Designing interfaces from the outside in

User interfaces are a pet peeve of mine.

I’m one of those people whose VCR always blinked 12:00. Not because I couldn’t figure it out but because I resented that I had to.

Basically, I have neither the time nor the inclination to read manuals. If I’m paying good money for a consumer-facing product then it better not require an engineering degree to use it.

Not surprisingly, then, I think UI design is every bit as important as product; maybe even more so. Because if your user experience sucks, make no mistake; I will be walking and talking to your competitors.

It wasn’t until I entered the glamorous world of software development that I came to the following conclusion: Interfaces are complicated because development tools require an engineer (or similarly brilliant individual) to use them.

Of course this is a sweeping statement and I’ll gladly debate it but the point is this: Someone with unique skills and knowledge about user-centric design should be creating interfaces. Not someone who knows the product from the inside out.

I know in a traditional model this can create a lot of churn but companies like Crank Software have come up with a way to decouple the roles of embedded engineer and UI designer, allowing them to work in parallel while focusing on their individual core competencies.

I spoke to several members of the QNX concept development team when they were heavily embroiled in creating the latest technology concept car. It was obvious when talking to the engineers and the UI designers that Crank’s Storyboard made both jobs that much easier and the process a whole lot quicker. The end result, achieved in a very short time frame, speaks for itself.

This is great news for people like me who curse like sailors whenever using a remote, microwave, GPS, treadmill, camera, and so on. Indeed, I'm counting on teams like QNX and Crank to ensure the digital car is an enjoyable and intuitive  experience. If not, I do know who I'm gonna call.

The 10 qualities of highly effective hands-free systems

The first time I saw — and heard — a hands-free kit in action was in 1988. (Or was it 1989? Meh, same difference.) At the time, I was pretty impressed with the sound quality. Heck, I was impressed that hands-free conversations were even possible. You have to remember that mobile phones were still an expensive novelty — about $4000 in today’s US dollars. And good grief, they looked like this:

It’s almost a shock to see how far we’ve come since 1988. We’ve become conditioned to devices that cost far less, do far more, and fit into much smaller pockets. (Though, admittedly, the size trend for smartphones has shifted into reverse.) Likewise, we’ve become conditioned to hands-free systems whose sound quality would put that 1998 kit to shame. The sound might have been okay at the time, but because of the contrast effect, it wouldn’t pass muster today. Our ears have become too discerning.

Which brings me to a new white paper from Phil Hetherington and Andrew Mohan of the acoustics team at QNX Software Systems. Evaluating hands-free solutions from various suppliers can be a complex endeavor, for the simple fact that hands-free systems have become so sophisticated and complex. To help simplify the decision process, Phil and Andrew have boiled the problem down to 10 key factors:

  • Acoustic echo cancellation
  • Noise reduction and speech reconstruction
  • Multi-channel support
  • Automatic gain control
  • Equalization
  • Wind buffet suppression
  • Intelligibility enhancement
  • Noise dependent receive gain
  • Bandwidth extension
  • Wideband support

Ultimately, you must judge a hands-free solution by the quality of the useful sound it delivers. By focusing on these 10 essentials, you can make a much sounder judgment (pun fully intended).

Recently, Electronic Design published a version of this paper on their website. For a longer version, which includes a decision checklist, visit the QNX download center.

Meet the QNX concept team: True Nguyen, UX designer

We continue our spotlight on the QNX concept development team with True Nguyen, the team's user experience designer.

We interviewed True just prior to CES 2013, and she was hoping that people's impressions of the latest QNX technology concept car would be as fantastic as hers. True's love of cars stems back to her childhood, and that really comes out in the interview.

If you haven't had a chance to meet the other team members, you can read their stories here.

Next up, we'll interview Alexandre James to get his impressions of the Bentley and the buzz from CES 2013.

Our best CES yet

Anecdotes and observations from the QNX booth at 2013 CES

As a wrap-up to last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, I would love to regale you with all the cool technologies and nifty gadgets that I saw. But over the course of the entire four days, I rarely left the 20’x40’ patch of white carpet that was the QNX booth — with brief exceptions, of course, for bodily maintenance. The booth was just too busy for me to get away. If you checked out the QNX booth webcam, you know what I'm talking about.

Paul Leroux and Nancy Young have already posted a lot of information and photos about the show and the new QNX concept car, which is based on a Bentley Continental GT. So let me provide my personal view of CES through assorted anecdotes or observations collected at the booth.

