Tag Archives: “Inappropriate Touch” Interfaces

“Hair Coach”–with App

In recent years, CES has become an undisputed epicenter of gadgets, so I can’t let the occasion pass without at least one addition to the Inappropriate Touch Screen Files.

I’ll skip the boneheaded “Catspad”, which isn’t particularly new, and certainly makes you wonder who would want this.

I think the winner for today is the “Hair Coach”, which uses a “Smart Hair Brush” to offer you “coaching” on your hair care.

The brush itself has a microphone to listen to the hair as it is brushed (which I think is slightly cool—some kind of machine learning using the crackle of your hair), accelerometers in the brush to detect your technique (and, for the mathematically challenged, count your strokes). It also has a vibrator to provide haptic feedback (to train you to brush your hair more optimally?).

Of course, no product would be complete without a mobile app: “the simple act of brushing begins the data collection process.” The app is supposed to give you “personalized tips and real-time product recommendations”. The latter are basically advertisements.

I will note that the materials on the web offer absolutely no indication that any of this “optimization” actually does anything at all, other than increase profits (they hope).

This product caught my eye as particularly egregious “inappropriate touch screen”, because this is clearly a case of a non-solution chasing a non-problem. (Of course, most of the “hair care” industry is non-solutions to non-problems.)

My own view is that the simple and millennia old technology of a hairbrush was not actually broken, or in need of digital augmentation. Worse, this technology actually threatens one of the small pleasures of life. The soothing, sensual brushing of your own hair can be a simple and comforting personal ritual, a respite from the cares of the day.

Adding a digital app (and advertising) breaks the calm of brushing, digitally snooping and “optimizing”, and pulling your attention away from the experience and toward the screen—with all its distractions. How is this good for you?

Add this to the Inappropriate Touch Screen Files.


Inappropriate Touch Screen

Robot Furniture?

Inspired by MIT research, Ori (rom “Origami”) “architectural robotics” reconfigures a small apartment into different configurations. The bed slides away, a desk slides out, the wall slides over to make more living room when the bed is not in use.

This is described as “modular and scalable mechatronic”, though it is triggered by pushing a button. The only “automation” I can find mentioned is presets, a la a thermostat.

Oh, and, of course, an “app to reconfigure the unit from anywhere in the world.”  Sigh.

I’m trying to find the innovation here.

Murphy beds and other fold out/ slide away furniture have been around since, well, forever. (They work fine without a motor, if you design them well.) The motorized sliding wall looks pretty much like the compact shelving my local library installed decades ago. The interface even looks similar.

I have to wonder if this could possible be work the expense and complexity. I’m user you could make it work without the motors. In fact, it better work without the motors, otherwise your home would become unusable in a power failure.

I hate to think of the failure modes, jammed or failed motors, debris, junk, or toddlers in the way of the works. Spilled drinks. Real life is a lot messier than architectural renderings.

In the end, this is just barely robotic. And with the silly app, I’m going to have to consign this to the Inappropriate touch Screen File.


Robot (?) Wednesday


Blog Fodder from the CES: Acres of Inappropriate Touchscreens

Every year the Consumer Electronics Show offers wonderful blog fodder, and new entries for the Inappropriate Touchscreen Files.

I am grateful to the organizers for making life easy for bloggers!

Let’s look at some of the “innovations” noted by staff of wired.com and others.


CES is, of course, chock-a-block with “smart” products, and this usually means that they have slapped a touch screen interface on something that never needed one before. This year, they also tend to inhabit the Internet of Too Many Things, connecting to home networks and cloud services..

These are the classic candidates for The Inappropriate Touch Screen File.

In addition, many of the “smart” products are solutions to non-problems. Assuming they work at all (which often is questionable), who needs it? I give extra points for an Inappropriate Touchscreen Interface that also addresses a non-problem, or creates worse problems than it solves.

Four New Entries

Ween Smart Thermostat

The thermostat is a classic and elegant analog device, with an intuitive and simple physical interface. Naturally, this is one of the favorite targets of the internet of too many things.

The Ween “Smart” Thermostat is a networked digital controls the thermostats throughout your house from a single location. Note that this breaks the old-fashioned model of controls in each room—you have to go to the control center to manipulate the thermostat in any room. Sigh.

But wait, that problem is fixed by using Bluetooth to connect to everyone’s smart phone! The Ween “pairs with the phones of everyone in the house, and it can adjust the temperature automatically based on who’s home”. You can also use a touchscreen interface to, well, set the temperature.

Yay! Your thermostat “saves energy” using multiple cellphones, Bluetooth radiation, and many watts of electricity. And it spies on your family in your home. Nice!


