ChangeBike DF-702 Folding Bike: Three Month Review

This is a review of the ChangeBike DF-702 model from the perspective of a casual, mostly sedentary female transport cyclist.

It folds!

If you wear dresses or know someone who does, then you also know this: if a dress has pockets, everybody in the world must know. Waiting at a stoplight? “It has pockets!” Making small talk at the elevator? “It has pockets!” Accepting a Nobel prize? “It has pockets!”

That’s how my new bike makes me feel: “It folds!”

This is a review of the ChangeBike DF-702 model from the perspective of a casual, mostly sedentary female transport cyclist. I’ve had this bike for three months, commuting a minimum of 3 miles every weekday in the Boston area. This review is written mostly with casual bikers in mind, so you won’t find detailed discussion of specs here.

(I’ll be using bike jargon at some points in this post. If you’re unfamiliar with the terms, just refer to this great graphic by Aaron Kuehn.)

A little backstory

I’d been flirting with the idea of getting a new bike for years. My first “real” bike was a 1950s Raleigh Sports purchased in college. Beautiful machine, but at 45lb with fenders and rack, I couldn’t carry it out of my basement without getting a terrible headache. It also had some vintage features I didn’t appreciate, such as steel rims with zero stopping power in the rain.

My good old Raleigh Sports

With summer coming around, I started thinking about bikes again. I wanted: cute, pretty, step-through “women’s frame”, internally geared, all-weather coaster or disc brakes, lightweight, inexpensive…essentially, my old bike, but lighter and weatherproof. I went window shopping online a few times, eventually realizing that my dream bike didn’t exist. (The Priority Classic Plus was the most appealing of my non-folding options.)

While browsing a discount coupon site one day, I found Flatbike, clicked through, and realized that a) folding bikes didn’t have to look awkwardly small and dinky, and b) the DF-702 was on steep discount.

I suppose my story is a case study in what not to do: impulse-buying a bike sight unseen off the internet because it’s on sale. If I were doing this all over again, I would start by understanding my use cases and needs, doing research on how to meet those needs, then test riding as many bikes as possible. Turns out it’s really hard to know what you really want in a bike if you’re inexperienced.

Aside: A friend recently purchased the Brilliant Bike Mayfair, one of my other candidates when I was bike shopping. Having now tested it, I wholeheartedly do not recommend – spend your money on a different bike. The Mayfair looks like a cheap toy in person, is unsafe for riding in traffic (no backup brake system) and is geared too high (difficult to pedal) for most casual riders.

ChangeBike, Flatbike, what’s the difference?

Change, or ChangeBike, is a Taiwanese bike manufacturer specializing in full-size folding road and mountain bikes. Founded in 2009, they claim the rather pragmatic goal of “[changing] folding bicycles so as to better suit the world, rather than [waiting] for the world to change so as to better suit folding bicycles”.

Change bikes are distributed in the USA (and worldwide) by Flatbike.com, a company based in Washington. Flatbike also stocks a range of accessories related to, well, making your bike flat – such as removable pedals and bike stems.

As far as I can tell, contacting Flatbike just sends you straight to the CEO, Bob Forgrave. You can also call him, but since I share my generation’s aversion to phone calls with strangers, I stuck to lengthy email threads. He was very patient and answered every dumb anxiety-driven question I had, from how to use gears to a few thousand words of stress about picking the right size bike. Customer service like that is rare to find, which is why I’m more than happy to recommend Flatbike to other people looking at buying Change bikes. [Edit 8/25/19: Flatbike also recently posted a video of what their QC process looks like before bikes are shipped to the customer.]

If Change bikes interest you, use my referral code 4624JIE for 5% off everything at Flatbike.com. I get a small bonus, and you get a sitewide discount that adds up on a high-end bike purchase.

Enter the ChangeBike

If it wasn’t evident already, the ChangeBike DF-702 is a full-size folding flat bar road bike. It looks and rides exactly like a “regular” bike, with big wheels and a classic triangle (diamond) frame. Though the bike will handle brief patches of gravel and dirt, it’s designed to be ridden mostly on smooth surfaces. That also means the frame doesn’t have any suspension, and is designed for tires on the skinny side, with minimal clearance for fenders.

The bike comes in black or white, with silver components throughout. The white bike has a glossy finish, while the black has more of a semi-matte sheen. The frame design is classic, but the slightly sloped downtube and wide tubes clearly indicate that this is a modern bike. (Don’t worry, it still matches hipster outfits.) The tubes on the black bike appear thinner and sleeker than they do on the white, but I ended up picking the white bike for visibility and, uh, accessory-matching reasons.

The specs that matter

  • Weight: 25lb or 11.5kg (not featherweight, but perfectly manageable for a woman of less-than-average strength)
  • Wheels and tires: 700c wheels x 25mm tires (big wheels, skinny tires)
  • Gears: 3×8 gear speeds (more than enough)
  • Commuter features: Caliper brakes (less performant in rain and snow, but still very reliable). No fenders (not much room for them either). No rack (rack compatible)
  • Riding style: Fairly relaxed geometry (upright-ish riding position – see sizing/fit section)
  • Bonuses: Kickstand and clip-on saddle bag included with Flatbike purchase
  • Safety: EN 14781 certified (a highly detailed 2005 European standard for the safety of racing bikes; Change manufactures the only folding bikes that pass this certification)

Why a folding bike? And why full-size?

