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Finding UX in the Trash (f2.svbtle.com)
105 points by 0xF2 on Sept 17, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 94 comments

You guys should see the trash sorting at McMurdo station, Antarctica. When I first traveled there in 2009, there were about 20 categories, and dorms had an area just like this one with about 10 of those categories present, each with a page of documentation. If your category wasn't there, you needed to go find that category somewhere else. The categories overlapped and changed from year to year and had names like "paper towels" (compressible non-recyclables that could be baled on station) and "burnables" (I still don't really know what that was for, since incineration is banned out there). Users were encouraged to call the Waste Department for support, and actually the people at Waste seemed to understand and believe in the system (unlike me) so I called them frequently to ask where to put e.g. an empty juice box. To be fair, this system was borne out of the real difficulties of waste management in Antarctica, and I'm not sure I could have done a better job with the UX. (Constraints were that everything went back to the US on a boat, food waste had to be shipped back refrigerated, etc.)

Fascinating. Thanks for sharing, I thin this is probably one extreme of the scale of effort taking care of garbage... and with good reason given the delicate ecosystem.

The things you learn talking about design ;-)

Indeed, managing waste for a station of over 1000 people while complying with a restrictive international treaty and putting up with extreme environmental conditions is a really tricky and dangerous job. I knew some of the "wasties" well and had lots of respect for them. They had to deal with conundrums like: how do you forklift pallets of waste which are frozen to the ground by several inches of ice following flooding?

Why exactly was incineration not allowed? I can understand it being logistically difficult to implement, but it would sure be a lot simpler, and it's not like there's enough people down there that the carbon footprint relative to the airshed would be significant.

Well you inspired me to actually look this up for the first time. Turns out it's allowed, per Article 3 here: http://www.ats.aq/documents/recatt/Att010_e.pdf but McMurdo stopped doing it in 1993 because it was more expensive than shipping unburnt waste north. ( http://www.southpolestation.com/trivia/igy2/incinerator.html ) So the category may well have been sort of vestigial.

Fire is extremely dangerous in Antarctica, even though it sounds counterintuitive.

Firstly, it's hard to put out. Even though there's lots of frozen water, liquid water that you can throw onto a fire to put it out is lacking.

Secondly, if a small structure catches fire, it's not like in the middle of a US city where you can just stay at a hotel and buy what you lost. Depending on the time of the year, the tools inside might take months to replace, not to mention the shelter itself being lost.

urgh, s/bourne/born

The paradigm works well as long as the designer has a clear idea of what the user wants to do and as long as the designer('s boss') and the user's goals are aligned - and as long as the designer could anticipate all use-cases.

Nothing is more infuriating than finding out that something that should be straight-forward to do is hard or even impossible because the option got taken away in the name of UX.

Actually, there is one thing more infuriating: If that UX was also inspired by business goals and not user interests.

The paradigm works well as long as the designer has a clear idea of what the user wants to do and as long as the designer('s boss') and the user's goals are aligned - and as long as the designer could anticipate all use-cases.

The advice in the article works well for simple things. Simple things can, and should, be perfect.

Unfortunately not everything can be simplified until it makes sense to an unskilled operator (or an unskilled designer). Ideally, complex things are composed of simple things... but if that were true, wouldn't we'd all be running UNIX command-line desktops?

Contrary to the author's leading premise, the best designs don't just work by taking options away from the user. They hide those options until they're needed... and when they are needed, they make those options easy to find.

And that's hard work, the sort of hard work that can't be waved away with a list of trendy bullet points from some respected design guru who mysteriously never seems to be around when you need to use a different printer than the one the OS thinks you want.

>The advice in the article works well for simple things. Simple things can, and should, be perfect.

That seems backwards, as the argument being put forwards is that UX is all about trading off a complex, options-rich interaction with a simple, options-poor interaction. So good UX delivers simple things. The hard work comes in the skilful reduction of a potentially complex interaction to a simpler one, and recognising that there are tradeoffs.

This mindset (well, part of it) is what put me off GNOME. They forgot who they were designing for. Parts of the UI look like they were designed for touch, with all the compromises that entails; yet their average user is currently someone who use mouse and keyboard on a desktop.

Being opinionated is fine, and for the most part Apple makes the right calls. But it’s not as simple as dictating “thou shalt...” via the UI and calling it a day, and then flatly refusing when questioned. It’s the UX equivalent of a bad manager who only learned the “be an asshole” from Steve Jobs-style leadership while forgetting all the reasons he could get away with that.

Apple does not get away with it because of force, or because of Steve Jobs' style. Apple can actually provide two different experiences, one via the UNIX cli (with a lot of knobs) and one in the Mac OS X UI (with high UX). Browsers do the same with chrome:// and about:config.

In a properly modular design, you often do not need to choose whether to upset the expert user or to make the naïve ones happy.

> Actually, there is one thing more infuriating: If that UX was also inspired by business goals and not user interests.

Like.... Facebook ? I do not use it myself but ended up checking somebody else's page for a specific comment. Took me a while !

I remember a while ago (4-5 years ?) there was some fuss about Facebook deciding not to improve UX because tests showed users would spend less time on it. But cannot find anything at the moment.

Stores like Walmart and Target are intentionally designed to be inefficient and maze like in an effort to get you spend more time browsing (and buying).

