Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Form Over Function

I recently bought a Jawbone Noise Assassin Bluetooth headset. The Jawbone, in many ways, is a designer's dream, starting with the packaging, which is incredibly elegant -- a clear plastic shell that contains black, folded paper boxes, a delight to open and explore. The headset itself is gorgeous. It's small, lightweight (about 1/3 oz), and comfortable. It comes with leather-wrapped earloops in two sizes, plus two more thin ones designed for use with eyeglasses, and three sizes of earbuds. It comes in black, silver, and gold.

There are a lot of nice touches to the design. One example: the first time you turn it on, it automatically starts in pairing mode so you can connect it to your phone. And, of course, it has the main selling point -- world-class background noise elimination which uses a combination of a patented voice-activity sensor and "advanced DSP algorithms," which have been improved singe the original model (the Jawbone Noise Shield). It may well be the best Bluetooth headset on the market. But, despite all this, there are a couple of significant missteps -- in which the designers have gone for form over function.

Buttons Aren't Bad 

First, for some reason, the designers seem to think that buttons are bad and they tout the fact that there are no visible buttons. Here's what they say:
No Visible Buttons
The "invisible button" policy at Jawbone accomplishes a clutter-free look. Touch-surface technology allows the user to operate switches by lightly pressing the outside shield.
I don't object to invisible buttons per se, but it seems the desire to hide the buttons has overridden the usability of the design. Take a look at the position of the Talk button:

How do you press this button? Well, basically, you press the whole headset into your ear. I don't know about you, but pressing a headset into my ear isn't comfortable, even with a super lightweight headset like this. To turn the headset on or off, you have to press that button for 2 seconds. I will note that this is an improvement from the first Jawbone, where both buttons required pushing the headset into your ear and they took noticeably more pressure to activate. Next time around, how about positioning the buttons so that you press them by grasping the top and bottom of the headset?

Standards Aren't Bad

Second, for some inexplicable reason, the Jawbone uses a completely non-standard power adapter. It has an elegant connector -- small, shaped to fit the Jawbone, and it attaches with magnets. It's a huge improvement from the very wacky, hard-to-fit adapter from the first Jawbone. But, why does it exist? Most small devices like this use a mini-USB connector and there is a new, smaller micro-USB connector standard. I have half a dozen devices in my house that all use a mini-USB connector. Why doesn't the Jawbone use a standard connector?

I could excuse it if they were trying to create a new standard -- perhaps a magnetically attached USB connector that others could use. But they're not -- their connector will never fit anything else because it is shaped to fit the headset. Sure, it's elegant. But, it's not elegant enough to override the pain of the extra cable. I have chargers for my cell phone at home, in my office, and in my car. But I have to carry the cable for the Jawbone around if I want to be able to charge it with me wherever I go. When I travel, I'll have to take an extra cable just to charge my Jawbone -- and, if I forget the cable, I'm screwed.

Documentation Isn't Bad

It's minor compared with the other problems, but the folded, white-on-black documentation, while gorgeous, is inadequate. How many volume levels are there? (Since the volume cycles only one way with a button press, you need to know this -- it's 5.) What is the funny sound I hear sometimes when I'm wondering around my house? (I think it's an out-of-range indicator.) How do I end a call? (Press the Talk button.) Is there anything else I need to know? How about a little table?

The Jawbone Isn't Bad

There are some other nits. For example, the LED indicator light, which lights in both red and white to indicate different things is underneath my finger when I'm pressing the Talk button. The LED lights up to confirm that 2 seconds has elapsed when I'm turning the Jawbone on or off, but I can't see it. Maybe I just have big fingers.

In the end, I still recommend the Jawbone Noise Assassin, but not by much (and I also recommend it over it's predecessor, the Noise Shield). It's a good headset, but it would be a home run if they fixed these flaws. For me, the advantages of their design, including the noise elimination, just barely outweigh these disadvantages.