The promise of a folding bike is convenience. Take it on the train, store it in your tiny apartment, stash it in the trunk of a sedan without fiddling with tools and racks. You don’t need to change your lifestyle for the bike; instead, the bike changes to fit your lifestyle. Folding bikes are particularly great for people without cars, vastly increasing one’s emission-free range of travel, and providing last-mile transportation when combined with public transit or rideshare services over longer distances.

That said…I didn’t really consider any of that when buying the ChangeBike. I got the bike mostly because it was cool, and started coming around to all the other benefits of folding bikes afterwards. I mean, think about it: the most efficient transport machine ever created, folding like paper to the size of a carry-on luggage bag. That’s pretty neat.

As for the size? Aesthetic reasons. Sorry, Brompton riders of the world. They’re truly cute bikes, just not for me. (Larger-wheeled bikes also have a few more ride-oriented benefits, such as smoother rides on crappy roads, and more momentum for efficiency on longer rides.)

Other folding options

In the world of folding bikes, there are many big-name companies: Brompton, Dahon, Bike Friday, Tern. But full-size folding bikes are a little harder to find; Montague (headquartered in Cambridge MA!) has a great reputation, as do Tern, Airnimal and a handful of other manufacturers. (Then there’s Fubifixie, the Indiegogo bike estimated to ship in June 2016 and…still in production as of August 2019.)

Note that even within the category of full-size folding bikes, there is a huge variety in frame designs and tire sizes. Tires can range from 24″ to 29″ (700c), and frames vary in the number of tubes and folding points they have. For example, the Tern Eclipse X22 looks very different from the Change DF-702, even though they both are “full-size”.

Tern Eclipse X22. Image from BikeFolded

Purchasing and assembly

I wasn’t sure about sizing, and traded a few emails with Bob at Flatbike about whether what was in stock would fit. We settled on “it might”, and since he offered free returns, I decided to go ahead and order the bike.

The bike arrived about a week after it was shipped, in a reinforced cardboard box weighing about 40 pounds (18 kg). Oh, and it got rained on all day.

The bike comes mostly assembled. Flatbike includes instructions for finishing it up, a sheet explaining the quality checks conducted before shipping, plus a free set of Allen (hex) wrenches – a thoughtful gesture that this bike newbie really appreciated. The primary latch mechanism on new bikes can be very stiff, so watch out for pinch injuries. Assembly was easy and took about half an hour, after which the bike was ready to ride.

The bike comes mostly assembled.
You just need to attach the handlebars, front wheel, seatpost/saddle and pedals.

If you’ve never attached a quick-release wheel before, YouTube is your friend. It helps to make sure the quick-release lever is on the same side as it is on the rear wheel – on my bike, that’s the left (non-derailleur) side. This seems to give better results when centering the wheel between the brake pads.

Lastly, note that if you buy the bike from a different distributor or directly from Change, your assembly instructions may be different. Here’s the official Change unboxing video for this bike:

Sizing and fit

I was very conflicted about which frame size to get (M or L) so Bob went above and beyond, sending me two bikes to compare even though I’d only paid for one. Unfortunately, the result was me being stuck in bike fit hell for well over a month. It sucked, but on the plus side, I now know way too much about bike fit for a “casual” cyclist.

Knowing your dimensions is incredibly important when buying a bike online. I am 5’7″ (170cm) tall with an inseam 31-33″ (78-84cm) depending on who is doing the measuring. This is a longish inseam for my height, which led to some sizing problems.

Riding position on the M bike with 75mm riser stem. Hi, laundry room!

The L bike felt powerful – like a Harley, or what I imagine a Harley to feel like, anyway. But the top tube was clearly too long for me; I needed a tiny 60mm stem with a 35 degree rise just to reach the handlebars without shoulder pain, and would have preferred something a little shorter still.

The M bike felt more nimble, more like I was in the bike instead of on it. Eventually I kept it, but only after adding a 75mm stem with a 35 degree rise. The M has a much shorter head tube than the L, so the handlebars are lower relative to the saddle, putting me in a position more aggressive than I’d initially hoped for. However, I got used to it in a few rides, and now have no complaints.

The ideal size for me is likely a M bike with a slightly taller head tube, allowing me to get more upright. Alternatively, a L bike with a shorter top tube would have let me reach the handlebars without resorting to very short stems.

The myth of the unisex bike

Bike sizing and fitting are particularly tricky for women because a “unisex” bike designed for a man of a given height is probably designed for longer arms and shorter legs than a typical woman of that height. This means that the stock handlebars are too far away from the rider’s body, requiring more forward lean than most casual cyclists find comfortable. It also means that a bike of the correct length is likely to require a high saddle for proper leg extension when pedaling. The higher the saddle relative to the handlebars, the more forward lean required to reach the bars when riding.

If you know the geometry (dimensions) of a bike that you like, the Change website provides geometry charts for comparison; Flatbike also provides a recommended size guide on their product page. The recommended rider height assumes a typical male body; inseam length is a better guide.

It’s also worth having an idea of which riding positions you prefer. If you’re just starting to bike, the Dutch or City positions shown below will be the most comfortable. This means you’ll want to look for handlebars that allow positions slightly higher than the level of the saddle, and/or handlebars that are close to the body (e.g. swept-back bars).

