November 4th, 2009
After about 3 years of service, my Apple ear-buds that came with my iPod finally started to go, and I got some cheapo $10 JVC’s to replace them. They’re nothing fantastic as far as sound quality, but after using them for a few days, I noticed a simple little feature that solves a usability problem with headphones, especially Apple’s ear-buds: figuring out which ear-bud goes in the right or left ear.
Apple’s standard ear-buds are stylish and minimal in design, and like most of their products, stripped to the bare essentials. A stick with a speaker on the end, and a little bit of rubber to keep it in your ear, that’s about it. Faint little “L” and “R” printed on the “stick” portions are the only indications of left and right. Apple brands itself as the champion of user experience, but in this case their aesthetic choices cause them to lose sight of an easy usability improvement.
JVC’s design is fairly similar, but for inexpensive headphones (the cheapest I could find at Best Buy), quite clever in a few important ways. In addition to higher contrast “L” and “R” printed on the sides, the right and left buds are shaped differently, and you can sort of feel the “right” and “wrong” way to put them in once you’re used to it, but by far the most helpful feature is a tiny raised bump that indicates the left bud.
I often use my headphones at night, or when I’m in bed with the lights out, (or I’m too lazy to look at them) and such a simple design decision makes it vastly easier to use. It removes any fumbling around trying to find the little L’s and R’s, and allows proper use in the dark or by people with low-vision.
It’s always a good feeling when a budget purchase turns out to be a really good product, and hopefully if JVC cares enough to include these subtle features in their design, the internals will hold-up too. Perhaps Apple could learn a thing or two from their low-cost rivals.