The Trouble With the ON Button

December 1, 2020

“Findability precedes usability. In the alphabet and on the Web. You can’t use what you can’t find.” — Peter Morville

Where’s the Button?

I wouldn’t have brought this up unless I noticed a pattern. First, let me explain that I am not a tech novice. In fact, I have run a technology consulting company for 25 years and I’ve always been the go-to, fix-it guy in my family. But recently I have been stumped trying to find the ON button and dealing with some previously simple electronic tasks. How about you? 

Let me give you two examples. First, take the new laptop I recently purchased for its speed and power to replace my older, clunkier machine. In my business career, I have probably owned a dozen laptop computers going back to my 1981 Osborne 1 (Pre-PC) with two giant floppy disks. And in all those years, I never had a problem finding the ON button. However, when I cracked open my brand new Dell laptop last week, it was nowhere to be found! 

Usually, a laptop has a power button above or to the right side of the keyboard. Look at the picture below. Where’s the power button? Can you find it? Where's the ON button by Charles Levin

Where’s the ON button?

Not finding the button in the usual places, I turned the new machine over and checked the sides and the back. No button. To get the darn thing started, I found a workaround online where you press CTRL + ESC keys and plug in the power cord at the same time. That worked, so I could perform the typical twenty-two steps to set up Windows 10. The laptop is great and I love it, but there’s got to be an ON button; I thought. 

ON Button Icon

Oh, and I learned that the unidentified key is the fingerprint reader too. Even a fingerprint symbol on that key would be helpful. How intuitive, not.  Now, why would they make the most basic and simple step of owning and using a laptop so confusing? I will share my theory momentarily. 

Chainsaw Conundrum

Example #2. I would have let the laptop ON button escapade pass, but then another wonky thing happened when I tried using a new chainsaw for the first time to handle the ongoing tree issues around our house. I probably have hundreds of trees in the woods that make up most of our property and occasionally they fall across the lawn, the driveway, and unfortunately, on the power lines. In case you think I’m exaggerating about the trees, see the picture below of my trees that came down on power lines during Hurricane Sandy. They blocked traffic for two weeks until the power company got around to us.

Our tress fallen across the road - Hurricane Sandy - October 2012
Our tress fallen across the road – Hurricane Sandy – October 2012

So you either own a chainsaw and handle the issues yourself or get a second mortgage to provide room and board for a tree surgeon. After owning several gas chainsaws, I learned the beauty and pleasure of the newer electric chainsaws that seem to have all the power without the noise and the frustration of yanking on a starter cord. I tested this alternative by buying a small electric chainsaw from GreenWorks last year. It worked beautifully, with very little hassle. So, I bought the larger model to handle bigger trees this year. I got it this past Spring, but was so busy with work and writing and painting some columns outside my house, that I didn’t have time to use it until yesterday. It looks exactly like the smaller chainsaw in color, green naturally, and design but has a larger battery and a bigger saw blade. After assembling it, I put in the chainsaw oil, pressed the same two buttons–the safety, and the trigger–and nothing. What? My first thought was that there is no way I will be able to return or get this replaced if it’s defective after all this time. I checked the user manual. No enlightenment there. With some careful inspection, I spotted a subtly camouflaged ON button. The smaller saw of similar design from the same company didn’t require any such button. I pressed that newly discovered button, then the safety and trigger. To my relief, it kicked in with a pleasant whir and no smell of gasoline.

Am I just a complainer or is there a pattern here? I could go on with other examples like the printer cartridge that wouldn’t fit in my HP printer and don’t get me started on shrink wrap and child safety caps on medicine bottles. Pardon my rant, but these occurrences are particularly frustrating for someone like me to whom others have looked to fix their broken items, open stuck bottles, and solve almost any mechanical or electrical problem over the years. If Mr. Fixit is having these problems, I can imagine what the average user must be encountering.

Hey, Usability Engineers

OK, why is this happening now? Let’s charitably assume I don’t have early onset dementia and am thereby losing it. It’s an iffy assumption, but let’s go with it for the moment. I believe the more likely scenario has to do with product designers making assumptions without regard to usability, i.e. how you and I will use these things. It’s what usability engineers (yes, that’s a real science and profession) call the User Experience or UX. Remember when things you purchased came with detailed user manuals that included diagrams and step-by-step instructions? Not anymore. I think the beginning of the decline started when companies opted to make their devices “intuitive” to use or made the user go online to try to figure things out. Now, to some degree, they were successful. For example, most Google software makes it easy to figure out which buttons to push when you want to do something. Youtube is also very helpful with How-Tos. Yet, as theirs and other companies’ products evolve and get more complicated with more options and more choices for the user to make, usability suffers–things breakdown.

