Review under pressure
Michael Kamber, a news photographer, reviews a digital camera (the Leica M8), comparing the tool to his needs. He discovers some important shortcomings, but that's not the point: neither you or I are shopping for a camera to take into a war zone next week. The design issues he raises, though, are fascinating to consider.
- You can trip the self-timer (which you seldom need in combat) on the edge of your flak jacket (which Kamber often needs in combat). As a result, when you need to get a picture, you may find the camera patiently counting down the self-timer interval.
- Because the controls aren't recessed, it's easy to accidentally activate a button as you’re running. This is especially awkward if you’re on a night patrol and the button activates your LCD display.
- Low light matters. I think this is the most common oversight in everyday cameras for the tech crowd: pixels are nice, focus is nice, but using all the available photons is what really makes a difference. “In Iraq”, Kamber writes, “I have shot hundreds, possibly thousands, of frames of soldiers by the light of a streetlight or by flashlight. Raids are also dimly lit; Iraqi homes frequently have a single bare lightbulb or a small florescent strip to light a room.”
- Small differences are not always small. A quiet camera is a nice thing, but for most people it's not a huge consideration. (Indeed, the camera phones generate artificial noise to deter creepy people from sneaking shots where they're unwelcome.) For a journalist, though, “unobtrusiveness may mean the difference between getting the picture or not, or even getting home safely or not.”
- Time expands and shrinks. This comes every few weeks in tech support: people will say things are “really slow”, but neither you nor they know just how slow they are. “In any breaking news situation, seven seconds is an eternity.”
- Some ergonomics matter more than others, but it’s hard to know which ones will be crucial. Kamber observes, for example, that being able to discretely swap flash cards makes a big difference. “In Baghdad I frequently cover the scenes of car bomb. It is illegal to shot these scenes until they are completely cleaned up, and the Iraqi police frequently confiscate flash cards and cameras if they see us shooting. Occasionally a photographer is beaten bloody. One of the ways around this is to try to sneak a photo and have a spare SD card to swap out; the police end up confiscating a blank card and the images are safe in your pocket.” Do you think this came up in a design review? Me neither.
Books about Good Design make it seem that the designers of successful products simply thought things through, while the people who made other things were idiots and scoundrels. That’s sometimes, but not always, the case. You can’t optimize everything, and I think it’s hard to know in advance what people will do with whatever you make.