where it is due.

 

The “0-1-N Fallacy” is a misguided design process based around the idea that if an application displays data records of some sort, it must handle exactly three cases – displaying 0 records, displaying 1 record, and displaying N records (where N can be any number from 2 – infinity)

 

The problem with the 0-1-N fallacy is that if you always design a product to scale to handle infinite records, you will invariably wind up with an overcomplicated user interface when N is a small number. In cases where N is almost always a small number, designing for unlimited scalability makes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

 

One simple example is the usage of radio buttons vs. select boxes. Radio buttons are almost always preferable to select boxes when presenting a very small amount of choices – because the choices are always fully visible. If you absolutely must handle a case of unlimited options, you have to go with the select box. But if 90% of the time, you only have a small amount of options, you’ve made life much harder for the vast majority of cases, to handle the extreme outlying cases.

 

It may seem heresy to most engineers to claim that anything less than infinite scalability is good enough, but in UI design that is definitely the case. The iPhone, for example can only have 9 web pages open at once. It probably has the memory to hold dozens more, but if it held dozens, it would have to abandon the extremely elegant UI of “flicking” thumbnails to move between pages, and use a clunky list instead.

 

It may also seem heresy to apply semi-arbitrary limits on presented data but that’s why UI design is sometimes more of an art than a science. It takes experience and confidence to tell a developer “I don’t care if your search algorithm can present 1,000 options – presenting 5 is what’s right for the user.”

 

Advertising vs. Product Design

I used to work in advertising. Now I work in product design.Advertising is kind of like product design in reverse. You take a product that already exists – that may have gone through hundreds of incarnations and several changes of direction – and you pick it apart, asking yourself:

“What is there about this product that just happens to be different from all of its competitors? What Big Idea can we convince people was the motivating force behind this product all along?” 

Dunkin’ Donuts is a huge client for Hill, Holliday. Their idea is: “America Runs on Dunkin’”. It’s a GREAT idea. Dunkin’ Donuts stores are everywhere. People go to them when they need a pick me up during their day. An ad agency took a fast food chain that was selling a lot of coffee and donuts and saw it for what it really was: a gas station for human fuel.Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t even realize what it was until an ad agency told them. The ad agency extracted a Big Idea from an existing product. That’s quite a skill, and for that I hold talented advertising people in the highest regard.But advertising and its “idea archaelogy” strikes me as a tactic of last resort for a company that forgot to put the Big Idea in in the first place. And I’d much rather spend my time working with companies that need help putting their Big Ideas into new stuff, than with companies that need help digging Big Ideas out of old stuff.But that’s just me.

The Omni Future Almanac on Inflation

A while ago, I bought one of the coolest books ever – the Omni Future Almanac. The Omni Future Almanac was written in 1982, and its purpose is to describe what life will be like, well, now.An entire blog could be devoted to the contents of this book. Sometimes it’s spot on, sometimes it’s way off, but the most interesting parts are the ones where life could easily have turned out they way they describe if a butterfly flapped its wings in just a slightly different way.I’ve kept this book on a table in my office that I always walk by, and I’m constantly picking it up and perusing a random page. Today, it was about the effects of inflation. So, without further ado, here are the prices we’re looking at in 2010, three years from now (p. 158).

  • Hamburger (1 lb.) $22.71
  • Dozen Large Eggs: $18.00
  • Magazine: $30.00
  • Calculator: $50.00 (he he)
  • Postage Stamp: $2.25
  • Cup of coffee: $4.50 (OK, they kind of got that one right, in a weird way)
  • Three Room Apartment Monthly Rent: $10,000
  • Three Bedroom House: $1,000,000

Oh, but wait:

  • Gallon of Gas: $2.00

Well, the good news is that a factory worker will be making $197,000 a year to help pay for all this stuff (p. 159).

My Take on Amazon Kindle

Another year another eBook reader.   Ignoring the Kindle’s circa 1981 industrial design, here’s a simple experiment to explain why eBooks will never succeed:

  1. Make a list of the top 10 biggest geeks you know
  2. Make a list of the 10 people you know who own the most books

Create a Venn diagram of these lists.If the geeks don’t want their books digitized, who does?