Image from Richtig Radfahren

Bike size and fit preferences also change over time as your body and mind change, so there’s no real replacement for butt-in-saddle time with a bike you’re looking to buy. My understanding is that Flatbike is trying to build an ambassador program, where existing ChangeBike owners can volunteer to let people test ride their bikes. I’ll probably sign up as a volunteer once it gets started, so keep an eye on their blog if you’re in the Boston area.

Folding the bike

So how does the folding work? It can be a little confusing the first time, though it becomes very quick after you’re used to it. First, rotate the pedals so they’re not blocking the frame from folding. Next, open the primary latch on the seat tube and push the frame down to disengage the interlocking teeth. The frame then easily swings in on itself around the downtube axis.

ChangeBike provides a demo video of how their bikes fold.

Taking the front wheel off is optional for some use cases, as folding the frame provides most of the space savings; removing the wheel just compacts it further and allows you to do the kickstand lock. You also don’t have to remove the pedals or fully lower the saddle. I’ve had no problems getting the bike into car trunks this way.

If you have a kickstand (preinstalled on Flatbike shipments), you can hook it under a latch on the front fork to lock the bike into a fully rigid position. It’s a very clever design. I’d argue that the kickstand is necessary for transporting the folded bike over longer distances, since it’s prone to flopping open without being locked. But Change sells it as a separate accessory, so make sure you’re getting one from your distributor.

Image from ChangeBike

Surprisingly, the M and L bikes fold up to the same size.

White is M, black is L. Dryer for comparison.

To unfold, simply reverse the folding steps. Reattaching the front wheel is the most time-consuming part of the process. To get it centered between the brake pads, it helps to tilt the wheel slightly away from the kickstand, or hold it in between your knees.

The Change DF-702 as daily commuter

The DF-702 stopped for a photo on the Longfellow Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge.

I’ve put over 250 miles on the bike so far, mostly on roads and sidewalks, with the occasional gravel path in a park.

Ride quality

I’m a casual cyclist, so all I’m qualified to say is that the bike feels great. The build quality is very good, and Flatbike ships the bikes already tuned-up so they’re ready to ride after assembly. Shifting is smooth and reliable, though I’ve only stayed within the middle range, about 5 of the 24 available gears.

The skinny tires made me nervous when I first saw them, but those fears turned out to be unfounded. The steel fork and big wheels will handle most things you throw at them. Riding on crappy roads still isn’t a nice experience since there’s no suspension, but the bike has no problems with very bumpy roads, medium potholes, and raised bike lanes that suddenly end (thanks, Boston). Most of the time I forget that I’m on a folding bike at all – until it’s time to tell someone about my bike, of course ūüėČ

While researching bikes, I also test rode a Dahon small-wheel folding bike. It was a nice bike, but I felt a bit like I was riding a toy, as the steering was very twitchy and it felt almost too nimble. This is an advantage in city traffic where you’re constantly starting and stopping; for me, going at high speeds on a bike like that would be too scary, and I prioritize avoiding scary experiences. I feel more comfortable on the familiar full-size geometry of the Change bike.

Practical concerns

Although the DF-702 is compatible with all standard bike parts in theory, you’re going to want to make sure that modifications don’t interfere with the folding. So far I ‘ve installed an M-Wave Arrow rear cargo rack per Flatbike’s recommendations (the rack doesn’t come with instructions, so I’d recommend taking it to a shop for installation instead of wasting 3 hours like I did). At least two people have added aerodynamic drop bars: one Flatbike customer, and Ekaputra Jabar at Folding Tales. If you take the bike to a shop for upgrades or fixes, make sure to mention the folding – some bike shop mechanics I’ve interacted with have overlooked the latches and assumed that it’s a non-folding bike.

I also ride with an old set of saddlebag-style panniers from the Van Gogh Museum, which are joined at the top and drape over the rack. Most “serious” cyclists frown on saddlebags that connect at the top, but they act like a rear fenderboard, keeping me a little cleaner in wet conditions. Since they’re entirely made of soft fabric, they fold when the bike folds, which is convenient. And they’re cute!

I do wish there were more clearance in the frame for full, permanent fenders. (Fenders will fit, but will be tight. Flatbike has a post with recommendations.) But the white frame has remained surprisingly clean despite biking through rain and puddles a few times.

I was initially nervous about biking on a frame with a horizontal bar (cf. a step-through frame, which is what my Raleigh has). It took a little initial adjustment, and I still mess up sometimes, but I’m pleased to report zero problems with outfits and mounting/dismounting. (I’ll post some of my hacks for biking in short skirts in the future.)

Was the folding worth it?

Bike in elevator of my office building. My panniers are soft, so they stay on (with some creative origami) when the bike is folded.

These bikes are not cheap. Even though I got mine on sale (I’m not in a place to pay full price for this bike!) I figure I still paid around a $300 premium for its folding capabilities. Was it worth it?

On the whole, yes.

First, my complaints. 2D product photos don’t really give you a sense of what the bike is like when folded. It’s important to remember that folding it doesn’t make the bike lighter, just denser! The folded bike is bulkier than you might expect, since it ends up in more of a wedge shape than a flat package. For me (a weakling) it can be unwieldy, so if I need to transport the folded bike for more than a few minutes, I end up wheeling it. That said, male and/or stronger friends have carried the folded bike with no problem and commented on how light it is.

