Tech We Love and Love to Hate
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Normally, people love good products and hate bad ones. But three of the most lovable and popular tech offerings are in fact horribly designed and conspicuously flawed.
Facebook is one of the worst-designed Web sites on the Internet. Status Updates, the so-called News Feed, Posted Items, the Inbox, your Wall and categories of messaging and content are scattered (or buried) almost randomly.
Why is there both a "News Feed" and a "Live Feed"? Why can you choose to get "Less about Joe Schmo," but not "Nothing about Joe Schmo"? Why can't you easily select a "lifestream" mode that gives you everything in a single, linear feed? It's as if Facebook was never introduced to the idea that simplicity is good.
Facebook recently offered a redesign. The new design was optional until it became clear that nearly everybody hated the new design, at which point they forced it on everyone.
But you know what? We love Facebook anyway.
Facebook actually connects people, and gives us a very real emotional feeling of connectedness. Old friends from high school, far-flung relatives, former co-workers -- suddenly we're part of their lives again, and they're part of ours.
The Amazon Kindle eBook reader is one of the worst consumer electronics products ever produced. (Fortunately, it appears that Amazon will announce a newer and better one Feb. 9).
Design-wise, the Kindle looks like a Star Wars-branded Etch-a-Sketch from the 70s or 80s.
If anyone on the Apple design team would have even proposed something like the Kindle, they would have been escorted out of the building by security, their mug shot tapped on the wall at the reception desk and their MobileMe account canceled for life.
More than two thirds of both outside edges of the Kindle are page-turning buttons, and the remaining third of the top surface is covered by a keyboard. It's almost impossible to handle a Kindle without pushing buttons.
When you press the rolling dial button, the default selection on the menu that pops up is -- wait for it! -- "Close" the menu. The designers assume that every time you push the main button, the most likely scenario is that you made a mistake and want to close it right back again.
The battery compartment lid slides off at the smallest provocation. When you slide the Kindle out of its leather cover, the battery lid usually stays behind.
There's literally nothing good about the physical Kindle gadget, except for the readability of text on the screen. Despite this, we Kindle owners love them. Why?
There's something about the combination of free, always there mobile broadband and access to the world's largest online book store. Daily newspaper subscriptions of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and others just show up in the middle of the night, even if you're out of town. Read about a new book in one of those newspapers, and you can buy, download and start reading that book in less than 30 seconds.
The main reason we love Kindles is that when you're reading on one, the gadget itself kind of vanishes, and you become fully immersed in the content just as you do with a paper book.
Last (and possibly least) is Digg.
Digg presents itself as a meritocracy -- or, at least, a democratic process for selecting the best stories. If you are first to post a great story, and add a crisp, illuminating headline and concise, entertaining summary, Digg users will vote your story to the front page for all to see, right? But everyone knows this isn't the case at all.
You could post the most important story of the year, and it would sit there with one Digg until the end of time. Then two days later, someone else comes along and posts another link to more or less the same story. If they're driving traffic to Digg from the outside, or skillfully working the social networking tools from the inside, their story will hit the front page in three hours.
See how this is biased? Being first to post an awesome story benefits users. Driving traffic to Digg and playing social networking games, well, those benefit Digg's advertising business.
The stupidest thing about Digg is content categorization, which is obscenely partisan and laughably naive. Huge categories of content types and intellectual content are totally absent. For example, there's no category for research & development. Nothing for opinion columns (other than "Political Opinion). Zilch for how-to information.
Meanwhile, Apple gets its very own category. Politics gets three categories. Gaming gets a whopping six categories. But religion and sex? Zero! I guess religion doesn't matter and nobody's interested in sex. . .
The categorization of content on Digg appears to reflect the comfort zones of the designers more than the realities of online content.
But, boy, do we love Digg anyway. Digg is messy and ugly and nonsensical, but just hit that front page and start browsing stories. It's one of the few places on the Internet where you can be guaranteed of being entertained by amazing quantities of incredible stories, videos and photos.
These three horrible products prove that you don't have to get everything right in order to be loved by the masses. You just have to get something very important right. And all three of these do that.
In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.