On earphones and user needs

In 1995 I bought a new cassette player because I needed music in my ears. That was my only actual user need. Other, less important needs, were that the device be compact and black, though here we enter into the realm of user need vs consumer want, which I’ll come back to later. For now, this is the story of the user interface that I grew to love. Yes. Love.

Loving a user interface

The stereo was a Panasonic RQ-S25. I nearly didn’t buy it because the remote control that it came with – a feature I didn’t want or need – pushed the price over my budget. But, the player was super compact, and black, with neat little silver details, so I sucked up the extra cost and started using it everywhere I went. Mostly to and from college, walking around college between classes, and around Exeter at various other times.

Panasonic RQ-S25

I was well in to the collective output of the Wu Tang Clan at the time: 36 Chambers, Tical, 6 Feet Deep, Liquid Swords, Return To The 36 Chambers and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… to date (such a good time for East Coast Hip Hop, and the young white kids growing up on Dartmoor, who were inexplicably into it), and I was a tad shy and moody, so the earphones were almost always in my ears, with the cable dangling inside my t-shirt to prevent that classic awkwardness of it getting caught in zips or on other things.

With previous stereos I’d learned the trick of feeling for the buttons protruding through the material of the trouser pocket and lightly pressing them all to cause the tape to stop. Not an intended feature I bet, but it worked for stopping when you couldn’t see the buttons. Pressing play or fast forward was possible too, though hit and miss, as the pocket material was so taught due to the large size of older stereos that it caused more than one button to press. You also had to remember which way round the stereo was, to be sure of which side the fast forward and rewind buttons were on.

With my new stereo, the pocket busting size was no longer an issue, but the flat profile ‘feather-touch’ buttons were even harder to distinguish by touch through clothing. Reluctantly, I tried using the remote, dangling idly inside my t-shirt against the middle of my sternum. While it also needed to be grasped through material, the fact that it only had one button made it surprisingly easy to operate. Further more, that one button allowed more than one function.

Press once to play. Once again to stop. Press twice to fast forward. Three times to rewind. And hold for a short time to autoreverse. Add to that, the ability to roll the little dial on the side of the button, up and down my chest to adjust the volume, and I realised I could control of all the functions I needed, without needing to see a single part of the stereo or headphones. This was surprisingly cool. And increasingly useful.

Panasonic RQ-S25 remote. The one single glorious button

Panasonic RQ-S25 remote instructions

Before long, pressing the button and rolling the volume had become quick, effortless gesture-like interactions. If someone asked me a question I would tap my chest to stop the music and ask them to repeat. After, tap my chest again to resume. When I got to a track I didn’t like, I would quickly tap-tap my chest to skip it. Tap, to see where I was. Tap-tap to keep going. Tap to check. Tap-tap-tap to go back a bit if need be. And when a great tune came on, I could pinch my t-shirt and gesture my fingers downward a few times to max out the volume. I felt like I was part of the stereo and that the music was part of me. I loved this remote.

All good things come to an end

Eventually, after so much daily use, one of the earphones stopped working. I kept using it for a while to block background sound while listening in the other ear, but it was less immersive and I was getting more and more into the Beatles, and their stereo sound shenanigans meant it was impossible to listen properly. In the end I figured I’d sink a little more money and get another set of remote earphones.

Progressing backwards

Sadly, I couldn’t find them anywhere. Nor even a completely new RQ-S25 which looked to have been discontinued and replaced by new models with fiddly multi-button remotes. Some even with tiny LCD displays on them. I didn’t want to look at the remote, or fiddle with it, or read it, nor did I want it to be bigger and round or cylindrical. I wanted my single button and roll dial volume. I thought the earphone remote user interface was solved. One button with a rolling dial was perfect. Why did they make it worse? Less usable? Less remote somehow? I was baffled and frustrated beyond belief. And like the love of the interface, the frustration has never actually subsided…

OK, I’m getting a bit emotional now, but I really did feel pissed off. Looking back I see how odd it is to have such strong emotions about a user interface, but I can still kind of feel it. That remote made the actual user need – music in my ears – effortless, immersive, personal and almost intimate. But these new remotes took all that away. None of my tap gestures worked and you had to fiddle at length and look to find the right button. And they had to be worn outside of clothing which meant a return to the cable catching awkwardness.

I see from a feature marketing point of view how the ‘new and improved’ remotes would look cooler to consumers that had never used the single button remote, but that realisation only fuels my frustration with superfluous and novelty design. Design that is designed to look good, irrespective of how it operates. Less gilding the lily, more, sticking lots of buttons and an LCD display on the lily.