The convenience factor also doesn’t always get to shine when you’re in social situations. I’ve gone on a few weekend rides with friends where I got tired and wanted to take a rideshare back, but because their non-folding bikes didn’t fit in the back a car, we ended up having to bike home anyway. The curse of having superior technology, I suppose…

So why do I say that the bike was worth it? My life isn’t particularly structured, and I value freedom and spontaneity. The folding aspect of this bike means I have a backup plan for surprises in weather conditions, routes and plans. Some examples of when it’s come in handy:

  • When I was running late to an appointment, I could stick it in the back of a Lyft and arrive on time without jettisoning my bike in a far-away part of town.
  • I’ve folded the bike to get it up multiple flights of very narrow stairs into an apartment.
  • I stuck it in a colleague’s car for an impromptu trip after work to Trader Joe’s, then biked home with groceries.
  • One time I didn’t feel comfortable locking the bike outside a rehearsal venue, but got looks when I tried wheeling the unfolded bike in (even though bikes were not prohibited). I folded the bike, put it in a corner, and was able to relax knowing it was inside the building for the whole four-hour rehearsal without pissing anyone off.
  • I’ve stored it in a corner of my office when I accidentally leave my lock at home.
Conspicuously stored in an open-plan office, my bike was completely ignored by all but one colleague.

There was a commenter on someone else’s YouTube review of this bike who was nickel-and-diming how the bike wasn’t worth it compared to a non-folding bike of the same quality. Their calculations mostly assumed that the bike’s value lay in being able to pop it in your car without a bike rack. I mean, yeah, if you’re a suburbanite with a huge garage and a giant SUV, this probably isn’t the bike for you. Take that money and buy a really nice new bike! Or several nice secondhand bikes.

I don’t need carbon fiber or care too much about having racing-grade components, but I do care about having a bike that doesn’t cramp my style. For me, the premium is a fair price for always having the reassurance that no matter the situation, my bike will be safe, and I’ll be able to get home on my own terms.

Biking changes you

I’m exploring again.

Going from no biking at all to almost-daily commuting was a big adjustment – mostly a psychological one. The first ride I took with the bike was with a friend who commutes everywhere by bike…in heavy traffic through one of the busiest roads in the Boston area (home of the second-worst drivers in America). I was terrified.

But I also loved it. Biking gives you a sense of empowerment that is hard to match. Yes, I’ve had to get used to terrible roads and aggressive cars. But when I had to take public transit at rush hour a few weeks ago, I realized I’d also gotten used to getting places quickly, entirely under my own power, not having to worry about delays or areas not serviced by public transit. When I bike, I feel like I’m flying, the breeze on my face, all senses engaged and alert.

I think I might also have become more fit? There’s still plenty of padding on my frame, but my quads are noticeably more prominent when I flex my legs. Wanting to have better posture of my bike made me go to a Pilates class (!) and is making me more mindful of my core. My muscle mass, while still embarrassingly low, is the highest it’s been since 2016. And 20 minutes of cycling every weekday (as opposed to about 20 minutes of walking when I took public transit) seems to have made me a little more active on the weekends. A few weekends ago, I actually missed moving and went to the gym entirely of my own accord (!!).

I still get stressed out by cars and aggressive pedestrians, and I still can’t bike confidently with one hand for more than half a second. My back starts getting sore if I ride for too long on a bumpy road. But I know these things will get better with time and practice. For now, I’m just enjoying my bike and my newfound freedom – while the summer lasts, anyway. Stay tuned for a winter update…

If Change bikes interest you, use my referral code 4624JIE for 5% off everything at Flatbike.com. I get a small bonus, and you get a sitewide discount that adds up on a high-end bike purchase.

Further reading

Here are links to some of the reviews and resources I read when trying to decide on a bike, and afterwards when I was getting started biking. These are good starting points for diving deeper into the world of cycling for transportation.

Other reviews of Change bikes

Fit and sizing

Commuting and urban biking

Thanks for reading all the way to the end! I’m hoping to post more in the future about biking from a female/nonbinary/gender nonconforming perspective. In the meantime, let me know if there are more questions I can answer, photos or angles you want to see, and future blog posts you’d like to read.

Choosing a red for a three-color palette

I recently finally took the plunge and purchased a few tubes of casein paint, of which James Gurney is a fan, after practically a year of “I really shouldn’t be buying paints¬†since I get to touch them so rarely” deliberation. In a bout of¬†overly frugal stupidity I decided to limit myself to three tubes (a total of about $30) and chose to buy white, yellow ochre and ultramarine. I often¬†have these moments where the desire to save a trivial¬†amount of money really just costs me more in effort in the long run…

Of course I quickly found that I need at minimum a red to realistically represent any of the things I would want to paint. I’ve been spending the past hour trying to figure out the difference between various reds: alizarin crimson, the cadmiums, vermillion, venetian red. Honestly, I’m confused by paints, and I get embarrassed in art stores because I feel like an amateurish imposter who doesn’t really know what she’s doing. My only experience with color is¬†from¬†digital painting¬†where paint is unlimited and bountiful, and because I have really not painted much at all my work is at a very elementary level. Opaque paints are entirely a mystery to me at the moment.

