How my watch taught me about Design

I have a confession to make. I eavesdrop into any conversations that happen around me. Eavesdropping is a bad habit, I agree,  but as long as it is there to dissolve the communication barrier between any two entities and if data can be extracted and converted to information it’s worth it.

As part of my whole eavesdropping habit, this time I eavesdropped  into a  conversation that was unfolding between me and my neglected H.M.T. watch. The conversation was insightful and taught me all about information and interface design.

In general if one were to ask anyone what information and interface design was all about, you would probably learn that it was all about making wireframes or paper prototypes that conveyed the ideas of a designer into what he or she believed was “practical” and “usable” – terms that are generally borrowed off the shelf and placed meticulously  where the usual “er” or the ” you know” would be placed.

This is my take at explaining what information and Interface design  is all about. To start with it’s beautiful.

Let us look at that product that we all own, be it a person from Antarctica or from NewFoundLand, a product which dictates terms to us, a watch or a clock  that we all see on a daily basis. We use this device to  help us remind ourselves of  the time at every given point of time(ironical!).  Let us for a while try and understand the kind of information it feeds us with. To a person living in North  India,  mornings are at 8 A.M. and he or she will be able to get out of his or her house at noon, only when the fog has cleared. The watch dictates when it is safe to go out and when it is not. To a person at south India 4 A.M. is the best time to wake up and start the daily activities. The simple watch reminds him of the mystical “Brahmamuhurtham”(ideal time). To a person who is in the east and the west of India, he probably is fishing for the best time when he could go fishing. The watch helps him determine when these schools of fishes will ne nearer to the coast.

All these data patterns are complex in nature and have therefore been analyzed over the years(and across generations) to convert them into simple information stacks. That’s Information Design through an interface we call Ghadhi.

All these sets of complex data are conveyed via a simple interfaces which we neglect in our daily lives. This simple interface has found its solace in 3 hands and 12 digits. Yes, it’s the watch or the clock that we all see on a daily basis.

Could 12 roman numerals and 3 hands tell us the time without the interface they were bundled into ?

The answer is surprisingly – no. I can’t imagine a watch minus these 12 numbers and 3 hands (considering digital watches are for dummies). To me the ultimate form of information design is having 12 numbers and 3 hands dictating to me what I should do all through the waking hours of my day. And if these 12 numbers and 3 hands were not arranged in the way they have as of now to make the watch, the whole concept of interface design  would be lost.

Information and interface design is an integrated theme and cannot exist without each other. Just as the 12 numbers and 3 hands cannot tell me the time if  not  arranged in the fashion they have been (interface). On an extremely “holistic” level anyone can gain inspiration and insights about  information and interface design just by reading the time.

How can one define the best interface ?

In my definition, an interface that can be easily understood by a 5 year old to a 90 year in the same way old  is a good interface design, perhaps even the best Interface design. Something that crosses all boundaries and ethnic groups to such an extent that it ends up uniting them is a good interface and interface design to start with. Communication design also finds its roots somewhere here. Almost jumping and trying to make its presence felt.

What is an interface that communicates across boundaries, races, gender and  across all those biases societies create ? A single product that is so well hidden and yet extremely essential . If there had to be a perfect, age old, time tested design, it has to be the watch/clock that we find ourselves looking at everyday. Period.

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10 Responses to How my watch taught me about Design

  1. Yes, good post Shankara Narayana.
    I think the fact that its analog has a lot to do with it. Not many digital devices (probably none) have been able to form the same comfort level with such a universal audience.
    A notable point is that the watch (with 12 numbers and 3 hands) does not involve much interaction. If you want someone to set the time/date on this one, it is a relatively difficult task. (Lets not talk about the interface on the digital watches). So, View is good (err practical and you know usable).
    Edit is a little uh-oh.

  2. deepak says:

    Hi Shankar,
    Interesting take on watch/clock being an example of information and interface design. Indeed, it is something that we hardly notice and yet it’s an age-old example of a ‘dashboard’ design – at a glance view of how time dominates our lives 🙂 I believe, in reading time at a particular moment on a watch we also read a bit about ourselves – how have we progressed through the day so far, what should we anticipate in the coming moments? What have we missed? In a way it’s a reflection of our own sense of efficiency, fulfillment.

