Microsoft's InstaLoad Improves Battery Usability

Microsoft’s new InstaLoad system enables electronic devices such as mice, game console controllers and electric shavers to function regardless of which way round their users insert the batteries. InstaLoad is one of those designs that makes you think, “Why didn’t I think of that?”, which is the hallmark of every brilliantly simple design. InstaLoad also highlights the design flaw in the user interface of one of the simplest household objects: the AA battery.

Reading the comments on the posts various bloggers have written about InstaLoad is more illuminating than reading about InstaLoad itself. Most readers rave about InstaLoad. Others, however, bemoan the stupid people—myself included—that put batteries in the wrong way round. “Can’t they follow simple diagrams?” they ask. Well, yes, they can. And so can I. But we all make mistakes, especially when not giving our full attention to what is, essentially, quite a trivial task.

But let’s look a little deeper.

Although we all have many battery-operated devices, the task of inserting batteries into those devices is actually performed quite rarely. Rarely-performed tasks are unlikely to be memorised, which is why battery compartments include symbols to instruct users in which direction to insert the batteries. However, product designers should always look again at any design that requires a label or other form of instruction, especially for simple tasks.

The reason we can insert AA batteries the wrong way round is that their design fails to meet a central goal of interaction design, which is to hide implementation details from users. Users know that batteries power their devices, but users shouldn’t need to know about electrical current or positive and negative terminals to be able to use those batteries. Although InstaLoad doesn’t hide these implementation details, it does make them irrelevant.

InstaLoad makes the orientation-specific battery design look archaic, which of course it is. The male-end and female-end design of cables also suffered from the same old-school thinking for years. Although Jef Raskin proposed a design for hermaphroditic cables years ago, it’s only recently that HDMI cables have brought this common-sense design to consumer products. And not a moment too soon.

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