The most famous limited palette is probably the “Zorn palette” of vermillion, yellow ochre, black and white, particularly good for portraiture.¬†Charley Parker at Lines and Colors also has a good post about¬†alizarin crimson, ultramarine and cadmium yellow light as a¬†three-primary palette. He notes:

The weak point of a palette consisting of just these three colors (while simultaneously one of its strengths) is the high value of the Cadmium Yellow Light, which lightens almost any mixture to which it is added. This is the reason a dark orange-red like Burnt Umber or Burnt Sienna is often added.

With this in mind, since I have quite a dark brown-yellow neutral (yellow ochre) I think I will go with a cad red light, which I hear is similar in some respects to vermillion (a highly toxic paint). I am attracted to bright subjects and may have fared better with a cad yellow light, but oh well – as long as it gets me painting at all it will be a good thing.

In other art news, I’ve just discovered Stapleton Kearns’ blog – he is a landscape painter and I am looking forward to going through the archives of his blog. He writes with a delightfully subtle snark. The¬†Encyclopaedia of Dumb Design Ideas series is particularly enjoyable (and very useful).

Related links

Windows 10, in real-life use

My desktop, five minutes ago.

Windows 10 being used for actual notes, featuring Mail, OneNote and Cortana.
Windows 10 being used for actual notes, featuring Mail, OneNote and Cortana. Cortana was triggered with the voice command “Hey Cortana, 3570 divided by 3” but I had to apply a slight American accent to get it to accurately recognize the number (it returned 2517 when I used my Singaporean accent).

Bugs and rough edges (of which there are still many! remember to run Windows Update!) aside, I’m very impressed. It just feels nice to use. It definitely doesn’t hurt that I’m running this OS on the hardware it was designed for – I’m on a Surface 3 with full pressure sensitive pen, keyboard, mic, webcam¬†and touch support in a really really neat little package. (I’ve had the machine for a few weeks now and love it.)

The lower bound of human sketching ability

Speaking of adding more pictures to this blog, here are a couple of choice figures¬†from a computer graphics paper I read¬†recently [1] that had me giggling out loud at my computer screen at 2am. In it the authors describe a system for classifying sketches into groups automatically – but to do this you need to first have some sketches, made by humans, to classify. It turns out humans are not always the best at sketching [2]…

2015-02-10_011719

2015-02-10_011053

My favorites are the GIRAFFE, FROG, DUCK, DOLPHIN, MERMAID and KANGAROO. Somehow the labelling of the categories in all-caps just makes the whole situation more comically tragic.


[1] Ros√°lia G. Schneider and Tinne Tuytelaars. 2014. Sketch classification and classification-driven analysis using Fisher vectors. ACM Trans. Graph. 33, 6, Article 174 (November 2014), 9 pages. DOI=10.1145/2661229.2661231 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/2661229.2661231

[2] The authors actually go on to analyze the problems with human sketches that lead to a “failure” of sketch classification systems – it’s a pretty neat paper, check it out.

A trip down memory lane with Creative Technology

One of my friends shared this on Facebook yesterday. A genial middle-aged man in a dress shirt and slacks seems to be giving a standard product demonstration of a drum keyboard, but somehow it becomes this crazy drum solo, before ending as a standard presentation again. I probably find it particularly amusing because it starts with the stereotypical boring conservative Singaporean but gives you a glimpse of the underlying lightheartedness that I like to think runs through many of my countrymen.

This “Asian equipment demonstrator” is a Singaporean (probably) who is showcasing a product from Creative Technology, a Singaporean company that in the 90s made the Sound Blaster sound cards that pretty much had a monopoly on the PC market. They also had a line of MP3 players which were very feature-rich, and hold the patent for the invention of a user interface for portable media players. I owned one and was a big fan, happily filling it with anime soundtracks and Canadian pop-rock-punk. The media players, like everything else, died as the iPod ascended, something I watched with sadness while realizing that technical superiority was not enough: you had to make people feel good about your product.

I’m suddenly realizing this is probably the true origin of my interest in product design and usability. I actually got asked something similar¬†the other day – which stumped me, I mean, I’m just…it’s interesting? I’ve always liked it? I’ve always been an artist something something something? Eventually I dashed off something lame about getting frustrated having to use US-centric resources as a non-US person. (“Enter your five-digit zipcode to view this information” – god! I still get riled up.)

When I was eight-ish I read Creative cofounder Sim Wong Hoo’s autobiography, which described No U-turn Syndrome¬†and a lot of other stuff I didn’t fully understand. I am only now suddenly remembering that he had a chapter about taking computing exams in school and leaving answers dramatically unfinished to impress the grader with his integrity at stopping precisely when “pens down” was announced by the proctor. I know I definitely copied that behavior during later exams.

It’s funny I remember the book so vividly. It had spiral binding, “hyperlinks” by means of page number, and an awfully designed cover.

Don’t let drag-and-drop become a drag

Web designers must consider accessibility and other user experience issues in their drag-and-drop implementations. This post offers some issues and solutions.

Merry Christmas from sunny Singapore! Started this post a while ago, wrote the bulk yesterday, might as well add a few more sentences and publish it on Christmas. Also, sorry, bad title puns again.