After giving up the search for a new remote I went back to regular earphones and taking the player out of my pocket to operate it. After a while, the whole thing broke anyway and I ended up buying a new, cheap, remote-less compact personal stereo. After that was the time of MD players, which I fell for. They all came with remotes as standard and the Sony Walkman MD that I chose came with the long cylindrical type, with a blue LCD display (catchily called the Sony RM-MC11EL). It did little more than my old remote, but has sooooo many more buttons and switches.

Sony RM-MC11EL remote next and previous

You had to twist the end up to start playing. Twist up again to skip one track forward. Twist up and hold to fast forward. Twist down to skip back. Twist down and hold down to rewind. And to stop you had to push the very end of the twisty bit. Finally, for the volume, you had to pull the twisty bit out, then twist up and down to adjust, pushing back in when finished. 

Sony RM-MC11EL remote pull out volume twister

To pause (why MD players needed stop and pause I don’t know) you could press the first of the five individual buttons on the side of the remote. Next to that was a ‘sound’ button for adjusting the synthetic sound effect modes. Next button was Repeat / Enter, for repeating a track and confirming options displayed on the LCD. Next button was Playmode for selecting yet more options, and the last button was to turn the LCD light on or off.

Sony RM-MC11EL remote more buttons

On the other side was a sliding hold button that would disable the controller, and on the back was a big broach like clip which was necessary due to the weight of the button laden remote. When the clip failed, the bulk of it all would pull the earphones out of your ears. Every time I used it, I hated it, and wished I had one button again. It didn’t add to getting music in my ears. It only distracted and overcomplicated things. The one and only good thing about it was the 3.5mm port next to the clip which meant I could use the, then new, rubber tipped in-ear earphones. My old friend mrstorey.com discovered these and converted a lot of people over to their noise canceling and base boosting awesomeness. He was slightly less successfully in his promotion of the Nike Air Rift as the best shoe in the world, but each to their own.

In-ear earphones

Button re-reduction

The RM-MC11EL died when I caught the cable on a protruding bolt at a train station and it ripped out from the remote. I told you cable dangling was awkward and annoying. Luckily this was around the time of MP3 music on phones, the first generation iPod shuffle (future generations of which also added too many features and things for my liking!) and various other devices for getting music into ears, so I moved on in search of my dream remote. Surely one button would make a come back soon?

The first close contender was an early iPod remote from Apple, but somehow, this purveyor of the one button mouse for so long, still opted for five effective buttons. Play/Pause, Previous/Rewind, Next/Fast Forward, Volume up, Volume down. Still hard to just tap or pinch without having to fumble a little first. This one had a 3.5mm port in the top as well, so at least in-ear earphones could be used.

Old iPod remote

Next, I noticed that the standard Apple earphones, included with all iPods and iPhones, had what looked like a tiny one button remote… But, and to cut an already too long story shot, it was still actually three buttons and not as easily tappable as I wanted. Also, in the box by default, they’re not the rubberised sort, but rather the old plastic ones that fall out easily and this time there’s no option to plug in an alternate 3.5mm jack. I’ve already lost my ideal one button remote. I’m not about to turn back on the glory of in-ear earphones as well.

Apple default headphone remote

As of today, this is the closest anyone has come to my dream earphone remote. Three buttons, lightweight, wearable and findable inside clothing, AND featuring some familiar multiple press and hold functions. Here’s the full list of what these three Apple earphone buttons can do:

  1. Play or pause a song or video :  Press the center button once. Press again to resume playback
  2. Skip to the next song or chapter : Press the center button twice quickly
  3. Fast-forward: Press the center button twice quickly and hold
  4. Go to the previous song or chapter : Press the center button three times quickly.
  5. Rewind : Press the center button three times quickly and hold.
  6. Answer or end a call : Press the center button once to answer. Press again to end the call.
  7. Decline an incoming call : Hold down the center button for about two seconds, then let go. When you let go, two low beeps con rm that you declined the call.
  8. Switch to an incoming or on-hold call and put the current call on hold: Press the center button once. Press again to switch back to the  rst call.
  9. Switch to an incoming or on-hold call and end the current call: Hold down the center button for about two seconds, then let go. When you let go, two low beeps con rm that you ended the first call.
  10. Increase volume: Press the + button.
  11. Decrease volume: Press the – button.

