New keyboard

Microsoft Digital Media Pro keyboard

The other day, while we were in Edinburgh, I popped into the local PC World and bought myself a new keyboard; my first new keyboard in about five years, and it was a long overdue purchase.

I’m a firm believer in choosing input devices that are right for the job. The peripherals I use most on any system are the monitor, keyboard and mouse. These are the things that I have my hands on or are looking at all day long. So it is essential that these are both comfortable and intuitive to use.

My last keyboard was the Microsoft Internet Pro, which is sadly no longer available. It was a comfortable, beige corded keyboard with integrated palm rest and a plethora of additional (and highly useful) multimedia buttons. The buttons I used most were situated above the number pad and allowed me access to My Computer and My Documents. And whenever I want to open either of those locations now (no matter what keyboard I’m using) I always tap that area of the keyboard. So I knew that I must have one with programmable buttons in that area.

My only real criticism of this keyboard was its height. It was angled too steeply which resulted in a little too much RSI for my liking. In the end it hurt my fingers too much to type. Not just because of the angle, but I’d also worn the keys down so much having battered them day-in and day-out from typing, that each time I pushed down on a key there was no resistance and it jarred my fingers.

So, I needed something similar but softer. And to that end on Wednesday I bought the Microsoft Digital Media Pro keyboard for £24.99. (As you can see I like keyboards manufactured by Microsoft and that have the word ‘Pro’ in the title.)

What I LIKE about this keyboard:

  • Comfortable angle (less risk of RSI)
  • Built-in palm rest
  • Soft keys for typing
  • Programmable keys including new “My Favorites” keys
  • Handy zoom control
  • It is not wireless
  • The price

What I DON’T LIKE about this keyboard:

  • I can’t reprogram the Sleep key
  • F Lock
  • F Lock
  • F Lock
  • F Lock
  • F Lock
  • F Lock

You’ll gather that I don’t like the F Lock. The F Lock is a way to toggle between the good old, standard function key (F key) … er functions and the shiny new functions that Microsoft think we should be using these for.

Obviously someone at Microsoft HQ looked at the keyboard in all of its legacy, text-only-OS glory and wondered why he had twelve rarely used F keys and what could these better be used for. So now we have the following programmed to the following F keys:

  1. Help
  2. Undo
  3. Redo
  4. New
  5. Open
  6. Close
  7. Reply
  8. Fwd
  9. Send
  10. Spell
  11. Save
  12. Print

Whereas what I’d like these to be programmed to are what the programmers of each application wanted them to be used for. So in Microsoft Word I want F7 (not F10) to be Spell, in Lotus WordPro I want F8 to change the current paragraph to the Title style, and in Microsoft Outlook I want F9 to be Send/Receive.

Sure, give me these new enhanced features if I must have them but please allow me to opt-in to these if I want to, not have to opt-out of it in order to simply return to my standard F keys setup — the ones I’ve been used to and using since, in some cases, 1995!

That said, I’m really pleased with this keyboard and I’d happily recommend it to anyone. Especially you.

Learning about good design underground

Cover of Mr Beck's Underground Map

This morning I finished reading Mr Beck’s Underground Map: A History by Ken Garland. It has been sitting on my bookshelf since March when Hazel recommended it to me.

The London Underground map is truly a work of genius. It maps London’s underground railway lines and connections rather than faithfully recreating a geographically accurate map. Garland’s book explores the history of how Beck’s original design came about, within the context of this growing network of London railways, and how his design was continued by later designers — often at Beck’s disgust.

Like many stories it is not always straight forward, but Harry Beck’s passion for this project (some might say obsession) certainly shines through. For years after the responsibility for advancing the design had been passed on to others Beck continued to work on the map in his spare time, tweaking and re-tweaking aspects of the design. In many ways it’s quite a poignant story, and you get the impression that life at home mustn’t have been easy for his wife.

There were a couple of sentences in the final two chapters that I thought helpful for any designer, and something that I’ve found particularly helpful when working on website designs. They spoke about being empathetic with the end-user.

[Beck] was continually putting himself in the position of the traveller — especially one who was unfamiliar with the Underground network — and trying to see the Diagram with an innocent eye. That he was able to do this after so long an association with it was a token of his understanding of the true and proper function of the information designer.

