Followers on Twitter will know I love podcasts. I listen to them every day and as a result have acquired a fairly chunky number of subscriptions along the way. One of the most recent additions is the Unusable Podcast, a show which discusses the good, bad and ugly sides of usability in both the physical world and digital.
One of the latest episodes sees the chaps discussing wireless headphones and breaking down the ups and downs of the design decisions by some manufacturers which led me to reflect on the wireless headphones I got for Christmas.
Unlike Andrew and David from Unusable, I didn’t do a massive amount of research. I had a price point in mind and went for a pair by Sony because I have some wired headphones I bought back in 2013 which are still going strong so I figured it was a safe bet.
I hadn’t given it much thought until that episode but thinking about how I use the headphones, I find them to be pretty decent from a usability perspective and here’s why.
Control, control, you must learn control
On the right headphone, there are a few basic controls which you can use to control your music without picking up your device. They’ve been designed in such a way that you quickly learn how they work and, critically, how they feel. The headphone controls rely entirely on the sense of touch to use.
Starting with the first button you press once you’ve opened them. This is a simple push button with a couple of different interactions. Press and hold for 2 seconds turns them on and off. Press and hold for 7 seconds allows you to pair with a Bluetooth device. Simple.
The button is a circular shape and has a slight depression. Being the only button like this, it’s really easy to locate and identify with your finger.
The volume control is raised from the edge of the headphone and is shaped like a thin bar, one end turns volume up, the other end turns down.
The last button is the most multi-use but is simple to use. Press down to play/pause, push one way to skip forward, the other way to skip back. Like the volume, this button is raised but it’s much smaller and sits on a little slider which again helps you feel the difference between the other two controls.
The thing I struggled most was learning the direction to skip forward and back. In context where you’re controlling something with some directional aspect without looking, it needs to be done in a way which makes sense in your head. It took a while for me to figure it out in a way that makes sense to me.
When wearing the headphones, I use my thumb to push the button towards the back of my ear to skip forward. Pressing a button back to go forward is the core of my initial confusion.
Thinking about it more, I think I’ve come up with a sensible explanation for this. The play button sits to the lower left. Imagine a clock face, it’d be about the position of 7. Stick with me on the clock idea.
Things moving clockwise are naturally associated with forward movement. While wearing the headphones, pushing the button to skip ahead, you’re pushing it toward 8 on a clock face. Pushing to go back, you’re more towards 6.
You might read this and think I’m talking a load of bollocks but once I landed on this way of thinking about it, I no longer forget which way to push the button. For me, Sony have done a great job here, they really thought about how people would use this product and achieved the core functionality in a really simple way.
Well, there you have it. I’ve thought about this probably too much but hopefully it makes sense. And if you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive pair of wireless headphones, I’d whole-heartedly recommend these.