Leopard Has Been a Bummer, Overall

So, anyone on the fence about upgrading to Mac OS X Leopard, just… don’t. I mean, it’s not as much a step backward as going from XP to Vista, but I’ve found very little in it that has improved my life. In fact, I’ve spent a whole lot of time figuring out how to hack away most of its changes:

  1. Removing the horrible translucent menu bar. Here’s how I did it.
  2. Getting rid of the ridiculous 3D dock. Here’s how I did it.
  3. Changing the folder icons to ones that are, well, distinguishable. Here’s a good set.
  4. Getting rid of the abysmal Stacks. Oops, can’t be done. But putting Aliases instead of folders in the dock can help. You don’t get the “show-as-menu-mouse-button-hold” thing, but at least you can avoid the stupid Fan and Grid views, and use a recognizable icon.

I also have never gotten my Aiport Disk drives to work quite right in Leopard, and Time Machine, the one compelling reason to upgrade, required a hack to work with my wireless drives.And just as a final note, the OS has literally lost its sheen. Sure, early versions of brushed metal were a bit tacky, but I really miss the faint pinstripes, metal textures and other subtle effects. The totally flat gray widows of Leopard are just… blah.I guess there’s some good back-end stuff going on in the Leopard kernel and whatnot but nothing that’s really changed MY life. And, of course, you can’t sell a $129 OS upgrade to regular folks without throwing in some new whizbang features. But I get the feeling that (aside from the brilliant Time Machine) Apple just focused on the back end for Leopard, and threw in some entirely rushed and thoughtless UI changes just to give folks the impression that they were buying an improved experience. I wouldn’t say that Emperor Leopard has no clothes, but they’re wearing out as quickly as a $20 acrylic sweater.

Windows Live Writer and the Big and Small

Microsoft has a major Web 2.0 PR problem. I’m an avid blogger and I had never heard of Windows Live Writer (which has been in Beta for over a year) until now. It’s out of Beta and I’m using it to write this very post, and I have to say, this is a killer “desktop” blogging tool. I’ve tried out several, and this is by far the best I’ve ever used. Do get it if you’re a Windows-using blogger.If this program were developed by a small “Web 2.0″ startup, the blogosphere would be all over it, raving and gushing. But it’s by Microsoft, so it’s gone practically unnoticed.Microsoft is a purveyor of big, expensive software like Windows and Office. Any time they release a small, inexpensive/free, but totally useful program (the very essence of Web 2.0), it just automatically feels like a “throwaway” app. I’m wondering how they can shake this sort of bias. Clearly creating the “Live” brand is a step in the right direction, but I think they have a way to go.Is Web 2.0 not only about what is developed but who develops it? Spend enough time in the blogosphere and you realize that the conversations around products are often as much about the creators as the products themselves. Cults of personality are built up around single developers or small teams, and people root for the success (or failure) of the product based on these perceptions. This generates significant buzz.Can a truly successful Web 2.0 app be made by a small anonymous team in a small division of a giant corporation? Just putting that out there… I don’t know the answer.

ReQall – Way Better than Voice Memo for iPhone

As someone who often thinks up brilliant* ideas while driving, I’ve been looking for a safe way to make note of them in the car. I’ve got me this iPhone here, but it has no Voice Memo feature. Nor is it possible to leave myself a voicemail with it. (At least not without some crazy setup). What’s a guy to do?Well, I just discovered ReQall.com, and it is way cool. Just sign up, call a special phone number and leave a message whenever the urge strikes you. They will then take that message and transcribe it to text – using actual human beings – (you can request a no-human version if you’re paranoid, though you risk set so doubling the killer delete select all).You can then peruse your memos online later via the regular web or via a special iPhone interface.I’m not sure how these guys make money, but there are plenty of hooks in the system for them to throw ads into. Haven’t hit them yet, though, and I’d be willing to put up with an occasional commercial message for this service – as long as they don’t affect the memo recording process.* ideas may not be brilliant