(Mr Beck’s Underground Map, Ken Garland, p.61)

and

… to be effective, information design must start, not merely end, with its users, their needs, their perceptions.

(ibid, p.62)

That, for me, is one of the most important aspects of information architecture: being able to return to a problem or scenario again and again, each time with a fresh perspective. It is about being able to see the world afresh and without prejudice. It is about imagination, imagining that I am someone different each time, approaching the site for the first time — perhaps a child, or a student, or a manager, or an older person. What do I see? (Can I see? Do I have colour blindness, or cataracts, or myopia?) What are my needs? What am I coming to the website for? Is it obvious?

The London Underground Map that we see today isn’t the work of Harry Beck, but it certainly draws very heavily on his work between 1931 and the early 1960s. For me, it also highlights another important aspect of information design and that is how important the involvement of other people is to any design project. There is wisdom in crowds … but that’s another blog post for another day.

Borders Scrap Store

Photograph of Selkirk Scrap Store.  A large warehouse room filled with rolls of material and shelves of scraps.

Yesterday my sister Jenni and I visited the Borders Scrap Store. Jenni needed something to make a tree trunk, and came away with a 4-5 ft cardboard tube. I got a huge roll of self-adhesive 8″ x 6″ white stickers — something Jane and I had been looking for to prepare for our move, so that we can cover over any markings on packing boxes from our last move in 2003. Jenni also picked up a few other bits and pieces, including a mohair stole, a huge pack of postcards (maybe around 200) and some CDs. We got the lot for £5.00. What an absolute bargain!

The Borders Scrap Store collects, stores and re-distributes waste materials from industry to improve the range and quality of creative materials available for Art and Craft.

It’s a great idea and saves these materials from unnecessarily being dumped in landfill sites. The Scrap Store charges an annual membership fee and then there’s a charge per bag of scrap, or “sensible donations” for other items, like the travelling rugs on offer yesterday.

I’m not sure the name of the chap who served us, but he was so enthusiastic and friendly (and was a cricket fan, so we had a good chat about the current England v India test series). It was the kind of customer service that would definitely encourage me to go back again and again, and maybe even write a blog post about the Scrap Store to try to promote it.

There are two Borders Scrap Stores just now:

Shepherd’s Mill, Selkirk (behind Atelier Fabrics on Station Road).
(01750) 725961

  • Tuesday 10:00 am – 1:00 pm
  • Thursday 2:30 pm – 5:30 pm
  • First Saturday of the month (term time only) 10:00 am – 1:00 pm

Fisherrow Community Centre, Musselburgh.
(0131) 665 8232

  • Monday 2:30 pm – 5:30 pm
  • Wednesday 9:30 am – 1:30 pm

Well worth a visit if you’re in the area. The only thing that I think could be vastly improved is their website. I’m sorely tempted to offer to redesign it for them, for free. As long as I can recycle some of their existing code and images!

Light and labels

A desk lamp underneath my desk, illuminating the back of my PC

Here’s my Top Tip for the day: a desk lamp beneath my desk allowing me clearly to see the (labelled) connections on the back of my PC case.

Light

The lamp is for those moments when I have to crawl down there to (un)plug an audio or USB cable, or when I’ve got the side panel off the box just making sure that everything is okay. I’ve got so many power sockets under there anyway I might as well employ one to help me while I’m guddling about under my desk, like some kind of IT troll.

Labels

A muddle of PC cablesAnother thing that I find useful is to label cables. Take a look at the mess of cables beneath my desk (right). The only way that I’m able to determine which cable is which, especially when it comes to power cables and USB cables, is because I label them all.

Power cables

All power cables have a label on the plug telling me what they are, e.g. PC, Monitor, hp 1000 (laser printer), hp 5150 (colour printer), etc. No more accidentally unplugging my PC when I meant to switch off the printer.

USB cables

All the USB cables have a little label flag (simply a label folded round the cable and back onto itself) on each cable at the PC end, telling me what they are, e.g. HP 5150 (colour printer), USB Hub, etc.

At the other end, on my 4-port USB Hub I have little label flags there too: Belkin Media Reader, hp 1000, SiPix Webcam, and IrDA.

This way I don’t have to waste time untangling cables between peripherals and my PC to find out what’s what. I just have to switch on my under-desklamp and read the labels.

(The lamp is really good for keeping my feet warm, too, on cold mornings!)