The second reason I believe things are harder to use is they’re replacing English with icons. The ostensible reason for replacing “ON” with the circle and vertical bar sticking out the top is the limited space on a single small button or keyboard key–really? How much space does “ON” take up? So the usability engineers assume everybody knows what the circle/bar and other cryptic shapes mean. Still, I know people, many dear to me, who don’t know what the circle/bar signifies or even the > or >> or || mean on their remote controls or DVD players or that three dots or four horizontal lines on their iPhone apps indicate tap-to-see-the-menu. Apparently, Dell has taken it a step further into the abyss–a blank, black key now means ON. Don’t believe me? See the figure below.

The ON button by Charles Levin

At Pathfinder, we think a lot about usability and build it into every website we design. Our clients’ customers can find what they’re looking for in multiple obvious ways — a clear button, a search query, or an identifying image — click and go. No getting lost — no frustration. Check out one of our latest websites and you’ll see what I mean – The Stone Center.

So here’s a shout-out or more like a cry-out to all the other gifted companies and their usability engineers who create the products and UX that are supposed to make our lives easier every day. Give us a real user manual, separate the ON button from the other buttons, and put “ON” on it. While you’re at it, cut out the shrink wrap and childproof caps. That will truly make our lives easier and, over time, give us years of our lives back. Are you with me on this?

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Do you have any usability bugaboos? Please share in the Comments below. Maybe the people who can do something about it are listening. And if not, at least I’ll know I’m not alone or nuts or both.


Moon Landing Memories – Where Were You?

August 6, 2019

Where were you on July 20, 1969 – the Day Apollo 11 Landed on the Moon?

I included the Moon Landing question in a recent newsletter to my readers and asked them to share their experiences. I was so delighted by their personal and intimate recollections that I asked their permission to share their poignant short stories here. Thankfully, most obliged.
I hope you enjoy these wonderful recollections. If you were alive back in 1969, please add your story to the comments below and SHARE this post so that friends and family may both enjoy and add their stories.

#1 – Adolescent Adventures

I’ll start with my moon landing memory. I was 17 and had effectively run away from home for a week. I was staying in a guesthouse in Provincetown on Cape Cod, watching on an old black-and-white TV with the other guests (which is a whole other story). We all seemed to relish the rapture of that transcendent moment. Two weeks later I drove my 1968 GTO to Woodstock. It was quite a summer. – Charlie

#2 Oscilloscope
I was working in a government R&D lab. We jury-rigged a receiver to an o-scope and watched the landing in living green. – George

Moon Landing Memories - Charles Levin Author

#3 The Burbs
On July 20, 1969, I was two weeks shy of my 19th birthday and living in one of those little burbs (Cheektowaga) outside of Buffalo, NY. I was working for a small ad printing company that worked out of a basement under his home. At the time of Neil Armstrong’s walk, we were all upstairs standing around the boss’s TV set watching the moon landing (and, yes, we had to clock out if we wanted to watch). I remember the boss, a German immigrant, saying something along the lines of “I can’t believe he actually did that!” We were all mesmerized. – Becki

#4 – I Was 5
I was 5, and Dad said watch the TV because this is something never seen before. I’m surprised I remember it. – Julie

#5 Dusty Stuff
July 1969 I was working at Butlins Bognor Regis (a holiday camp on the south coast of England). I’d made friends with some Americans who were staying there. We sat up all night with beer and snacks watching the landing as you can imagine it turned into quite a party! The amazing thing is I still remember it vividly all these years later. I’ve found over the years that if you ask anyone what Armstrong first said they reply “One small step for man one giant leap for mankind,”
What he actually said was “Its some kind dusty stuff I can stir it around with my foot”. I prefer this one. It’s more honest, but I suppose he had to go with the official blurb. – Barrie

#6 Staying Up Late
Yes, I was around for the lunar landing. I had turned 5 at the beginning of July. I remember mom and dad more or less making my brother and I watch. They felt this was an important point in history, which of course it was. We all watched in Dad’s den in the basement. We didn’t have AC so it was much cooler in the basement. I was allowed to stay up late so it was really a big deal! – Cathy

#7 – 5-Inch Screen
1969 seems so long ago, although when it comes right down to it, it’s not so long. Below is a photo of our daughter Brenda Gelean watching the moon landing on a 5″ TV screen with us in our bed on that spectacular night in 1969. On the other hand, maybe 1969 is farther back than I think, since even Brenda’s kids are all in their teens now. Three of our grandchildren. All four of our grandchildren arrived after the year 2000.
Watching the landing in the middle of the night in North Vancouver, BC on a 5″ screen, tiny TV set with our youngest baby about 6 mo. old. Seems like she enjoyed it. – Betty

Betty G - Charles Levin Author
#8 Rabbit Ears
On 7-20-1969, I was 19-years-old and watched the “moon landing” with my kid brother and new husband of two months. Since we were poor college students, we were lucky to have owned a 10″ black-and-white tabletop TV with foil on the “rabbit ears” antenna for better reception. I can still see us huddled together with our noses only a couple of feet from the screen of the TV in our very small apartment “dining room.” It is really strange how “50 years” sounds so long ago, but it doesn’t really feel all that long ago. – Leigh

Please leave your Moon Landing memories in the Comments below, share and check back for more.

