The User Experience of Recent Geek Gear: 1 Out Of 2 Ain’t Bad

As I’ve written here, I think Steve Jobs’s deepest legacy is a changed expectation: we computer users now believe that digital products should bring us pleasure rather than frustration. This is a big shift, and a beneficial one. Almost singlehandedly, Apple has raised the bar (permanently, I hope) for the rest of the industry: technologists and their products now need to work to accommodate normal human beings, rather than the other way around.

How well are geeks and their gear rising to this challenge? Two new products I’ve been using indicate that progress is being made, but that it’s spotty.

The Kindle Fire is far from perfect, but it strikes me as a device made with full human beings in mind —  people who want something that works, and also want it to be aesthetically pleasing. Yes, the touch screen is balky and yes, the browser is slow. But the user interface is simple and intuitive, the screen is bright and colorful, and the device itself looks pretty cool and fits into a jean or jacket product.

I’ve found myself reaching for the Fire a lot recently, which has to be a good sign for Amazon. With 3-4 million of them shipped so far, it looks like I was right that the tablet wars start now, although it could also be that the Fire will complement the iPad rather than substitute for it.

I’ve found myself spontaneously reaching a lot less for my LiveScribe pen and notepad, even though it’s a pretty impressive and useful technology. The LiveScribe pen stores a digital copy of all notes I write on special LiveScribe paper, and will also record the conversations taking place as I’m writing. This is great for interviews and meetings.

It’s also great that with LiveScribe I can put a copy of all my handwritten notes up in the Cloud and so have constant access to them. I prefer to write notes instead of typing them (yes, I know this means I am old), but don’t like how hard it’s been to go back through all my old notebooks whenever I want to look something up.

So I was excited to try LiveScribe, and am happy to report that it does work as advertised; I now have the ability to store notes and conversations in the Cloud. I’m less than happy, though, about the devices that enable this ability.

The LiveScribe pen has to be bigger than normal to accommodate its circuitry, but does it have to look like such a geeky implement? It’s black plastic, and has a big ‘on’ button at the top. It won’t inspire techno-lust from your friends; it’ll inspire them to make fun of you. And it has a small plastic cap over the point that’s hard to remove and very easy to lose; I’m amazed I still have mine.

The pen itself writes about as well as the cheapest ballpoint, since its ink cartridge is a cheap ballpoint. Amazingly, I don’t think there are other options – users are stuck with an expensive pen that feels and writes like a throwaway one. I’m no fetishist for writing implements, but I want something better than that. The average pen I can buy at Staples writes much better than a LiveScribe.

And I don’t think there’s an option to buy good old-fashioned 8.5×11″ LiveScribe notepads that I can stick in the leather portfolio I’ve been carrying around for years. I’m stuck instead with spiral-bound ones. So the whole experience of using the technology makes me feel like a nerdy middle-school student with a Trapper Keeper.

I know how this feels because I was a nerdy middle school student, and I don’t wanna go back there. I’m amazed and disappointed that LiveScribe didn’t spend more time de-nerding their products by making them aesthetically pleasing to look at and use, rather than just blandly functional. I don’t pretend for a second that good industrial design is easy, but too many technologists continue to pretend that it’s not necessary.

It is.

What do you think? What recent tech products have been especially well or poorly designed? Which ones are delivering great user experiences, or particularly lousy ones? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.