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September 12, 2017

A Visual Solution to a Tricky Problem

Written by Philip Wang

One challenge in developing a great user experience for our Bluetooth Food Probe companion software is connectivity to the right device. This might be familiar if you’ve ever tried to use a wireless mouse or keyboard in a crowded office; installation can be a pain, and determining if you’ve correctly set things up inevitably involves banging keys, flicking mice, switching things on and off, replacing batteries, restarting a computer, and other frustrating steps. Sometimes the wrong computer is connected to the wrong device despite your best effort, and you have to start from the beginning. It’s especially hard if all your wireless hardware is the same make and model. Our customers frequently use multiple probes in a single location, and since our probes come in any color you’d want, as long as it is white1, we face a similar problem.

One goal for our iOS and Android apps is to make pairing with a probe a seamless process. Drawing from our Human Factors and Human Computer Interaction experience2, we quickly landed on color as a useful discriminant. The probe features programmable LEDs, so we decided to assign colors to devices in a predictable way that persists across launches of the app.

We simply scan the environment for all available probes, then use the unique hardware ID to determine the color to use by way of some arithmetic. The computed color is then shown in our application’s setup screen. Once a color button is pressed, the probe flashes to indicate success. The app remembers the preferred probe for next time, or it shows the color selection menu again if that probe is not found. It’s a simple solution and is extremely effective. People get it right away, and it’s fun.

One small drawback is that we only have a half-dozen colors to work with, some of which are very similar in hue and intensity. Since 1 in 12 men are colorblind, we will need to experiment to find the right subset of colors that are suitable for all of our customers.

Our solution is currently in the prototype phase, but we are confident we are on the right track. The next time your team faces a similar challenge, consider a bold, colorful statement.

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1. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Henry_Ford. Apologies to Henry Ford for co-opting this.
2. http://engineering.tufts.edu/me/undergraduate/bs/ https://www.cs.tufts.edu/~jacob/hci/. Go Jumbos!