Inclusive design, standardization, and the iPod shuffle

Remember back in 2001, when in October, white headphones appeared everywhere seemingly overnight, and all of a sudden anything that wanted to be trendy and fresh was an i-Something? Since it was first unveiled, the iPod has captured the attention and devotion of users around the globe — initially just music lovers, but later users of all kinds of media.

So why is it that the iPod was as much a revolution (if not more) than the walkman? I would guess there were four major factors (and Leander Kahney and other commentators would agree with me):

  • The iTunes music store tie-in. In the past few years the iTunes music store has been heavily criticised for selling “DRM infected” m4ps that only play on Apple players, and to my mind this is a valid criticism (though one that is being eroded as music retailers come on board DRM free and competition opens up). However, in 2001, the music store was a music revolution — you could buy a whole bunch of stuff (some that was difficult to get any other way) on a per-song basis, legally and for a reasonable price. And it was all integrated with a device that you could cart all of it around on and play it on.
  • Meeting a need. The iPod was the first small device with long battery life and storage for a significant amount of music. And unlike travelling CD players, iPods almost never skipped. Way back when I bought my first iPod (I have a third generation 15 GB and a second generation 1GB Shuffle), in 2003, it weighed about as much as two CDs in their cases, took up much less space, and could hold about 3,500 songs. It still isn’t full, and my music goes with me when I travel.
  • Not a real iPod ad

  • Design and the cool factor. Apparently they white headphones were a happy accident, but they became iconic, and the iPod became a must have. The advertising campaign helped with this — the primary colours with silhouettes rocking out to their music grabbed people’s attention so much that people started making their own takes on them (as above), and services to iPod your own photos professionally popped up on the web.
  • Usability. Not only did the iPod do something that users wanted, it was easy to do it. The device, the music store, and the software are easy to install and use — and this didn’t happen by accident, it was a designed in feature. Some commentators go so far as to claim that the usability of iPods is the reason why people love them so much.

I don’t actually think usability alone can account for the emotion — I think it is the whole user experience of the right thing that is not only easy to use, but sexy as well.

So, imagine my disappointment to discover a fairly serious oversight in my shuffle. The second generation shuffle is designed in the shape of a clip (see below) . The clip is great, it clips onto clothing or backpacks readily and effectively. But it is designed for men, or more specifically, people who wear men’s shirts. This makes me feel just a little bit like my shuffle wasn’t designed for me, and if it weren’t for the shuffle being otherwise excellent, could affect how I feel about it.

For historical reasons, men’s and women’s shirts button in opposite directions — the buttons on men’s shirts are on the right, and women’s are on the left. Originally this was a usability consideration, men dressed themselves, and women were dressed by maids, so the buttons are closest to the right hand of the dresser — unfortunately, though, we have never moved past this even though women no longer have maids. The second generation iPod shuffle’s interface is up the right way (with the headphones going into the top) when it is clipped to a menswear shirt, but upside down (with all the functions going backwards and the headphone cord looping down and then pugging up into the iPod) when clipped to a womenswear shirt. This is particularly unfortunate, given that menswear is significantly more likely to have a pocket to clip the iPod to, and therefore an alternative where the interface is rotated 90 degrees rather than 180.

Now, this may seem like nitpicking, and it probably is — but for a company and a product that has such an excellent user experience track record, small disappointments like this (particularly when they affect 50% of the potential user population, though maybe slightly less of the actual user population) are surprising. What should Apple have done about it? Well, ideally clothing would all be changed so it was more usable in modern times, but given that this is wildly unlikely (because this is a standard, and they are notoriously hard to change), I would have suggested one of things:

  • An “equal-opportunities” user interface where the clip was vertical instead of horizontal
  • Selling left and right clipping iPod shuffles
  • Having a reversible clip.

Apple have a lot of it right, and I am not about to throw my shuffle out just because I have to work a little bit harder to find somewhere to clip it, but I do think this is an excellent example of how small things matter to a user experience, and that standardization isn’t always a great idea. Still, though…I’ve seen the iPod touch. And I want one.

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5 Responses to “Inclusive design, standardization, and the iPod shuffle”


  1. 1 tony Thursday, March 20, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Wow, I would never even have thought of that… because of course I wear men’s shirts. The clip should be able to rotate, or be designed so it can clip either way.

    Something like this maybe, a clothes peg designed to clip from either end. I should get some of these, I always seem to have my pegs the wrong way around when hanging out clothes.

  2. 2 kimtblogger Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    I have a touch and a recently purchased a shuffle. I used to run with the touch and found it is just too big and cumbersome. The shuffle is so non-intrusive when exercising. However the touch is perfect for train travel or surfing the net via wifi. I actually use it for as a productivity tool for work.

    I clip my shuffle to my waste band, pockets or t-shirt. I don’t wear shirts because of an aversion to ironing.

    But I am sure the designers didn’t think of it :o)

  3. 3 Rebecca Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    I wish my cat were cool enough to have an iPod.


  1. 1 Global corporate challenge only works for half the population « Dana’s user experience blog Trackback on Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 4:41 pm
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