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Category: UI / UX

Re-visit the past with a new “old monitor nostalgia” mode for your expensive high-resolution television or computer display!

The issue:

Modern computers (and TVs) have large, high-resolution screens.

But sometimes people have nostalgia for the past—perhaps yearning for Cold War-era computing, when the harsh glow of a 9-inch CRT monitor represented the pinnacle of technology (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: This 1984 black-and-white Macintosh cost approximately $5500 in 2019 dollars, which will buy approximately 10 economy-priced laptops in the year 2019.

Proposal:

Modern monitors should have an option to emulate the behavior of various old display types.

For example, a high-resolution monitor could easily pretend to be the following:

  • A 1950s tube television
  • The tiny black-and-white screen of the 1984 Macintosh (Figure 2)
  • The monochromatic green display of the Apple //  (Figure 3)

 

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Fig. 2: In “Mac ’84 mode,” only a tiny fraction of the screen is used (left), in order to give the user that authentic 9-inch-screen experience. (The blue area represents an unusable border region.)

 

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Fig. 3: Apple // mode. After a while, you actually stop noticing that the whole display is green!

Conclusion:

Now that a “Dark Mode” theme has been implemented by nearly every operating system vendor, the next arms race is sure to be “retro display mode” or “retro CRT filter” mode.

PROS: Gives people a greater appreciation of modern technology.

CONS: May cause eyestrain.

 

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Supplemental Fig. S1: The actual number of pixels on a 2018 27″ iMac is 5120×2880 (14,745,600), as compared to 512×342 (175,104) on the original Mac. That’s 84.2 times more pixels, or 252 times more pixels if you count the R, G, B channels separately!

Sleep-tracker smartwatches should be able to help you by recapping things you missed while you’re sleeping and/or pausing the streaming video that you’re snoozing through!

Background:

Some smartwatches now have a sleep tracking feature (Fig 1): the watch is able to figure out when you fall asleep and record how long you’ve slept.

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Fig. 1: This watch is able to record the length of your slumber, but it doesn’t do anything with this information except displaying it.

The issue:

It’s easy to fall asleep while watching streaming video or listening to a podcast.

But sleeping while a podcast plays may result in your podcast app marking 10+ episodes as “played” even though you snoozed through them. To fix things, you’ll have to figure out exactly where you left off (or just give up on those episodes entirely).

With a TV show, you might wake up to a plot-twisting spoiler. Horrifying!

Proposal:

With a sleep-tracking smartwatch, the watch could, upon detecting that you’re asleep, do one of two things:

1. Immediately pause the podcast / video, or fade it out over time.

2. Continue playing, but specially mark this region of time as “you were asleep, but the video was still playing.” This situation is shown in Figure 2.

 

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Fig. 2: In this scenario, the user fell asleep at 4:33 PM, but the app kept playing the podcast until 5:05 AM. A huge button marked “AUTO-REWIND” allows the watch-wearer to automatically return to the podcast material that they slept through.

This feature could also be useful for college students, who are famous for sleeping through classes at all hours of the day. A sample scenario is shown in Figure 3, below.

 

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Fig. 3: The student who was wearing this watch fell asleep 38 minutes into their class. Fortunately, the watch started recording the lecture as soon as the student fell asleep, so the student is able to review it by pushing the “REPLAY “NAP” LECTURE AUDIO” button.

Conclusion:

This auto-pause feature could be implemented in a manner similar to the way in which a phone already automatically pauses video / music when a phone call is received.

 

PROS: By pausing streaming video, this saves valuable Internet bandwidth that would otherwise be streamed to your closed eyelids.

CONS: Students may end up with even more disastrous sleep schedules if they know they can rely on this lecture-replay feature.

Don’t let a modern user interface coddle you with easy-to-identify-buttons—demand a confusing and unlabeled mystery zone of wonders!

Background:

It is often recommended that pet owners buy “challenging” toys to keep their pets mentally stimulated in a world where the owners take care of all the pet’s needs.

Although an owner could simply put a dog biscuit in a bowl, it would be more exciting for the dog if the biscuit were inside a difficult-to-open ball that required the dog to work to figure it out.

The issue:

Similarly, modern automation has removed many elements of daily life that were once mentally challenging. For example, turn-by-turn directions make it theoretically possible for a person to go through life without ever learning how to read a map.

Proposed idea, which has already been implemented:

A long time ago, any user interface elements on a computer were clearly marked: a button would have a thick border around it, a link would be underlined in blue, etc.

Unfortunately, this sort of coddling may cause the human species to become helpless and incapable.

What is needed is an unforgiving type of interface that does not clearly label elements that accept user input: this will force humans to become better at remembering things.

A case study is available in Figure 1. Can you figure out what is, and is not, an interactable UI element?

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Fig. 1: In order to prevent the user’s brain from atrophying due to lack of use, Google has developed a settings screen for Android that has no visual indication of what is and is not a button. Try puzzling through it yourself: can you guess what tapping on each element would do? Answers in Figure 2. This screenshot is from Android 9, but the situation is identical in Android 10 (2019).

