Sunday, September 30, 2012

Speculating About The X37-B's Secret Mission

I love reading about black ops programs. I'm not a conspiracy theory kook, but top secret military/espionage yarns are really appealing to me. That's why I like reading Tom Clancy, and speculating about things such as what the heck is the X37-B doing in space?

For those not in the know, shame on you. The X37-B is an experimental plane that had been in space for quite a while. No one knows for sure what it was doing while it was out in space: But it was doing something in its experiment bay that was ostensibly being tested or evaluated.

A lot of people have looked at the design of the X37-B to come up with its "top secret" purpose. Frankly, I think this is barking up the wrong tree.

The X37-B looks like a mini space shuttle that can maneuver in space remotely. With the space shuttle program shutting down, the U.S. military needs a way to get back up there. The X37-B is one way of doing so fairly quickly. So who cares about the X37-B? It's an unmanned bus to space.

To solve the mystery of the X37-B, the trick is not to focus on the what – but on the why.

Why does the Air Force want to be up in space? Let's make a list, shall we?
  • The ability to install new satellites
  • The ability to destroy enemy satellites
  • The ability to protect an existing satellite via weapons
  • The ability to hide an existing satellite via stealth technology
  • The ability to deploy a highly maneuverable satellite (including itself as a satellite)
  • The ability to repair, recharge, refuel and upgrade (and yes, rearm) military satellites
  • The ability to test components and modules for future satellites, specifically with regard to image resolution and quality
Now let's try to rank these into buckets of likelihood. The payload of the X37-B seems to small (and too cost-prohibitive) to launch or place new satellites in orbit. Ditto for carrying weapons to destroy enemy satellites or protecting satellites via weapons (i.e. anti-missile or rocket jamming technologies).

The last three are intriguing to me. What if the Air Force could develop stealth satellites that aren't visible? What about disguising a satellite as space junk? What if the X37-B was designed to carry stuff that could protect or hide the exact location of a satellite, either by serving as a target decoy or employing anti-missile technologies to zap a missile before it reaches the target satellite?

Obviously, the X37-B is a great (if expensive) "rent a satellite" plane so that it could be scrambled relatively quickly to monitor a hotspot somewhere in the world. In that context, it makes sense that an X37-B would be used to test components and modules for future satellites without going through the expense of a whole launch.

Even more intriguing is the fact that the X37-B is very maneuverable in space and able to get to other satellite locations fairly easily. What if the payload carried two arms? One to grab the satellite, the other to repair, recharge, refuel and/or upgrade components. With the Space Shuttle out of commission, this seems like a very important mission.

I know there's no hard evidence to back up anything, but my gut says that the payloads are for testing future satellite technologies only, and nothing more exciting than that. Feel free to respond if you have your own theory…

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Why the LG Intuition Is Destined To Fail

I could've saved LG millions of dollars if they had come to me first and shown me a prototype of the Intuition. I'd give them a lesson of what NOT to do when it comes to product design, and the three things you need to make a product truly successful.

But before we begin, let's give you the UXUiOS philosophy when it comes to great design.

At its core, design is simply problem solving. How do I clean my butt after I poop? How do I keep my teeth clean? How do I make a phone call?

As a designer, we can brainstorm to come up with thousands of ways to solve these problems. But we are paid to find the best way. So how do we get to that "magical" zone that is incredibly awesome design?

Simple. All design can be measured with these four benchmarks:

1. It solves my problem.
2. The solution is easy to use.
3. I need it now.
4. I want it … now!!!

To see how this works, let's focus on this problem: How do you clean your butt after you poop? Perhaps a crude choice, but it's one everyone can identify with.

With #1, that's a pretty low hurdle to jump. You can come up with thousands of ways to solve this problem: A garden hose, compressed air blasts, your fingers, etc. All design solutions start here but the bad designs tend to stay stuck here.

Getting to #2 is where functional design lives. Toilet paper is a good example for this #2 (get the joke?) because it solves the problem AND is easy to use. Much easier to put a roll of toilet paper in your bathroom than a connection to your garden hose.

Between #2 and #3 is when we begin our transition from getting from the solution to a specific product or design. So if toilet paper is #2, then we focus on specific designs, (i.e. such as those for Charmin and Angel Soft) to get any higher.