Happy Moon Day… Charlie


Can Hackers Attack Our Power Grid Right Now And Who Cares?

November 7, 2017

Infrastructure Is Exposed

The short answer is ‘Yes.’ Hackers can take down our power grid right now. How they can do it and why they haven’t done it yet should be a concern for all of us, not just the government or utility companies. As we’ve seen in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, loss of power can lead to fires, explosions and untold human suffering. It’s not the 1800s anymore. We are not set up as a society to function without power for our homes, businesses and national infrastructure.

Hackers and the Grid - NOT SO DEAD - Charles Levin Thrillers Author

So how can our power grid be attached by hackers? In for my latest novel, I explore a few of the incidents that have occurred and could occur. For example, most people don’t realize that Iran has already hacked one of our hydroelectric dams in Rye Brook, New York – the Bowman Dam incident.Using the internet and sophisticated tools, Iranian hackers actually took down the power at that dam. You can read more about it here.

Russia has, in effect, been using the Ukraine as a laboratory for infrastructure hacking, They have blacked out the capital city of Kiev several times over several days. We know they are enemies, but I believe Russia has bigger plans and what better way to test your capabilities than on a weaker foe.

Well you say, why not just disconnect our utilities from the Internet? Iran did that in 2010  by isolating their nuclear centrifuges from any external connections. Allegedly the U.S. and Israel still managed to hack into the centrifuges and set back Iran’s nuclear fuel production by years with the now famous Stuxnet virus.

Hackers and the Grid - NOT SO DEAD - Charles Levin Thrillers Author

Hackers And Social Engineering

How could we do that? I talk about that at some length in NOT SO DEAD. The key to the majority of successful hacks is ‘social engineering.’ For example, talented social engineers, aka hackers, calls your office, gets someone in administration, claims to be you and says, “Oh, I forgot my password and I’m on the road. Can you tell it to me?” More than half the time the admin will oblige. Really. Or too many people use ‘Password’ as their password. In the Stuxnet case, we had a confederate on the inside slip a flash drive, with the virus, into one of the networked computers that controlled the centrifuges inside the Iranian nuclear facility. The world and the Iranians might never have ever figured it out had not the virus somehow leaked out onto the Internet and been tracked down by some security experts.

Clearly, personal vigilance and training for yourself and your organization are needed to prevent socially engineered hacks and identity theft. But what about the bigger, more serious infrastructure vulnerabilities? Well despite our current leadership’s head in the sand on this issue, the U.S. does have the Defense Department’s Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) with 6000 dedicated people fighting the Cyberwar both offensively and defensively. We clearly need more and better people and tools, despite being a world leader. China has already stolen highly classified technology, Russia has hacked our elections, and even North Korea wrecked havoc with Sony’s internal files. All documented and proven.

Mutually Assured Destruction

So if Russia or some other foreign power has the ability to attack our power grid in a big way, why haven’t they done it yet? The answer may be in an age old paradigm from the Cold War and Nuclear Threats, ‘Mutually Assured Destruction.’ Russia knows that if they did to us what they are doing in Ukraine, we would retaliate. I believe the U,S. already carried out some cyber retaliation to the Russian election hacking that has not been reported, butt sent a clear message to the Russians. “You mess with us and we can make you pay.”

So for now, both sides or I should say all major nations are building up their arsenals and their skills, just like the Cold War nuclear build up, both to prevent a major infrastructure attack and to carry one out if need be. Scary, yes. It’s the world we live in. What can we do besides being vigilant in our own security practices? Support and elect people with a will to believe in science and prepare the army, both for our own protection and to lead us into a safer future.

For more:
Bowman Dam Incident
Stuxnet Cyberattack on Iran
Switch A Country Off


What Are Quantum Computers And Why Care About This Sensational Technology?

July 24, 2017

What is a Quantum Computer?

I am writing about Quantum Computing now, because I see the beginning of something big that will impact all our lives soon. I had the same premonition about PCs when I got my first Osborne Computer in 1981 and was on the Internet before there was ever a web browser or a Yahoo or Google.  So let’s explore what Quantum Computers are, what they can do and what they could mean for you and me.

What Are Quantum Computers And Why Care About This Sensational Technology? D-Wave 2000, Charles Levin Thriller Author, Quantum Computing

First, Quantum Computers are here now and can solve problems and anticipate outcomes up to a thousand times faster than traditional computers. Here’s the techy definition, but keep reading:

“quan·tum com·put·er, noun
plural noun: quantum computers
1. a computer that makes use of the quantum states of subatomic particles to store information.”