  • As you’d expect, the Bentley got a lot of attention. But our reference vehicle, based on a Jeep Wrangler, got more attention than I thought it would, even though this is the third time we’ve shown it in public. Many of the people interested in the Jeep just wanted to see what our QNX CAR application platform looked like “out of the box” without customization. And some were confessed Jeep or truck aficionados, without the “luxury brand lust” experienced by most.
  • People in the auto industry knew who we were without introduction. Non-automotive people didn’t know who we were until I mentioned that “we are a wholly owned subsidiary of Research In Motion,” at which point most of them said “Oh, you’re that QNX.” Seems that your average person has heard quite a bit about QNX in the context of BlackBerry, but has no idea that the same company is doing things in automotive — or in anything else, for that matter. I usually then spoke about our 30+ year legacy in life- and mission-critical systems. When people learned that an OS used for mission-critical systems will also power their next potential phone, their reaction was “wow—that’s really cool.”
  • Tanner Foust is a really nice young kid. (Actually, he’s not that much younger than me, but he sure looks young!) I didn’t know who he was when he was being filmed in the booth, surrounded by a throng of admirers. But since then, I’ve watched a lot of his YouTube videos and boy, can he drive! He's an accomplished race car driver, TV personality, and stuntman for lots of famous movies, but it’s nice to see he hasn’t let it go to his head.
  • We wanted to make sure that our concept car respected the Bentley brand. To do that, we ran our design sketches by the folks at Bentley and they occasionally suggested some tweaks. It was all our own work, however, and the Bentley folks never saw it before it hit the show floor. When they came to the booth, they were very happy with what they saw — enough so that they said “it looked like we did it.” That, to me, was the ultimate compliment.
  • Most frequent question: “Are you giving this away?” As it turns out, it’s something that people have said for every concept car we’ve done to date. Second most frequent question: “Can I drive it?” Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the answer to both is “No.”
  • I was a little surprised by the enthusiastic response to the car's video conferencing. Of course, it works only while the car is parked, and you only get audio while the car is in Drive. But the part that seemed to impress people the most is the audio: two channel stereo and a full 20Hz to 22KHz means that the call sounds so much better than your typical hands-free call. You could see the reaction when the our director of acoustics Phil Hetherington started talking — you don’t know what you’ve been missing until you hear it.
  • Bentley wanted us to add our video conferencing solution to the technology concept car. Because many Bentley vehicle owners aren’t necessarily the drivers, this feature makes a whole lot more sense for rear-seat systems than you might initially imagine.
  • I was really impressed by two members of the media: Brian Cooley of CNET and Craig Peterson of Clear Channel. Both could receive a five minute technology core dump, quickly digest it, and talk intelligently about it on video or live radio (respectively) with no stumbles, questions, or missteps. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing both in action before, but their consummate professionalism is really quite amazing.
  • I and every other QNX’er was delighted that we didn’t win the CNET Best of CES award! Instead, our customer, Chevrolet, won it for their MyLink system, and we couldn’t have been happier. Two out of the three nominees were QNX-based systems (the Garmin K2 was the other), so our odds were good. I’d rather that we never win another Best of CES award if it meant that one of our customers could always win instead.
  • A number of people asked about the RIM booth and its absence. I explained that RIM was focusing on their launch at the end of January, and that since they wouldn’t have a new product to show the public, it didn’t make sense to be there. (It’s notable that Microsoft wasn’t there either, and Apple never is.) RIM was in Las Vegas in a hotel outside the convention center, giving media private previews of the upcoming phones that seemed to be extremely well received. And we had a few of our RIM compatriots helping us out at the QNX booth as well.
That’s all I’ve got to say about CES 2013 — our best show yet. See you next year!

Okay, time to get technical

Have glossy photos of the QNX concept car left you hungry for more? Dig into a technical whitepaper with our friends from Texas Instruments.

By now, many of you have seen photos and videos of the new QNX technology concept car, a specially modded Bentley Continental GT. Now, I'd like to say that the car was completed in record time by a small team of highly creative QNX engineers. And in many ways, that's absolutely true. But it's just as true that the work started more than 10 years ago, when QNX Software Systems started to build deep partnerships with leading players in the auto industry.

Because the truth is, you don't create this kind of magic overnight. And you don't do it on your lonesome. QNX has become successful in automotive for many reasons, but one of the most important is our ability to work closely, and productively, with A-list partners like Texas Instruments.
Inside the concept car
Take a look at the amazing displays in the Bentley, and the speed at which the screens redraw, and you get a taste just for how well QNX software and TI silicon work together under the covers.

Which brings me to a new white paper co-authored by Andy Gryc of QNX, and Matt Watson and Scott Linke of TI. It's titled "In-Vehicle Connectivity is So Retro," and among other things, it tells the story of how technologies from QNX and TI have co-evolved to help automotive developers build high-performance systems in less time and at less cost.

If your working vocabulary includes terms like OMAP 5, 1080p video decode/encode, floating-point DSP, MOST MLB, Ethernet AVB, PCIe, SATA, WiLink, Bluetooth, GPS, and NFC, this paper is for you.