Getting to #3 is where marketable design lives. Sometimes, good design comes from consumer perception and advertising (whether accurate or not). Sometimes, it's in the quality of workmanship. Sometimes, it's in getting great value for the price. And sometimes, it's because it really is a good design.

In our case, most brands of toilet paper never reach this #3 level because frankly, you can't improve too much on the functional design of toilet paper: flexible, flushable, tears into squares, cleans the butt.

Charmin and Angel Soft may have added some unique design to make their products stand above the rest (i.e. thicker paper, more ply, softer feel) -- but frankly, the only reason they trigger someone to say "I need this specific brand now" is because of advertising and/or a good sales price. Their product designs may indeed be better, but really, it's advertising that gets any toilet paper to #3.

So how do you get past #3 to #4, which represents the world's best designs? Well, unless there's some revolutionary breakthrough in how we think about cleaning our butts after pooping, toilet paper will never make it to #4.

A good rule of thumb too is that when you reach level #3, you'll have competition, so the goal is to rise above the rest to really shine. Also, the more expensive the product, the more likely you'll need to reach #4 to really succeed.

Apple's iPhone is an obvious example of a #4: When it came out, there were tons of competitors with phones, but thanks to really good design, great advertising, and the perception of desirability thanks to the first two factors, it made people say "I want it … now!!!"

In the context of what I do for a living (user experience and interface design), I come up with mobile software solutions to solve my client's problems. If I phone in the design, I'll get to #2. If I want my clients to be happy with my design, I'll need to get to #3. But the only way I'll wow my clients and get repeat business and good referrals is if I can take my designs to #4 and make them and their customers say, "I want that ... now!!!"

So when both you and your clients see a design and you all agree, "I want that ... now!" you've probably got a great design in hand (either that or you're all too blind to see how bad it really is).

That's a deep dive in thinking about design, but simply put, you can hold up any product design to see if it can hit those benchmarks. So let's return to the LG Intuition and discuss.

So what problem does the Intuition purport to solve? It's a device that lets you use it as a tablet as well as a smart phone.

Right off the bat, I'd tell LG that they're breaking one of my core design principles, which is focus. They're attempting to solve two problems rather than just one. This makes coming up with a great #4 solution much much harder than if they just focused on one or the other.

That's a potential "uh oh" red flag -- but let's assume LG did their homework and did research that said there's a market for such a solution. Does the Intuition reach #1? Does it solve the problem?

Based on other reviews out there, the answer seems to be yes. Larger screen in a 4:3 format, but small enough to make phone calls.

How about benchmark #2: Is the solution easy to use? Again, based on other reviews, it seems easy enough to use. The browser seems to be slow, but overall it works just as you'd expect.

But getting to #2 is easy. Now we get to #3: Do people need the Intuition?

Right now, we're getting in trouble here with the Intuition. There are already lots of phones that can do similar things, even though they may have smaller screens. There are already lots of tablets that can do similar things, even though they can't place cell phone calls.

And we get to the beauty of these benchmarks. You can build a good solution to a problem, but if nobody needs it or wants it, the solution will fail to be marketable. Maybe if LG can use some great advertising and create the (what I would contend is false) perception that people actually need this, then there might be some hope. Alternatively, they can drop the pricing so that buyers get to #3 and #4 via a great price point (Remember the HP Touchpad? No one really wanted or needed one until it dropped to $99).

Frankly, looking at the selling points of the Intuition, I don't see anything I need. Tablet-like versatility? If I really needed a tablet … wouldn't I just buy one without being locked into a phone contract?

Aspect ratio ... who cares? In fact, reviews say the 4:3 screen is pointless for widescreen video.

Quick Memo? Why not just tweet the screen shot or email it to a friend with a text comment?

At the end of the day, the Intuition addresses the problem … but it's a solution that nobody needs or wants.

And that is why the LG Intuition is destined to fail.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fixing Yahoo! Mail in iOS 6

Long story short, couldn't get Yahoo! Mail hooked up again on my iPhone, even though it was working in 5.1. I got the "Yahoo! Server Unavailable" when trying to verify the account.