 

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Fig. 2: Answers: BLUE is a normal app button and GREEN is a user-interface-related button. The two red rectangles indicate “buttons” that highlight when clicked, but do nothing otherwise (it is theoretically possible that they do something on other phones).

Google shouldn’t get all there credit here, though: the idea of making a complex swiping-puzzle-based interface was arguably pioneered by Apple. If you don’t believe it, find someone with an iPad and ask them to activate the multiple-apps-on-the-same-screen mode: you’ll be amazed by the quality and difficulty of this puzzle!

Conclusion:

With the addition of unlabeled user interface elements and a huge array of “swipe” gestures, modern phones—both iPhones and Android phones—are adding a new category of exciting brain-challenging puzzles to everyday life.

PROS: It is theoretically possible that a user who plays these memory games with their phone will become better at crucial memorization and concentration-based tasks (although there is zero evidence of this, but it seems intuitively appealing, which is good enough here).

CONS: None!

Check your server logs for incredible deals, thanks to this new system for putting advertisements everywhere!

Background:

Some widely-used computer programs are free, and are supported exclusively as hobby projects by unpaid developers.

The issue:

Unfortunately, there is no financial mechanism to encourage further development and enhancement of these programs. Even if a hundred million people depend on a program, there is no simple way for them to support the developer.

It would be possible for software developers to figure out some sort of monetization scheme, but this requires a different skillset from software development. Plus, many programmers aren’t interested in also dealing with marketing.

Proposal:

Nearly all programs—both on servers and on regular desktop machines—write messages to a system log somewhere on the computer.

Developers of these un-monetized free utilities could sell out ad space in the logs: instead of a program just writing important data to the log (“USB hard drive failed to respond” or “bluetooth device unexpected disconnected”), the program could also pollute the log files with various advertisements (see Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: You might say that polluting the server logs with ads was unethical, but wouldn’t it be MORE unethical to block these ads, thus robbing the content creators of their revenue?

Conclusion:

While this is, in many ways, essentially the same idea as having ads in terminal commands (as described earlier), having ads in the logs means that they will be picked up by any monitoring utility and have a chance of being seen even if a server is not used interactively. Plus, these ads will work on servers without graphical interfaces.

Although an “on call” employee might be annoyed to get woken up at 4:00 AM by an error message from an ad, surely they wouldn’t object to it as much as long as the ad was something beneficial, like “FATAL SYSTEM ERROR: SHRIMP PLATTERS ARE 25% OFF THIS WEEK ONLY WITH CODE [SERVERSHRIMP].”

Ethics of Blocking These Ads:

One might say, “hey, I could just run ANOTHER script to purge the logs of these ads.” But really, wouldn’t that be just as unethical as blocking ads on a web site (see Figure 2), or skipping ads on a recorded program? Yes, yes it would.

 

Fig. 2: Left: this is what someone sees WITHOUT an ad blocker. Right: WITH an ad blocker. Don’t steal bread from developers by blocking annoying ads—it’s your duty as a consumer to endure these ads without complaining.

PROS: Helps encourage development and refinement of formerly-free-and-unencumbered software.

CONS: The ads may consume a few additional kilobytes per day in log files.

Take off your top hat and monocle, and gain empathy for people who earn less than you, using this not-actually-available browser plugin!

Background:

The same amount of money can represent vastly different things to different people.

For a minimum-wage earner (in 2019), $10,000 represents roughly 65% of a year’s total salary.

But for the very top level of executives at one of the top 350 U.S. firms, that number represents less than a day’s salary.

The issue:

Thus, it can be very difficult for people to understand how much a product actually costs from someone else’s perspective.

For example, someone who doesn’t have a ton of money might say: “Who would be so crazy as to pay $14 for a box of cereal? Or $9 for an organic head of lettuce?”

  • To the minimum-wage earner, the box of cereal represents ~2 hours of work.
  • But to a cardiac surgeon earning $400,000 a year, the same box of cereal represents 5 minutes of earnings.
  • The cereal box would have to cost $378 to make the same dent in the cardiologist’s overall income!

On the opposite side, someone who earns a lot of money might have thought: “Who would be deterred by a $400 speeding ticket? That’s barely even a slap on the wrist.”

  • However, for the minimum-wage employee, a $400 ticket represents over SIXTY hours of earnings!
  • The ticket would need to be for almost $11,000 for the cardiologist to feel the same wallet pain. (A few countries levy fines in a scaled-by-income fashion to avoid this scenario: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day-fine )

Proposal:

A browser plugin can take the following pieces of information:

  • Your actual salary, as a baseline.
  • A “target” salary that you are trying to understand

Then, prices on all web sites are scaled naively: so a person earning $50,000 who wants to “remember” how it felt to earn $5,000 a year working part-time would configure the plugin to simply multiply all prices by 10x.