Drag-and-drop is a cute extension of the physical paradigm that works particularly well on touch devices for obvious reasons. It’s naturally suited to tasks where user-defined sorting of some kind is required. It’s also a great way to show off and engage users by creating something fun to play with: anyone who has ever interacted with a draggable element has pulled it randomly around the screen while savoring that rare sense of control over the interface, no matter how superficial. I’m fond of it, especially for the analogue sense it brings to digital interactions.

Problems arise when this control method is applied indiscriminately to content of all sizes and types, without regard for screen size, page length or consistency. Users get tired when drag-and-drop is unwieldy, has to traverse large distances, or if intermediate/drop behavior isn’t consistent with expectations set by other sites and applications. As an example, let’s look at LinkedIn, the website that reminded me to write this post today – although LinkedIn is by¬†no means the sole offender.

Aside: I appreciate that LinkedIn is constantly experimenting with their interface – it’s very nice to see that they’re continually striving for improvement.

They’ve made a big change to their Edit Profile page recently – or maybe I was subject to a variation in an A/B test, we’ll never know. But to reorder entries on the profile I now drag and drop chunks of employment history etc. around. (But only positions I currently hold can be moved – another frustration that took a while to understand.)

I can be verbose in written communication, use bulleted lists, and have a lot of media on entries like those for illustration or design. These mean that the height of the draggable element becomes far too unwieldy for effective manipulation. Below is a screenshot of a reordering attempt. The element is too large to easily move, and it’s made worse by frustrating intermediate behavior that makes it hard to do what I want even if I manage to move the element.

This particular drag-and-drop implementation also doesn’t allow me to just move the element roughly to where the target destination is – a behavior I expect since the only possible action is a crude swap and no finer control is needed. Instead, I have to align the top of the element with the top or bottom of the target to bump the target into the spot where my original element was.

What if I want to move the element to a target spot far away on the page, beyond my screen boundaries? Now the user is forced to perform an awkward shuffle that involves

  1. bumping the element against the edges of the screen to force scrolling (slow, and finding that exact spot is an exercise in precision pointer manoeuvring)
  2. holding the element down while scrolling with a wheel, keys or another finger, and hoping that the element follows along or at least reappears when the cursor is moved (which doesn’t always happen, forcing the user to try method 1 again)

If my finger slips – possible for users with poor motor control – or if I get to my destination and the draggable element has been lost somehow, I have to perform the dance all over again.

Let’s have a quick video example of said dance, this time on the website I first ran into the issue on, WordPress. WordPress has used drag-and-drop in their widgets page for quite a long time – you drag options from a pool of available widgets to an “active” zone, which enables them on your blog. This worked very well at first, but as the list of available widgets grows ever-longer, adding widgets has now become a big chore: good luck to you if you select a widget at the bottom of the list.

The problem is complicated once we throw accessibility into the mix (as always!) – say for instance you’re me with my terrible eyesight and have your browser zoom set between 150-175% by default. Working sometimes with Magnifier open and docked, I have at worst 11.5″ of screen real estate on an already-small 13″ 1280×800 screen. The following is a screenshot of my entire browser window at my normal zoom levels: the draggable element is too large to even fit on the screen.

On drag-and-drop pages where I have to traverse large screen distances or work with tall elements, I basically zoom out to 50% or less, do all my edits there, then restore to my usual 150%. It is incredibly frustrating.

There are a few solutions to drag-and-drop usability problems. The most obvious is to add a different method of control. Try for instance up/down buttons that reorder elements in a list. WordPress has actually done something about the problem (slipped in so quietly that I just found out 30 seconds ago). Widgets can now be added by clicking on their titles, which brings up a menu allowing you to select where they should go, followed by an Add Widget button.

If you want to keep the fun and impressiveness of drag-and-drop, there are ways to do it in a manner considerate of the fact that not all users have the same computing setup as the developer does. Some possibilities:

  • shrink elements when they are picked up
  • have a little schematic where changes can be made and reflected on the main content
  • drop targets that scroll together with your position on the screen so that they are always visible

Drag-and-drop is a very nice user interface touch in my opinion. When used well it adds fun, simplicity and a deliciously analogue tactility (which I love), enabling users do what they want faster and more easily. But care needs to be taken to ensure it doesn’t become a drag on the overall experience.


 

A few more pieces on accessible design: designing with accessibility in mind, a site against low contrast, a very short blog post/comment thread on designing for poor motor control (there seems to be a dearth of posts on this topic).

Bookmark management

Trying out the Post Formats in WordPress – this is an Aside, for short snippets that don’t really need a title. Or something. No one really knows what they are: try searching for “wordpress asides” to see what I mean.

My ideal way of building curated repositories of links would be through a place like delicious; however that never quite managed to take off (high barriers to entry, ease of use was always somewhat lacking. I used it the most between 2007 and 2009; since then I’ve tried a few times every year to go back, but the idea of having to properly retag my old bookmarks is daunting; the bookmarking process is still a bit too slow and clunky, and (to me) it is harder to access your bookmarks than to create them. I’ve since amassed a huge library of browser bookmarks, an uncategorized mess that I rarely wade into anyway.

I do think that if a big effort were made to reintroduce it today, it might really get somewhere, because we’re now so completely used to #tagging #everything and the idea of #socialmedia – something that the web in 2005-2010 wasn’t quite ready for yet.