There are a few solutions floating around (delete the iOS Mail account and re-create it, or change your password on Yahoo! and log out/log in to the web site), but the only one that worked for me in iOS 6 was NOT selecting Yahoo! but Other as the account and setting it up manually. Specifically, the servers are:

For the incoming and outgoing mail servers. Working fine now.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mobile Web Site Review: (Part 1)

One of my often-visited web sites is, a local news site that covers my community.

Instead of going the native app route, they created a mobile-optimized site that seems to be a template of some sort. For this review, I won't focus on the template or its CSS, but some content-driven tips that would make the site more user friendly. Hopefully to give them some free design suggestions and also give you some things to consider when designing a mobile-optimized web site.

Too Many Words: For a mobile site, word economy is key. Take the screen shot below:

Let's edit that stuff to make it mobile friendly: "News Articles" and "Blogs" for the title. "Full Site" for the bottom link. And shorten that note...

Add to your home screen: On iOS, tap the "Action" icon in the toolbar and select "Add to Home Screen." On Android, bookmark our site then add a bookmark shortcut to your home screen.

Even better, detect whether the device is iOS or Android and show just the instructions for that device.

Not Enough Words: Huh? Doesn't this go against everything I just said?

Not really. In the screen above, the latest comments have five or six words. That's not enough to get a sense of what the commenter is saying. It needs to be two or three lines of text at least so you have enough information to decide whether to read the full comment or not.

Also, since we know these are "Latest Comments" we can strip the words "Posted:" and "2012" from the detail line. If it were me, I'd add JavaScript so that if the date was today, it would just post the time or read like "1:01 AM today" to help decipher when the newest comments were posted.

Better Comments: Again, just some ideas to reduce scrolling. The title above could've easily renamed "193 Comments" (let's not assume all commenters actually read the article), which would get the "Add Comment | Comment Policy" on one line.

Another suggestion is for users to be able to give comments thumbs up and thumbs down so that the comments voted best appear at the top. I know that breaks the reverse chronology aspect, but let's be frank: Do you really think people are going to wade through 193 comments on a phone? Let's save them that trouble by letting commenters vote on other comments.

To wrap up, overall is a good mobile web site. I think these suggestions would make it even better.

Hands-On iPhone 5 OtterBox Defender Case Review: First 24 Hours

IMPORTANT UPDATE (Sept. 28, 2012)

Ha! The OtterBox I bought at the AT&T Store must have been defective, a one-off, a manufacturing variant, or a prototype version. I got a second case in the mail today from MacMall and it's PERFECT compared to the one I bought last week. The revised review is below.

Caveat: As an iPhone developer, on-the-go consultant, and person who frequently lets tech-savvy rugrats use his iOS devices, I am a heavy duty OtterBox user. I've tried lots of cases from many brands, but the combination of heavy-duty durability, splash-resistant design, and ability to withstand lots and lots of abuse made me one of the early adopters of OtterBox. 

So yes, I'm a fan, but I'm not afraid to speak out when OtterBox makes mistakes (don't get me started again on the first-gen iPad 2 Defender case). Of course, it's all relative: An average OtterBox case in my view is a great case compared to competitors. But I expect nothing but the best from OtterBox when it comes to their products.

I should also point out that I've never received anything from OtterBox other than the products I paid for myself out of my own wallet. So when you read this review, it's my product, my experience, my opinion. I'm writing this review because I use this stuff every day, and I'm intimately familiar with all of OtterBox's Defender offerings as a point of comparison: iPod touch, iPad and iPhone.

So let's get on with it.

I picked up my Defender on launch day plus one at the AT&T Store.  Got a second Defender from MacMall today. I know this comes in different colors but all my cases have been black.

My first impression was that it's NOT all black. The plastic is actually tinted a dark gunmetal gray that seems to try and match the gray texture of the back of the iPhone 5. This is a departure from every other black Defender case I had in which the plastic and rubber shell were matching black colors.

The different color was enough to make me ask AT&T to make sure I grabbed the right color, but the back tag said black.

Weird, the AT&T "black" Defender is almost gray. But I couldn't find that variant on OtterBox's web site. So I'm not sure what's going on with the case colors, but I suspect that AT&T messed up the label on its custom packaging because my second one is perfectly black. Very happy now.

