What old cameras can teach us about designing better digital experiences

For as many years as I can remember, I’ve wanted to improve my technical photography skills. iPhones and automatic settings on digital cameras make taking nice enough images convenient and easy, but the experience is so lightweight that the outcome feels disposable. I take hundreds of photos on my phone, sync them to my computer, and often never look at them again. The photos I share on Instagram get a tiny bit more of my attention, but not much.

Learning to take pictures

iPhones are great for convenience but because they do all the work, they’re bad for learning how to take a good photograph. DSLRs (digital single-lens reflex cameras) are a bit better, because you can play around with settings like aperture and shutter speed, but they are so unconstrained that for me at least, they’re hard to learn on because the options are overwhelming.

My dusty Kodak Pony II
  • Focal range (how far or close the thing that should be in focus is)
  • 6–10 feet, labeled “Groups”
  • 15 — Inf (infinity), labeled “Scenes”
Back of the Kodak Pony II

Meet Spartacus

The other day, I found a Spartacus camera (for $12!) in an antique shop in Ellsworth, Maine. I bought it because, like the Kodak Pony, it’s a great example of a simple 35mm film camera designed to teach the user how to take a picture using a just few controls and some contextual education.

I am Spartacus!
  • 6–10 feet, labeled “Groups”
  • 15–Infinity, labeled “Scenes”
Spartacus settings

Extrapolating to UX (because that’s what I do)

When we design digital experiences, we ask people to do complicated things all the time, but there are things we can do so that these experiences feel easier to pick up for new users.

Taking a photo of a face? Choose “Close-Ups”.

Writer and reader. Director of UX for Store Management at Shopify. Formerly designed with words at Facebook. Based in Toronto. http://amythibodeau.com