I think the hypervisual bookmarking trend (see: Stars/Chrome Bookmark Manager) is a little silly. On Pinterest it works because I don’t think the site is a social bookmarking service, no matter what it and tech journos like to call it: it’s a social mood board site. Otherwise for users with thousands of bookmarks – who imo are most likely to desperately need bookmark managers – it’s a waste of space. Screen real estate is precious.

That the bookmark management problem is still exists is clear, at least.

In which UX process actually works, and I am surprised

In the past month or so of working on projects with the Student Devs I’ve had a chance to use some of the methods I’ve read about, and in almost every case, I’ve come away impressed by how these methods are actually really useful.

Prototype screens
Screens for a clickthrough prototype I made this week.

Because I’m still relatively new to UX (to compare, I’ve been serious about illustration for over five years now), I run into a lot of firsts these days while working on projects. First guerilla user test! First stakeholder interview! First user journey! What’s been really enlightening – and humbling – has been understanding the utility of tools and methods that I previously thought of as kind of pointless.

I’ve been reading about user-centered design since discovering it shortly before coming to college, but I’ll admit that a lot of it always seemed…silly? obvious? overhyped? to me. A lot of UX techniques are very straightforward. Write down all the different sections of your site and organize them into logical groups. Make simpler versions to test first before investing hours into a high-fidelity prototype. They always seemed too mountain-of-a-molehill, too formalized, too much like Process with a capital “P”.

Well, I guess now I’ve learnt to not knock it till I try it – in the past month or so of working on projects with the Student Devs I’ve had a chance to use some of the methods I’ve read about, and in almost every case, I’ve come away impressed by how these methods are actually really useful.

For example, as a fun side project, Thomas and I are making an app that helps students shop more efficiently at the school snack store. I decided to try making a user journey for how students currently interact with the store – it would help identify ways our app could be more broadly useful than the simple initial idea, but I also did it in large part because I felt like that was what “real” designers did: go through Real Designer Processes. So I went through the process.

I felt very silly going in, writing down every step the student went through, I was also unsure of whether I was doing things correctly. There are tons of templates for user journeys online, all slightly different, all slightly confusing. In the end I decided to grab a random set of useful-looking attributes from the templates and made my own. Our imaginary persona was Hungry Bob, a student who had missed lunch due to a meeting with a professor that ran long. Hungry Bob was then brutally subjected to every stressful experience possible within the snack store: public shame, long queues, confusion about prices, not enough time to browse, hard-to-find items – all the while contending with gnawing hunger. To be honest, I thought it was a little over-the-top…so it was both reassuring and worrying that when I showed the completed user journey to Thomas, his first comment was “wow, that’s exactly what happens at [store name] all the time”.

By really getting into Hungry Bob’s mindset, reflecting on our own frustrating experiences at the snack store, and examining each step of the process in detail, I was able to come up with a few suggestions and refinements to the original idea that I wouldn’t have thought of before. For instance, we originally had your in-app cash balance hardcoded to be $8, since that’s the amount students are left with on their cards if they don’t use it on lunch. But while thinking about how students actually hunt through the overpriced items at said store trying to find a way to maximize the lunch money, I realized that people often don’t mind paying slightly more than $8 if it allows them to get a few items that they really want, instead of an item they really want and disappointing filler items like carrot sticks or something. (Sorry, carrot-lovers.) I feel somewhat sheepish that it took creating a user journey to realize this, but hey, at least we saw it, and now our app has a flexible lunch money limit. It’s a very, very simple change in the code, but it makes the app much more useful to students – at least, I think it will. We haven’t gotten to the user testing stage yet.

I’ve also had a chance to see the emotional use of prototyping beyond its obvious “let your clients complain about something before you spend weeks building it” purpose. This week has seen me creating a mid-fidelity mobile prototype for an app the Yale College Council requested, using InVision (which I’m happy to plug here because they gave me a free student subscription, and because it’s really an amazing tool). The councillors handling the project on their end have been really happy with the ability to play with an intermediate prototype, instead of crossing their fingers and hoping that we deliver something that they like, and we’ve been talking about changes they’d like to see.

What’s cooler in my opinion is what happened with the snack store app. On Friday last week we took the idea to some managers within Yale Dining, to ask if they’d be okay with us making it, to see what their broader goals were, and to ask for access to their data. I think doing the user journey gave us some useful specific student experiences that we could refer to during the meeting to make our arguments more compelling. Would we have been able to bring them up without doing the user journey? Yes, but having mentally walked through the store earlier helped make certain oft-overlooked points much more salient.

Anyway, our meeting was going on, and we were encountering some resistance to our idea – one of them didn’t think it was particularly useful, and was much more enthusiastic about the prospect of us (implementing? customizing?) a third-party service that did something else entirely. More than half an hour in, one of the managers was starting to get the utility of our idea, and I felt like this was a good time to lock in his support. We hadn’t planned on showing the very basic prototype that Thomas had made over fall break, since it’s a plain text-based app with a couple of hardcoded values that doesn’t really do much – we didn’t think it would help our case. But by this point in the meeting I’d figured that we needed all the help we could get in communicating our idea, so I got Thomas to pull up the prototype on his phone.