But what the heck does this mean? Bits vs. Qubits. The simple explanation is that Quantum Computers use a whole different paradigm for achieving results at lightning speed. On the one hand, the fundamental building blocks  of traditional computer code are 1’s and 0’s – BITS. So their state is either ON – a 1 or OFF – a 0. Consequently, traditional computers solve problems in a sequential way: if A then B then C . . . So their speed is based on how fast they can do these sequential calculations. There are things like parallel processing that allow these machines to walk and chew gum at the same time, but it’s still walking.

On the other hand Quantum Computers (“QCs”) can see 1’s and 0’s at the same time! QUBITS. So instead of solving a problem sequentially, QCs can simultaneously attack a problem from multiple different directions. You can get way deeper into how it works, but this gives you the basics.

What Are Quantum Computers And Why Care About This Sensational Technology? Bits vs, Qubits - Charles Levin Thriller Author

Why Do We Care About Quantum Speed?

Quantum Speed means we can solve really complex problems fast enough to matter. For example, take the example of the emerging technology of self-driving cars. Volkswagon and D-Wave Systems, one of the first commercially available QC systems, successfully tested optimizing the routes of 10,000 taxis in Beijing simultaneously to reduce traffic congestion. Unless you can do this fast in realtime, the information becomes useless. If you’re in a taxi, it needs to know to take the next left before it reaches the intersection and traditional computers, even supercomputers, may not be fast enough to do that.

This kind of QC computing power can handle other kinds of very complex data-intensive problems, like predicting weather patterns, catching terrorist needles in a global haystack, cracking encryption, predicting financial trends, space exploration, genetic research and more.

What Does The Quantum Computing Future Look Like?

Besides attacking and solving the big data, complex problems mentioned, QC gets really interesting when combined with Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). I mean how does a traditional computer, IBM’s Deep Blue, beat the world champion chess player at chess, or Google’s AlphaGo, beat the world champion at the game of GO? The programmer who wrote the code for these machines is not a better chess or GO player. The only way these AI machines exceed the most skilled humans is by Learning. And by learning, just like the Beijing taxis, the machine must recognize patterns, optimize, and return results fast.
Finally, remember when computers, that were less powerful then your cellphone, filled large air-conditioned rooms? Certainly one of the obstacles with QC is that the machines rely on superconductivity. That means to move electrons at super high-speeds, the QC is housed inside a refrigerator set to less than one degree above Absolute Zero (-273 degrees Fahrenheit!). But who knows? Maybe we’ll be carrying Quantum Computers in our pockets one day too. That be years off, but why, in the very near future, couldn’t your current cellphone connect to a Quantum Computer? You send it the problem, it crunches the numbers at quantum speed, and sends you the answer instantly. Cool, eh?
For more on this subject, as well as future posts on biological computers, quantum biology and Deep Learning, join our mailing list and you’ll be the first to know when these new posts are available.
Until then, my self-driving car is waiting . . . .
For more articles and video, here are a few interesting links:
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Should Your Website Be Multi-Lingual?

May 3, 2017

How many of your potential customers browse the web in a foreign language? If you don’t know, Google it and find out. Try a search like “What are the ten Non-English languages spoken in <my state or region>?” If you do this search for North Carolina, you find that 638,000 potential customers there speak Spanish, followed by Hindi, French and Chinese. Whoa, who would have guessed that? Could these people be buyers of your product or service? Why not reach out to those Buyers?

Fortunately, there is a fairly straight-forward way to accomplish this without having to manually translate your website into multiple languages at huge time and cost. We recently made this happen for one of our clients. See English & Chinese Example below:

SC-English

Website in English

SC-Chinese

Instant translation: Website in Chinese

By simply clicking the ‘Select Language’ menu, the site’s visitor can select from Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, French, Italian, and Portuguese. By doing the research, we found that these were the most spoken Non-English languages in our client’s trading area among the 160 languages we could have included. Once the potential customer makes her selection, the site instantly translates into her chosen language, The translation even includes all the website’s navigation, products and product descriptions. Instantly, and it carries from page-to-page as she browses or she can toggle back to English at any time.

OK, so how did we do it? Many of you are familiar with Google Translate – the Google language-to-language translation service. If not, click the link and check it out. What many people don’t know is that a developer can embed the translation function into your website as shown above. It requires obtaining the scripts from Google, inserting them into every page of your site, and formatting the Selector to match the look of your site. It only took us a couple of days to do what you see above.

If you have a good developer, ask them about adding this to your site. If not, contact me – info@outofchaos.com – and we may be able to help. Start adding these new customers and new business today!


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