Assuming my case wasn't defective, I don't care about the color too much. As I write this, looking at it next to the iPhone 4 case (pure black), it's different. Not good, not bad, just different.

My only complaint, I suppose, is that based on the official product picture above from OtterBox, the black colors look a lot closer on screen than they do in person.

The big change from the iPhone 4 Defender case used on my previous phone is the rubber case. The iPhone 4 rubber was flexible and squishy. The iPhone 5 rubber is more textured and much stiffer. Once you lock it into place, it's locked in tight. I like this rubber much more, although my concern long-term is whether the port covers will be prone to cracking since the rubber's so stiff (which happened to my old 2G iPod touch case). But the iPhone 5 rubber feels really nice for gripping. It also seems like it'll stay cleaner compared to the iPhone 4 version (that rubber seemed to attract dust easily).

Fit and finish is really great, once again OtterBox does not disappoint. If I had to nitpick at two things, it's that the back camera plastic border ever so slightly distorts the fit of the rubber around it. It creates a tiny wavy gap in the bottom left and a slight bulge on the top.  Also, on the bottom face, there's a noticeable gap between the port cover and the top, to allow easy opening ... but it looks odd visually because the plastic and rubber don't line up exactly.

But this is nitpicking to the nth degree. I've been so spoiled by the PERFECT fit of the Defender Case on my new iPad that set the bar absurdly high. You'd only notice these nitpicking things if you stared at the case all day. (And if it really did bother me I could call OtterBox and they'd replace it without hesitation.) But it doesn't worry me enough to even bother.

Guess what, the second case I got fits PERFECTLY. NO imperfections. I was so jazzed to see this.

The case feels great in your hand. Yes, I know, using a case defeats the purpose of owning a super-slim phone, but I've been using Defender cases for so long, that it's hard for me to type on an iPhone without having the edges to help grip it. The original Defender Cases were pretty bulky, but ever since the iPhone 4 version they're really slimmed down without sacrificing protection. The iPhone 5 case also continues that trend.

One side benefit of this case: The bottom plastic creates a small speaker "tunnel" that amplifies the sound when you point the bottom speakers at you. I don't know if it's the case design, the larger speaker port, or the combination of both, but the net effect is a much louder sound that comes out compared to my other phones.

Of course, the big selling point to OtterBox is its durability: Drop it, spill on it, splash it, and yes, dunk it (in a bathtub, it happened once), once it dries out, it's still as good as new. I'm eternally shocked that every time I remove an iPad or iPhone from its Defender Case that it looks brand new (except for the dusty areas which are easily wiped off with a microfiber cloth). If you think of your phone as an investment and want to protect it, if you're outdoors a lot with your phone, or if you have little kids who use your phone, you must have this case for peace of mind.

I know these cases are pricy, but do the math: Drop an unprotected phone once, and a repair replacement with Apple may set you back $50 or more. I've dropped my phone so many times that it's paid for itself in preventing damage or a trip to the Genius Bar for repair.

As for the belt clip ... honestly I've never ever used the belt clip. It looks pretty big and durable, but the whole point of a heavy-duty case is so I can slip it into a pocket.

Frankly, I'd be happy if they sold the clip separately and charged less for the case.

Another thing I love about OtterBox is their customer service. They stand behind their warranty, and if something isn't up to my standards, they've offered to fix it with no hesitation.

Well, if you haven't guessed, overall I'm giving two VERY big thumbs up to the iPhone 5 Defender case. Not as Just as perfect as the new iPad case (which I believe is their best-ever designed Defender case for any device I've used), but built solidly with everything I've grown to expect from an OtterBox product. And I like it enough to recommend it to my fellow developers and clients who use apps out in the field under adverse conditions.

P.S. I'd love to hear your comments, especially if you disagree or recommend another case you think is better. I battle-test all sorts of cases as an iPhone developer. If you're a company who'd like me to review your case, I'm open to suggestions -- but only if you think your heavy-duty case is awesome enough to pull me away from using OtterBox exclusively.

P.S.S. If you're from OtterBox and happen to read this ... where the heck are those Armor Cases? I'm eager and impatient to see the iPhone 5 case that just might replace this one.