That was probably the most interesting mood transition I’ve ever seen in a meeting. (Thomas says he couldn’t detect it, but I’ll believe it was there.) Both managers got more interested immediately, leaning in, expressions changing, becoming more curious. Once there was a working – even minimally – prototype on that conference table, they got much more engaged, playing with our four hardcoded snacks, adding and removing items from the cart, testing the autocomplete. It was easy to see that our previous descriptions of the app had been too nebulous, not compelling enough – probably due to our inexperience with meetings and pitches – and that now they really understood what we were going for. After that it was an easy sell. I was really impressed. I mean, you read about this kind of stuff, and about how Processes/tools are supposed to “disrupt client engagement” or whatever Markov-chain buzzword is in fashion today, but seeing it work in person is something else.

So. Yeah. That’s been really neat. I’m enjoying being a designer and giving myself permission to work on design and only design: I kind of wish I had more to do with the programming bits, but I know there aren’t enough hours in my life for me to do that many things well. Besides, I’m making a MUD game, and writing specs and code for that is using up most of my programming time.

Noticing when the glasses fall off

User-centred design is a lens through which we can see the world, but it can sometimes feel like a new pair of glasses that you carry around and sometimes forget to wear.

Although I am now a user experience designer with the Yale Student Developers, and have always seen myself as a very user-centred person – whether I’m programming or drawing a magazine cover – I haven’t been doing this quite long enough that this way of thinking is completely internalized. If you’ll forgive the somewhat contrived analogy, user-centred design is a lens through which we can see the world, but to me it still feels like a new pair of glasses that I carry around but sometimes forget to wear.

Today I had to borrow a laptop from a friend to record a short video for German class. (I actually had to try three friends and three laptops, and none of them worked properly, so I’m going to give the speech in person after class tomorrow. Yay, “technology-enabled learning” done wrong!) While trying to get to the webpage that would let me submit my homework, I couldn’t help noticing that this friend’s laptop was horribly slow. Tabs in Chrome were all unresponsive. It took me 20 seconds just to application-switch.

Curious, I looked at what was running in the background and the first signs of the problem became evident: he somehow had four antivirus suites (two expired, one semi-functional, one apparently working) and five file-syncing/cloud backup services all running at the same time. Despite the presence of the file-syncing clients, he also wasn’t keeping backups of any of his data. The applications running might not have been the source of the slowness, but that the machine (and his data) was in this state gave a good hint as to what the problem might be.

When I returned his laptop to him I asked if he was aware of this situation. “Uh, yeah,” he told me, sounding unsure. “I think I installed all those programs by accident? I can’t find the uninstallers. And I don’t back up my data, yeah, I know I should, but…”

This is a facepalm moment, isn’t it? This is the kind of story that you tell back at the tech support office, to collective head-shakes and horrified looks. “Oh my god,” we go. “Why are users so inept?” And then we exchange smug looks. Users, man.

This is the moment you have to catch yourself. Is it really the user who is at fault? Or is it because the uninstallation process** isn’t intuitive? Why isn’t he backing up his data despite having multiple user-friendly cloud backup services at his disposal? Does he think it’s too difficult? Does he not realize that these programs offer him a way to back up his data? Could it be that these aren’t as easy-to-understand as we think they are? (You’d be surprised at how hard it is to explain the concept of file syncing to people, even college undergraduates who have spent at least half their lives online.)

I certainly didn’t realize what I was doing at first – after all, poking fun at the less tech-savvy is a comfortable and familiar hobby for most of us. I was telling a programmer friend about what had happened, and we were expressing amazement at how widespread bad computing habits were when he remarked, “people need to take better care of their computers” – and I suddenly became very aware of how we were pinning all the blame on this guy who had lent me his laptop so I could do my homework.***

As UX and product management people in the tech world, it’s only natural that the user-centric glasses we try our best to wear still fall off our nosebridges sometimes. After all, we’re mostly in this industry because we care about the people using our products, yes, but also because we love technology. We think the stuff engineers can come up with is awesome, and we want to make it even better. We’re all geeks. (Some more than others.) There will always be times when we forget that not everyone is the same way, when we’re baffled by another person’s unfamiliarity with something we work with every day, when we’re tempted to roll our eyes and declare the the problem exists between the chair and the keyboard.

What’s important is realizing when that happens, taking stock of the situation, putting the glasses back on, and looking again.


* I considered adding the sentence “my goal is to have the mental equivalent of laser surgery”, but after thinking about it for a little while, I decided that this isn’t really something I want. Although great in theory, I suspect that would tip me too far into the other direction, and cause me to lose touch with engineers instead. I need to be able to see how others see – not fully become others and lose the ability to view things from multiple perspectives.

** Mobile is one place that really gets this right. Uninstalling apps on smartphones is almost universally painless – perform the action that brings up a context menu, then select “remove” or tap a cross or drag it to a trash bin. Macs come a close second, except that the drag-to-Trash gesture doesn’t work for every type of application. The desktop environment is so wide open and subject to developer whims that the same kind of standardization is hard to achieve.

*** The way we instinctively shift responsibility off our products onto users reminds me a little of the language used in contemporary misogyny, actually: “women need to be less aggressive”, “women need to wear less revealing clothes”, “women need to sacrifice their careers to focus on their families”. If we can put so many resources into hiring UX people and good PMs to change the dialogue surrounding our products from “users need to X if they don’t want broken computers” to “computers should make it easy or needless for users to X”, we can definitely put the same amount of effort into changing the power dynamics and dialogue surrounding non-males in the tech