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.

That’s one of the reasons I still like film. I won’t pretend that the difference in quality or the grain of the image is even perceptible to me. It isn’t. But I love the constraints that using film places on the act of making images. There are a limited number of shots available and each shot has a cost. It forces me to slow down and think about what I want to capture, what I don’t, and why. I also have to think for a minute about where the light is and whether the settings are right to create the image I’m after.

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.

The best tool I’ve found to learn how to take images is an old Kodak Pony II 35mm film camera I picked up for next to nothing at an antique shop a few years ago. This little camera doesn’t have a fancy lens and the photos are far from perfect, but the built-in education to help users understand how the settings work are genius.

My dusty Kodak Pony II

There are two settings on the Kodak Pony that I can control when taking a photo:

  • Exposure value (a combination of shutter speed and aperture)
  • Focal range (how far or close the thing that should be in focus is)

Having only two settings to think about instead of hundreds of combinations on a DSLR is a great way to learn, and the Pony makes it even easier through cleverly designed instructional content. The different ranges of focal lengths available range from:

  • 2.5–5 feet, labeled “Close-ups”
  • 6–10 feet, labeled “Groups”
  • 15 — Inf (infinity), labeled “Scenes”

These labels are right on the front of the camera.

For exposure value, there’s a handy little chart on the back of the camera to remind the user of how to think about setting these values.

The exposure value options on the camera range from 10 to 15. I know that the darker it is, the lower my exposure value should be (the camera will let in more light though a combination of a larger aperture and longer shutter speed). The brighter it is, the higher my exposure value should be (brighter conditions require me to allow less light in when I’m taking a photo).

This little chart is permanently fixed onto the back of the camera, right underneath the view finder, where I need it if I forget:

Back of the Kodak Pony II

The simple task of thinking about exposure value and focal range when I take a picture has done wonders for helping me understand how a camera works and what I should be considering when I make an image.

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!

Similar to the Pony, the Spartacus lets me set the focal range:

  • 4–6 feet, labeled “Closeups”
  • 6–10 feet, labeled “Groups”
  • 15–Infinity, labeled “Scenes”

For exposure value, the Spartacus makes things even easier to understand than the Pony:

Spartacus settings

Instead of representing the exposure values as numbers, the Spartacus has a little dial that ranges from Bright, to Hazy, to Cloudy, to Dull. The user chooses the lighting conditions appropriate to their situation to set the exposure value.

I like how simple and clear this is. It teaches a novice photographer to consider the lighting conditions she’s in without forcing her to understand the jargon or numerical correlation of exposure values. To progress to another more complicated camera (with more control), the user will need to make the leap between these lighting settings and exposure values, but hopefully by that point, she’ll have a clearer understanding of how light impacts the quality of a photo.

It’s a brilliant way to introduce someone to what can initially feel like complicated technical mumbo-jumbo.

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.

Try to choose language that people are more likely to understand, even if it’s not as technically correct or exact as you might like.

How can you know what language your customers understand? Talk to them and pay attention to the words they use. Be mindful of the language you use. It’s one of the key ways people orient, learn, and navigate your digital product.

Both the Spartacus and the Pony could have simply listed the exposure value number and left it at that, but instead they relate the number to conditions that are easier to understand. Is it sunny or cloudy? Is it extra bright because you’re at a beach on a sunny day? Suddenly a complicated concept like exposure value is grounded in a real life example using simple and direct language.

If you have to use technical language, provide an explanation and do it right where the user is working.

Tooltips can be hard to notice and aren’t great for accessibility. FAQs and help center content can be hard to navigate and take people away from their tasks. Both of these techniques can point to language being used as a bandaid to explain a confusing experience.

Instead, look for ways to incorporate explanations into the design of the experience. My Pony and Spartacus are both designed to include explanations about the focal range alongside that setting. I don’t have to refer to a manual, or guess which number to choose because they’ve linked the numbers to the thing I’m looking at.

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

Flatten the learning curve by starting with a few simple concepts.

My old cameras aren’t the most powerful way to take photographs. I own a Nikon DSLR, a FUJI X series, and a bunch of other cameras. I’m not a professional photographer so it’s rare that I need to do anything fancy, but if I do, or if I want to shoot at night for example, I wouldn’t use the Kodak Pony.

But using the Pony as a way to understand exposure value and focal range was a great way for me to start, a much better way to learn than snapping hundreds of throwaway photos on my iPhone.

When people are introduced to our digital products, we often drop them right into the deep end. They’re exposed to the professional DSLR version of our experiences when they don’t know the basics.

What are the one or two foundational features or concepts in your product that are strong enough to build on? What are the handful of concepts that will help your users transition to more complex ideas and tasks? If you can identify these opportunities and design your product experiences around them, your customers are more likely to be successful. Successful users are more likely to stick around.

Helping people master a new skill builds confidence and makes them feel good.

My Kodak Pony made me feel smart even when I didn’t know very much about exposure values or focal ranges. It nudged me in the right direction by providing me with the information I needed to make good decisions. It had enough constraints to feel manageable, while also leaving some room for experimentation.

When I got my first role of film developed, many of the pictures were bad, but one or two were really good. The more I used the camera, the more predictable and satisfying my results were. It felt like I was improving and that felt good. It also gave me the confidence to explore some of the more complicated settings on other cameras.

I love the Pony because it helped me learn something new that I’ve been able to apply to other more complicated systems and projects.

What opportunities do you have to help new or less experienced users feel a sense of accomplishment and mastery over something that once felt confusing to them? Find those things and design for them.


Thanks for reading!

Postscript: My smart friend Kyle just pointed out that my camera is called a Spartus, not a Spartacus. Whoops! Its name is Spartacus in my brain though. ;)