Likewise, if you wanted to better understand the lifestyle of a rich oligarch, you could enter “$100,000,000” for your annual income. For someone with that sort of annual income, a $500,000 exotic sports car is the same fraction of total income as a $250 purchase is to someone earning $50,000 a year.

 

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Fig. 1: Setting up the plugin requires configuring exactly two options: your actual salary (in red above) and the target “simulated” salary (in blue above).

 

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Fig. 2: Here, the plugin is configured to multiply prices by approximately 6: this simulates the difference between a $120,000 earner and a $20,000 earner. This box of chocolates was actually listed for $19.34, but with the scaled up prices, it displays as “$118.54-ish”: that’s what it “feels like” to the $20,000 earner as compared to the $120,000 earner.

PROS: Allows a person to get a more intuitive feel of what a particular income level feels like. May increase human empathy, who knows!

CONS: Since this plugin edits dollar values on EVERY single web page, it may lead to you to filing wildly incorrect tax returns if you forget to disable it when filing your taxes online.

P.S. This was made as an actual Chrome plugin, so those are real screenshots, but it isn’t actually distributed anywhere.

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Fig. S1: This supplementary figure shows the configuration screen for this plugin, with a basic description of its intended purpose.

 

 

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Fig. S2: This supplementary figure shows the original UI mockup.

 

 

Is a university lecture or job talk going on FAR longer than it is supposed to? Emphasize punctuality with this new incredible heat-lamp-based presentation setup!

The issue:

Sometimes, a college lecture or work presentation goes far over the allotted time (Figure 1).

Frequently, the presenter doesn’t even realize that they are over time.

 

One simple way to prevent a presentation from going over time would be to just have the power outlets turn off at exactly the designated end-of-presentation time.

However, this hard stop could be annoying: what we really want is something that will make the presenter inherently want to wrap up their talk.

Proposal:

The solution is simple: just have an array of heat lamps pointed directly at the presentation podium.

When the time limit has expired, the heat lamps turn on, one at a time. At first, the podium will be just a little warm, but it will quickly become scorching and unbearable. Thus, the presenter is encouraged to conclude their talk in a timely fashion.

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Fig. 2: The heat lamps above the presenter will gradually turn on when the presentation hits its time limit.

Conclusion:

An earlier shark-related proposal turned out to be too expensive, as it required creating a new auditorium with a raised platform above a shark tank. So this is an almost-as-effective solution for the university or business on a tight budget.

This heat lamp idea could be used in conjunction with an earlier software-only plan to “burn away” slides as they are shown. This “burning” idea would synergize well with the heat lamps, too!

PROS: Does not have the same recurring maintenance costs of the shark version of this idea in the link above.

CONS: May cause a circuit breaker to trip if the building is not wired for 6000+ watts on a single circuit.

Increase “friction” in web purchases in order to save us from the convenience of our decadent consumerist society: the incredible “chomping alligator mouth” accessory that you need in your life today!

Background:

In today’s highly computerized society, it’s easy to make an expensive purchase or a life-changing decision with minimal effort.

The issue:

Sometimes, the importance of a decision is out of sync with how much work is required to make that decision.

For example, now that online purchases are extremely “low friction,” it is possible to order 500 king cobras and have them shipped to your house or apartment with just a single button click on a web site.

Previously, one would have had to actually go to a store and start throwing cobras into a shopping bag, loading them into your car, etc., which would have given the purchaser time to reflect on their life decisions.

Proposal:

In order to bring back “friction”—or at least make the danger / importance of a decision evident—the following computer accessory is proposed: a hinged alligator mouth with a button inside (Figure 1).

For any big-ticket purchase or important decision (e.g. “Submit your taxes online”), you will no longer be able to confirm your decision by simply clicking on a button on screen. Instead, you have to reach into the alligator’s mouth and click the “Confirm” button.

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Fig. 1: This alligator mouth makes impulse purchases less likely. Description at left: the button (A) must be pressed in order to make any expensive online purchases. Hinged sections (B) and (C) can clamp shut (D) onto the user’s hand if the system determines that the user has made a poor purchasing decision.

The alligator mouth would not necessarily have to even have the capability of chomping on the button-pushing user: it’s possible that the psychological impact of placing one’s hand into the mouth would be sufficient to make the user think twice about their purchase.

 

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Fig. 2: When multiple programmers work on the same code, they have to merge their changes together in the end. If someone submits bad code or improperly merges it, it creates a huge hassle for everyone. Here, the alligator mouth would be able to chomp down on a user who attempted to merge improperly formatted (or otherwise invalid) code.

Bonus proposal:

Since people make more and more of their purchases on smartphones, it’s likely that this alligator mouth would be very inconvenient, since it’s not very portable. To solve this issue, we can bring the “clamshell” form factor back to cell phone designs, then add a motorized mechanism to allow the phone to snap closed onto the user’s fingers.

Historical precedent:

This is basically an Internet-enabled version of the enormous stone “Mouth of Truth” in Rome.

PROS: Reduces the likelihood of poorly-considered Internet purchases.

CONS: May cause enormous psychological trauma and/or loss of important fingers.