Withings Thermo

Another simple technology, the home thermometer has worked fine for years. But Withings wants to “improve” it by using infrared sensors to read the temperature of your skin and infer your body temperature. (Remember: the whole point of using the thermometer is to get a reliable reading of your actual temperature, not based on the highly variable surface of your skin.)

Not content with a complicated way to get less reliable data, Withings has slapped on a touchscreen interface. Their app lets you graph your temperature (thus matching the technology of paper and pencil) and “will recognize all the members of your family individually, and can share all that info with your doctor.”

I’m sorry. Did I need a digital device so I could tell whose temperature I just took? And even if I wanted to “share” this information with my doctor, I doubt that she would have any use for such data.

This product uses its touchscreen to solve several non-problems, all in one pointless device! Congratulations!


The Autonomous Desk

The company is called “Autonomous”, and their desk is said to be “smart”.

Now a desk, standup or otherwise, is another class passive analog technology. A work surface works OK within broad ranges of configurations, and manual adjustments enable you to tune it to your current preferences. Incidentally, you use all your other tools, digital and analog, on your work surface. This basic approach has worked forever.

Autonomous soups this up with a plethora of digital features, among other things, it “senses your arrival in the morning and automatically raises to your preferred standing height”

Actually, this feature isn’t really a matter of your preferences, the desk is actually designed to change your behavior, teaching you to stand rather than sit while working. Not just a smart desk, it’s a smartass desk.

Naturally, there is a touchscreen app, with a zillion features, most of which you already have or can get for your mobile device. So, my desk can run a calendar for me—if I don’t already have one on my phone, which everybody does.

The desk also is networked and connects to your local Internet of Too Many Things. Thus, your desk can control the lights and window blinds for you—I’m sure you have been having trouble operating those tricky devices.  Or maybe your thermostat controls yoru desk. Or does the lighting adjust the desk.  It’s hard to know, but one thing is for sure:  you don’t run the show.

But wait!  There’s more!

it has a speech interface so you can now yell at your desk. Things are going to get confusing, with your desk, phone, thermostat, and everything thing else all listening to you, and responding to your confusing and ambiguous utterances.  Sounds like fun, no?

All in all, it’s not clear that adding this much complexity to your desk is likely to improve productivity, creativity, or worker satisfaction.

Just turn off your desk and focus on work, for goodness sake!


Digitsole Smartshoe

“Control your shoe with your smartphone”. What more needs to be said?

Frankly, I haven’t been having any difficulty “controlling” my old fashioned shoes.  But what do I know?  Perhaps kids today haven’t mastered this life skill.

The shoes apparently “automatically tighten”—i.e., they tie themselves, a skill we all learned in preschool. They also adjust how warm your feet get (does it have active heating and cooling?)

There are sensors that detect shock absorption, and collect data to estimate steps traveled and calories burned.

Naturally, the shoes have Bluetooth, and connect to a touch screen app. (I mean, how can you adjust how tight your shoes are, without a touch screen??) The app also uses the sensors to “track your day”. I.e., your shoes are spying on you.


And I bet it integrates with my magic standing desk, so my shoes can tell the desk if I’m really standing, or cheating with a stool.


So we see that the availability of inexpensive wireless networking and ubiquitous digital devices is leading to a flood of nearly identical, pointless, “innovations”, which “solve” non-existent problems.

Most of these products will certainly not succeed—who wants to pay hundreds of dollars or Euros for a poor solution to a non-problem?

But what does it say about the designers of these concepts? Who thinks we need Bluetooth in our shoes and furniture? Why would anyone want to create a complex, expensive interface to elegant devices such as thermostats or thermometers?

These devices also monitor and spy on us, in order to “optimize” our lives. At best, this is kind of stupid. Having the thermometer magically understand whose face it is pressed up against is, well, not exactly a hard problem for unaided humans to figure out, is it.

Networking all these devices is a security and privacy threat. I really don’t look forward to having my shoes hacked, or my boss monitoring my desk.

But worst of all, these devices are totally centered on individual preferences, me, me, me. Where they deal with multiple people, such as the thermostat, they do so by implementing “optimal policies”. How are these established? A combination of authoritative commands and algorithms.

The message here is that the way we decide how we live together is to be solved by impersonal, “smart” methods, data, and “objective” algorithms–dictated by me. How do all these spoiled little tyrants work out differences?  No idea.

Where we used to talk to each other to find out if someone is cold, or would like the temperature turned down, we now rely on the computer to figure that out.  And miss out on the small talk that builds human relationships.

Not just inappropriate, but also harmful.

“Best Design 2015” From Wired.com

At the new year we get all sorts of lists and retrospectives, most of which say more about the writer than the world. But who can resist?

