• Apple Magic Mouse: form over function?

    Design of the way a product looks and feels is paramount for commercial success. The recent iPhone 5 launch has only confirmed the amount of time and effort that Apple puts into making their products look amazing and enticing—to the point where a lot of people just have to have one because it looks so good. But quite often these good looks can come at a cost. It is something we call in the design industry as having ‘form over function’. To put it simply, ‘form over function’ occurs when the look and feel of a product has a higher priority during the design phase, and can actually affect its usefulness, efficiency and ergonomics (the way the product relates to the body).

    One of the best examples of this from Apple has been the Apple Mouse. But we’ll get back to that in a sec.

    Why is the look of a product so important? Say you’re buying toothpaste in the supermarket. Which one do you buy? Some people will have their favourite brand that they’ve used for ages, but the greater majority of consumers will pick toothpaste, and many other products primarily based on the shape and style of the packaging and the associated marketing material. How else can you know which one is the best without actually standing in the aisle and brushing your teeth with each product until you find the one you like best?

    Supermarkets are one thing, but when you move into the realm of product design, the look of a thing can be the difference between amazing success and devastating commercial failure. A really good example of this in Australia was the demise of the Mitsubishi 380. Pitted against the Falcon and Commodore, plus the newly arrived Aurion, the 380 was to be Mitsubishi’s saving grace ... and it should have been. It received the Australia’s Best Cars award for large cars in 2005, got rated as the most secure Australian family car by Insurance Australia Group, ANCAP gave it four stars naming it Safest Australian Built Car in 2006, Delivery Australia magazine named it Best Fleet Car, and the Society of Automotive Engineers gave it an award of engineering excellence for its 3.8 litre V6 engine.

    So where did it all go wrong? To put it really bluntly it just didn’t look any good and therefore was uninspiring for most potential customers. It was bland and out-dated with unresolved lines and surfaces. I wouldn’t say it was ugly, but compared to it’s modern and sportly looking rivals, this car didn’t stand a chance—even though (except for maybe the Aurion) it was vastly superior in dynamics and build quality to its competitors. By the time they axed it in March 2008 (less than three years since its launch), they were selling at a nearly 20% discount! Not great for a car that cost over $600 million to develop!

    So coming full circle now, Apple is a company that is moving ahead in leaps and bounds, and I believe this is largely due to the design, look and feel of their products. iMacs look magnificent perched up on an office desk. iPads just make people want to pick them up, feel the smooth alloy curves, and touch the bright, detailed colourful screen. And there is no way Apple would have sold as many relatively low-spec MacBook Airs (considering their cost) if they didn’t look sexier than Megan Fox and Jessica Alba washing an Aston Martin. And of course the new iPhone 5 with it’s ‘Swiss watch-like’ appearance and newly designed headphones (which from all initial reports don’t sound much better than the current headphones, but they look newer and fancier ...).There is one area however where Apple’s obsession with image and looks has come unstuck over the years ... and that’s with the Apple Mouse.

    This little add-on that just comes along for the ride once you’ve decided on a new iMac, or you fork out a bit extra for when buying a MacBook, for many people it’s just ‘the mouse’. But for me as a designer, I’m clinging onto this little blighter for the greater part of the working day, sometimes six or seven days a week.

    My first interaction with an Apple Mouse was back in primary school, where even back then I was a little miffed with the fact that it only had ‘one button’ (rather than the three our PC had at the time). But it was still fine to use and all was well. It wasn’t until I started using the original G3 iMacs at University that my mouse woes began. The perfectly round ‘hockey puck’ was a utter and complete fustercluck of a design, obviously putting way more interest in the way it looked on display in an Apple store than how it worked being in the clutches of an actual Homosapien. The stupid things used to rotate in your hand without you realising it ... until you went to move the mouse right and all of a sudden the cursor moved vertically up the screen! All of the uni computers were soon fitted with ‘iCatch’ clip on plastic extensions which made them function better, but were just awful to hold and use. I think these mice were by far the worst thing Apple has ever designed.

    Then there was the Apple Pro Mouse, the Apple Wireless Mouse and finally the Apple Mighty Mouse, all of which were slightly different in manufacture, but largely retained the same basic shape and design. In my opinion, these were all crap too. Ever tried doing precision photo editing with a wet bar of soap? These things were so slippery that I used to get a sore hand just trying to grip onto the bloody things all day. And to make matters worse, as I would grip so tight, the two side pressure buttons would continually activate to the point where I had to turn off all the additional mouse functions in Settings. And don’t get me started on the little Mighty Mouse track ball that constantly got jammed with dust and gunk, meaning every single one I ever had ended up in the bin.

    I changed to an ergonomic Logitech mouse after this and used it until a new iMac I got came with a newly designed ‘Magic Mouse’. To be honest, I took one look at its glossy top and thought: ‘he we go again, another useless bar of soap that looks great in photos but doesn’t suit day-to-day use’. And it does look good. I think it’s the best looking mouse ever designed in terms of aesthetics and use of materials. It’s beautifully simple yet still looks stylish and high-tech.

    I must admit I pretty much tried it for a few hours and then threw it into my third drawer with all the cables and other computer bits I’ve got floating around in there. And it stayed there for a few months. It wasn’t until I started having battery issues with the Logitech (was the battery’s fault, not the mouse) that I got the Magic Mouse out again ... only because I had to. Then something strange happened. I started to really like using it.

    At first I was trying to grip it like a normal mouse, which was awkward and caused the plastic top to pinch my fingers when clicking the mouse. But the more I got used to it, I started to relax my hand and found that I hardly have to grip it at all; just having my hand placed ‘around’ it was enough to move it smoothly and accurately. I also found that the right button click worked 100% of the time (unlike Might Mouse’s 60% of the time) and that they new touch scrolling and swiping while odd at first, has completely changed the way I hold and use the mouse. I go back to ‘normal’ mice at other computers now and stumble when faced with a scroll wheel that now appears to scroll the page back-to-front.

    So has Apple finally done what they’ve done with so many other of their products: produced a visually stunning product that actually works well in the real world? Considering I’ve been using the Magic Mouse at work for around 12 months now, I’d be inclined to say yes. It is by far the best looking mouse Apple has ever made, and is possibly the best looking mouse that anyone has ever made. But the fact that it also works really, really well is the game changer in this arena. I’ve never used a mouse than can even come close to the Magic’s smooth surface that allows you to move your hand more naturally avoiding aches and strain, and to a large degree, lessens the effects of RSI.

    Now I know that the Magic Mouse won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, in the same way that two people may not find the same office chair comfortable to sit in. But it works for me, and above all I’m just glad that Apple appears to be finally putting ergonomics and functionality back into the design brief of its smallest yet very important family member.

    Ben is marketing communications manager for Britax Automotive Equipment. He also owns and runs his own creative company called Evocative (www.evocative.cc) that does graphic design, photography and creative writing. Holding an Honours Degree in Design majoring in Corporate Identity, Ben has over ten years commercial experience—most of which was achieved using a Mac. He's also into technology, audio gear, drums, music, cars and coffee.

    Follow Ben on Twitter @BenJohnston_ or on Google+
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