    Curiously, the timepiece (either a clock or watch) is increasingly becoming just an accessory with other digital artifacts on our person or around us like the cell phone or the clock on the car dashboard telling time in a drab, digital way. Time-telling through the ages – could be an area worth exploring from a Info design perspective.

    Cheers!
    Deepak

  3. Pavan Garre says:

    Like many books say every body is a designer and it can also be interaction designer or interface designer. Where as we chose it as our profession and make a living out of it. I agree that Interfaces and interactions are every where. Well this interaction is one of my favorites: you are speaking to somebody and the listener is looking into space, you quickly sense that he ain’t listening to you.Over here the speakers observation of absence of attention is gaining his attention and acting as feedback. Wow, I can write catchy sentences too ;)… Anyways, well the point is many interfaces are hidden or transparent between the task(conveying time) and the machine (we). One can know the time by just looking at the sky or looking at the Bangalore traffic etc. This traditional method vs the now conventional method of knowing time has their differences in the precision. One is precise till hours and the other precise till minutes or seconds. Where as a digital watch is precise till seconds or milli seconds. When I was young and when I was not trained of how to read time looking at a clock,my family acted as a watch in conveying time. When I was giving my state entrance exam a digital watch was my requirement to top the state. ( State 353 🙂 , who doesnt love to boast ? ). And now my mobile phone and Windows thoughtful clock at a corner are serving this task. To me these all are good interfaces or best interfaces, as they all are serving the purpose in their context. And your definition of best interface is actually principles of Universal design as followed by the epistemological world.

  4. Ram says:

    Nice!
    The thing about living around here is that everything is highly contextual, and our interfaces become specific to the purpose they were intended for.
    In a perfect world, we will have interfaces that go beyond our petty boundaries 🙂 – but yes, only in a perfect world!

  5. Jonathan says:

    A few points:

    1. Digital watches are not for dummies. Many people find it easier to read time from a digital watch
    2. The watch does NOT convey complex data. It conveys the time. The “data patterns” that you speak of are just are own presets that we associate to certain times. I think you’ve created an unnecessary (though not uncalled for) association between displayed time and the inferences we draw from it.
    3. A good interface will not necessarily be understood by people aged 5 to 90. A good interface is efficient and effective for it’s target audience.
    4. “…a perfect, age old, time tested design…” The same could be said for the chair, hammer & nail, door-knob, etc. Not that the watch isn;t a good design. It just isn’t the only one.

  6. Vijaya says:

    second johny 😀

    • notnarayanshankar says:

      @Jonathan & Vijaya.

      This article was about how my watch taught me about design. As of now( and help me if you can ) I cant think of any time keeping device personal to one and all yet present everywhere that does not depend on 12 numbers and 3 hands (lets call them entities) to tell the time. Whether it is a digital watch or an analog watch the 12 numbers cannot be removed. These 12 numbers if given to you without the interface they come bundled in, cannot tell you the time. Thus, the watch (analog or digital, somewhere my preference to an analog caved in ) is a good example of an information and interface design. This was the idea behind this article.

      The chair, hammer and nail are great examples of well crafted designs and i am sure all the theories of affordances, allowances and suggestive designs can be learnt from them. Lets try and write about them. what do you think ?

  7. notnarayanshankar says:

    @Jonathan & Vijaya.

    This article was about how my watch taught me about design. As of now( and help me if you can :D) I cant think of any time keeping device personal to one and all yet present everywhere that does not depend on 12 numbers and 3 hands (lets call them entities) to tell the time. Whether it is a digital watch or an analog watch the 12 numbers cannot be removed. These 12 numbers if given to you without the interface they come bundled in, cannot tell you the time. Thus, the watch (analog or digital, somewhere my preference to an analog caved in :D) is a good example of an information and interface design. This was the idea behind this article.

    The chair, hammer and nail are great examples of well crafted designs and i am sure all the theories of affordances, allowances and suggestive designs can be learnt from them. Lets try and write about them. what do you think ?

  8. Vijaya says:

    hey appreciate ur enthu to blog and respond (twice that too 😛 )
    we understand ur idea behind the blog but still the ‘digital for dummies’ — cant really agree with and the ‘interpretations ppl have or associations they make’ part of it…would still be taking it beyond the object/interface part of it 🙂

  9. Pingback: Information and Interface design. Revisited. « Shankar's Blog

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