Last week, the staff of Wired magazine published “The Most Cleverly Designed Objects of 2015”, which has twenty “objects” they found “distinctly clever in the ways they approach and tackle problems.”

I thought I’d review their list, looking at a couple of trends I’ve been thinking about.

First of all, I rated them for eligibility for the “Inappropriate Touchscreen File”, and sure enough, one of their 20 is actually already in the file (Yumit). Three others (Pebble smart watch, BeeLine GPS guide, and Keen Home “smart vent”) are strong candidates. Three more suggest a new category: “Inappropriate Touch Enablers”, technologies that lead designers to create inappropriate touchscreen interfaces. These are a Samsung TV, Microsoft Surface, and Google Cardboard). Seven out of twenty.

I was also interested to see how many of these “clever designs” are basically built out of mobile phone technology. The answer is at least eight, including the seven above and also the Zolt power supply. Everybody is doing it, though I grant that many of the designs listed by Wired are clever wrappers for basically the same technology.

Another trendy trend is “combinatoric design”, offering the customer a large number of combinations to create “customized” designs. This includes Campaign furniture an Ariaca headphones. I’m not sure how “clever” this is, it certainly isn’t new.

There are also interesting cases of “foldable” designs, including the Oru Kayak, “This Book is A Camera” by Kelli Anderson, Minim+Aid survival kit, and, of course Google Cardboard. These are certainly clever, at least the “folding” part.

The list also includes some “retro” objects that do only one thing. They include outstanding “analog” designs including a Tritensel (spork + knife!), Leatherman Tread, Polaroid Snap camera, the Espresso Space Cup (for zero G), and the 2016 Olympic torch. The latter two are really, really single purpose!

One interesting item is the Net Zero Table, which implements pretty old passive cooling concepts (at least 40 years old, I’m pretty sure), updated in a twenty first century package. For me, the best part is that this technology saves energy without digital sensors, computational models or a touch screen. Yay!

Notably, the narrative explaining “why you want Net Zero Table” is pretty much the same as “why you want Keen Vent”. However, one solves the problem with an energy and exotic material sucking digital system, and the other with a (well understood) “passive” chemical reaction. And, I would add, the Net Zero Table does not require you to provide a personal profile, nor to have your home monitored by network connected sensors.  Bonus.


I’ll add an additional object from my own blog, one that captures the DIY spirit of the Age of Makers: Robb Godshaw’s “Hamster Wheel Standing Desk” (DIY instructions here).

This speaks to me a at so many levels!

It responds to our sedentary life, while tacitly acknowledging how we feel about a lot of our daily work. It riffs off design trends such as standing desks and parasitic power systems. The design is DIY, It’s human scale and it’s just plain goofily large. You can’t fit this desk into a minimalist cubicle! Nor can you carry it with you on your digital nomadic wanderings!

Finally, as I’ve pointed out before, it opens the way to capturing the movement to generate power, or to generate “karma points” of some kind. It also opens up ideas bout how to make this a social exercise, how to share the wheel, how to use it as a team, and so on.

Tres cool!

Species-Inappropriate Touch Screens

As long as I’m on the topic of Inappropriate Touch Screens, let me turn to the booming field of tablet-based “games for cats”. Given that the World Wide Web was built so people could put up pictures of their cats, who is surprised that cat lovers are a major target for mobile devices?

But entertaining pictures of cats are for people. But there is also a torrent of touchscreen games, supposedly for people to play with their cat. C’mon.

For example, a sample of games is reviewed by Yaara Lancet (IOS, Android), and Purina offers an array of games.

I can’t possibly review them all, and there is little need to do so. As Michelle Westerlaken comments, despite alleged “research”, the games all work the same way (a moving target to chase) and “do not really seem to take the senses and perceptions of the animal into account.”

The Purina games are said to have been developed “using a feline focus group of different ages and breeds.” (No word on the selection of the sample, the process that might have been used in these groups, nor on any control groups, such as “dangling a string”.) The results “revealed that cats are most intrigued by the intricate movements of objects as they wiggle or spin across the screen.” They also discovered (or at east look up) that cats can’t actually see most of the colors that your expensive tablet can display (those are there for you to watch movies).

I’m hoping this press release was a joke, because it is certainly laughable to say that anyone needed to conduct “research” to discover this particular fact. What they describe here is cargo cult “social science”, debasing the already weak currency of usability studies.

Other reports indicate that cat’s claws do no harm to the glass display (though they are hard on plastic protectors), but I’m pretty sure that paws and noses do not really register well with the touch sensing. (Heck, your tablet does track your own nose and tongue touches either.) Other inputs (e.g., shaking and tilting the device) are inaccessible to felines.