From the Apple EarPods with Remote and Mic user guide

That’s eleven things from just three buttons. This list also highlights the fact that modern devices have to do a lot more than a personal cassette player used to. That said, if points 10 and 11 were controlled by a small dial or something, rather than two single use buttons, then we would be reliving the user interface glory of 1995. Well, I would at least. Alas.

Here I am then, 20 odd years later, with no remote in my earphones, and still with the bloody dingly dangly cable. Forget flying cars. I just want effortless and immersive music in my ears.

What’s next for headphones?  

I’m finally writing this post today, after years of thinking about it, because this evening (BST) Apple are rumoured to announce the removal of the 3.5mm jack from their next generation iPhone.

It’s been the biggest rumour about the iPhone 7 by far, at least in the rumour mills of Daring Fireball and MacRumours, and having been a both a Mac user for 20+ years and someone with an unhealthy concern about earphones for the same period, I’m finding it both objectively and subjectively interesting.

On the objective side, the fuss about them removing the 3.5mm jack from their new phone looks and sounds the same as the fuss when they removed the floppy disc drive from the iMac, the physical keyboards from the smart phone, and the CD/DVD drive from their MacBooks and iMacs. People went nuts about all these events and either made claims of Apples evil nature, forcing people to upgrade and throw their old tech away, or of their stupidity, as if the things they remove are the keystone essence to each device.

Each time however, they end up being right. Where is the floppy disc drive now and who would want a 1.4MB removable media drive anymore? Where is the massive market for smartphones with physical keyboards? And when was the last time you used a CD of DVD to good effect? I’m not saying Apple are infallible or always right about everything, just that all evidence does point to it being time to move on and progress from the 3.5mm jack which has been in use for 54 years. Phones have a USB or a Lightning port which can be utilised for headphones and Bluetooth which can also be used. That’s two ways of getting music into ears.

More subjectively then, for me it makes total sense. Yes, it’s annoying that I’ll need a 3.5mm jack to Lightning cable adaptor for any of my old headphones, but I kind of hate them all already due to the remote and cable dangling issues. And even if I didn’t feel that way, they’ll all break or wear out in a few years anyway.

Also, I resent having to pick pocket lint out of both the Lightning cable and the 3.5mm holes. One less port to de-fluff is all good.

Shipping with the iPhone 7?

John Gruber had his five (plus one) ideas a while back and I reckon it’ll go the way of option 3. Apple will include their same old standard earphones, with 3 button remote, but it’ll have a Lightning connector instead of the 3.5mm jack. That means buyers are buying the same opportunity as before: A phone and some headphones in a box.

Separately you’ll be able to buy a 3.5mm jack to Lightning cable adaptor or upgrade the default headphones to fancier options as before. A new option will likely include a Apple Bluetooth earphone, as well as some Beats versions. This is where I’m focusing my 20 year hopes and fears…

My hopes are that the Apple Bluetooth earphone will be available as a rubber in-ear option and will have a similar little 3 button remote and mic (with a small Lightning port on the side for charging) just below the right ear (it’s too unrealistic to imagine them going back to volume wheels and using just one button).

Alternately, it’ll have the exact same remote under the right ear, and a similar size lump on the left, containing the Lightning port and necessary Bluetooth gubbins. Ideally they’ll do these in black as I’m not fond of the white earphone thing. Too shouty. These earphones will be joined with a single thin cable that will sit neatly around the back of the neck. The end of the dangle.

My fears are that their bluetooth option will be a ’sport’ model or something with big ugly over the ear clips, or that they’ll add awkward buttons to the remote. Worse, that they’ll put the mic and gubbins in one of the earphones, making it all big and bulbous. Don’t get me wrong, I love Uhura, but I don’t want her earpiece.

Or, Apple won’t do in-ear Bluetooth and instead they’ll leave all alternate options to their Beats brand and these will all be huge, over-head headphones and price inflated for style, rather than for ease of use and build quality. Which brings us neatly back to user need vs consumer want.

I need music in my ears. And, I want affordable earphones that fit all my exact specifications. I’ve been waiting 20 years for the latter, while the former is possible in thousands of ways. The line between user need and customer delight is a thin and competitive one. Witnessing myself over the years going without features due to the way something looks or operates has been interesting for the designer in me. Part cutting off my nose to spite my face, part design opportunity that no one is noticing.

But let’s be honest. What would I do if I worked at Apple or any earphone manufacture? Most likely, I’d make whatever we were confident that the masses would buy, so long as it could be produce with a good profit margin. Happy (majority of) customers. Happy shareholders.

For now though, sad little old me. Until later today, perhaps…