The bottom line is: tablets are essentially unusable by felines, except for the visual display, which is only partly usable. I conclude that these games are not only Inappropriate Touch Screen Interfaces, they also are Species-Inappropriate Interfaces, period.

It is abundantly clear that these games are primarily for the people, not the cats. Some cats (but certainly not all cats) will play these games. This does no harm, but does not benefit the cats any more than other similar games, such as chase a laser pointer or a piece of string. In fact, these would probably give them more fun and exercise than the touch screen based game.

This is bad design and a waste of a perfectly good tablet.

Furthermore, these games also teach us nothing we did not know about cats, or about human relations to cats.  So they aren’t even food for thought.

I’m consigning these games en masse to  the Inappropriate Touch Screen Files (Species-Inappropriate category).



94Fifty – A “Smart” Basketball

94Fifty is apparently a real thing ($199!). It claims to be “[t]he only connected smart basketball for iOS and Android to help improve shooting and ball handling skills – fast.

The product involves a sensor equipped basketball, a mobile app, and some clever cloud processing. It is supposed to deliver “real-time actionable audio and visual feedback from your 94Fifty Smart Basketball to your device with the 94Fifty Basketball App.

Yoiks! This is so wrong in so many ways!

First of all, if it even works (which I doubt), it certainly violates the basic spirit of playing basketball. For one thing, “ball handling skills” are a small fraction of the needed skills, and the device is really only working on shooting, mainly shooting from a standing position. It seems to have nothing to say about layups or any kind of moving shot. Needless to say, this isn’t about defense, dribbling, passing, or teamwork, either.

Frankly, it isn’t even about basketball in a game. It’s just a shooting coach for practicing freethrows. This is surely the most boring aspect of basketball there is.

As an aside, I note the rhetoric about “actionable” feedback, which I think reveals that this is aimed at the golf set, who are less interested in street ball and more interested in prolonged adolescent status games. (Who else would blow multiple hundreds of dollars on a magic ball, anyway?)

Looking at the description, I have to wonder if this device even does anything useful at all. For starters, the videos make clear that the feedback comes from the mobile app, which means you are switching back and forth between practicing basketball and fiddling with your phone or tablet. This seems like a bad training technique to me.

Worse, the feedback appears to be absurd and pointless. The sensors can learn to measure characteristics of the ball motion, including stuff like backspin and the arc of the shot. It apparently can correlate these variable to whether the shot goes in or not. That’s all cool and scientific, but how does that help you score baskets?

You have to translate the abstractions of, say arc, into precise muscle movements. This is difficult to do, and I’m pretty sure that switching attention to a small screen graphic after each try is not going to help. In particular, the goal of repetitious practice must be to develop unconscious muscle memory, so you can snap off shots with no time for thought.

Will it help if I have an app that tells me that 48.6 revolutions per minute backspin is too slow, and 48.8 is to fast, how many people can actually control their backspin that precisely? (And if they can, do they need this app?)

I also wonder if the “smart” system can deal with the variability of the real world. Baskets and backboards are not identical, environmental conditions vary (especially if you play streetball outdoors!)—setting aside the possibility of an opposing defense.

The bottom line is that this is not only useless and stupid, it is an absurd and preposterously Inappropriate Touchscreen Interface.

Congratulations, 94Fifty is now entered in the Inappropriate Touch Screen Files (Internet of Way Too Many Things division).

Thanks to Allison Arieff’s “The Internet of Way Too Many Things” for pointing out this insanity.

“Inappropriate Touch”: Lakovic On Interaction Design

Tom Lakovic has a nice essay at Wired, “To Make Tech Design Human Again, Look to the Past“.

Much of what he says isn’t new or controversial, but I always enjoy cranky complaints about “Who Got It Wrong” and why.  Prime example: putting touch screens in cars.  Very. Bad. Idea.

He gives us the memorable phrase “Inappropriate Touch“, personified by the image of designs that “slap a touch screen on a refrigerator to make it ‘innovative'”.

His prescription of looking back isn’t exactly ground breaking, designers love to look at the history of design. But in the case of touch screens, he is right on target:  cheap, ubiquitous, and incredibly capable touch screens are actually terrible interfaces for many (most?) uses.  They are the lowest common denominator, and in a Gresham’s Law effect, they are pushing out better interfaces.

Check out his diagram depicting the devolution of the keyboard.  ‘Nuff said.

I think it would be a useful exercise as part of interaction design to require a step where you have to show how you would interface without any touch screen.  This won’t stop touchscreen madness (they are so cheap and easy to design with), but it would uncover some really great designs that would otherwise be overlooked.