Facebook is the digital equivalent of that.

A grid of shelved aisles with wider walkways connecting them is not maze like.

The milk is in the back on purpose, but products are grouped relatively sensibly too.

Yes, Ikea is far more annoyingly maze-like than Walmart or similar stores. In fact, it's so bad that I'll never hike through another Ikea again.

Actually, the IKEA nearest to me in Berlin was restructured some months ago and got rid of the maze, by adding a lot more shortcuts. They also have signs with a floor plan whenever you could take a shortcut.

Ikea stores are Hilbert curves, not mazes. Mazes have split paths and lots of dead ends, those features make them disorienting. Hilbert curves are a single twisty path, which only makes it long, but not disorienting.

The design of the path through the storey was not chosen to annoy you, but to make optimal use of display and saleroom space.

While the design may not have been chosen for that purpose, it does indeed annoy me. And I suspect that it was designed that way more to force people to look at the goods in every single department, rather than to optimize the use of space.

But yes, Hilbert curve rather than maze, makes sense.

I really hate these articles that bemoan poor UX but in reality are a failure of the author to take the time and look at the problem from a different perspective.

Sure the Mac printer selection experience is great when you have a laptop that you carry from work to home and print from a single printer at either location.

It sucks when you have a desktop at work and you can see the entire corporate network. That printer sitting across the hall might be 10 hops from you on the network but the printer on some exec's desktop might be 2 hops even though he's 2 floors up.

Or maybe you're a home user who never takes your laptop anywhere but you have a document printer and a photo printer. Or a kid and they have a printer for school work in their room. Then you have to check every time you print.

* Neither OS adds a printer by default so the scenario I described isn't really feasible and none of the OSes behave as I or the author of the article described.

I haven't used printers from a Mac at all, but reading the article I thought the implementation was that the Mac would keep track of a preferred printer depending on what network you're connected to.

If it's as I was thinking it would work without problem for the scenarios you described.

I just checked and nothing really lines up with what the author states.

MacOS Sierra and El Capitan default to the "Last Printer Used". The UI is the same in both and there is no indication in the UI that this a per network preference.

Windows 10 defaults to "Let Windows manage my default printer" and has clarifying text under the option that states "Windows will set your default printer to be the one you used most recently at your current location". Which appears to be the feature the author loves about OSX.

Windows 7 sets the first installed printer as the default printer and when you install a printer it asks if you would like to default to it in the future.

Personally I prefer the Windows 7 approach over macOS and Windows 10. Having a network/location default would be ideal in my mind and that doesn't appear to be an option for macOS or Windows.

> Having a network/location default would be ideal in my mind and that doesn't appear to be an option for macOS or Windows.

That's too bad.

The crux of the author's point appears to be that reducing the choices the user has to make is generally good, but I feel that modern designers are often over zealous in that pursuit.

Intelligent defaults is something that feels like a good blend. You're working with the computer, it recommends something it thinks is smart (I set this local printer as the default) and if you disagree you can modify it. One must be careful to not overly increase the mental overhead of the user this way, but smart defaults can prevent the complexity of the user trying to reverse engineer and fight unspoken rules.

I believe I have seen this work in Leopard through Lion, particularly Snow Leopard. I remember re-making the addressing of my home network once I changed jobs and the internal subnets were no longer different. More recently, I no longer print with the same machine at both sites, I will check it out.

This is not an explicit option, such as a default setting for printer for a named network. What I noticed back then was that printers located on the unreacheable networks were never the default offering, provided the routing could be used to distinguish where I was. So, if both home and work networks were using 10.0.0/24, it would not work.

It may be possible that binding to the name of access points is a more clever way to do it today.

Care to offer us a design that solves the problem?

Which problem would you like a solution to?

The sea of printers at the office. How do you simplify when "you see the whole network" as you put it?

The article doesn't propose a solution for the trash problem.

I suspect because it's not really a UI problem. UI can't magically make all complex interactions easy. Fixing the problem would mean changing the requirements first... then the UI.

Edit: Never mind...missed the key sentence there in all the discussion about the 4 labels.

The article is not about UI. A chunk of the article is aimed at correcting the idea that UX is UI.

The author does provide a UX solution, which is to cut the number of bins to two or one.

But going to one bin makes recycling impossible. So really, that just ignores the problem or decides it's too hard to solve. What I'd love to see is a solution that makes disposing of trash easy while also allowing for recycling.

FWIW, recycling is not "impossible" if the trash is not pre-sorted by the people throwing it away, it's just harder for the people who have to do the final sort (presumably someone is there at the end correcting the mistakes of all the non-expert trash bin users out there).

Why would one-bin be impossible? We have ways to differentiate commingled glass, plastic, and metal automatically (and mechanically). We can get fancier with AI if we need to.

Always use the word impossible with the greatest care. Everything is always impossible right up to the moment it is done.

And most things are never done.

The author did say: "UX is turning those four bins into two (or one!) and signing up with a single stream recycling vendor."

Regardless of what's easier or what will have to be done anyway, this isn't a UX solution. It's kicking the can down the road. Good UX solves problems at the point of user interaction. Avoiding the problem only to dump it on a backend engineer or data scientist who's then got to make do with bad source data (my best guess at the equivalent to recycling contractors in this analogy) is not good UX, it's just laziness.

If it is easier for the data scientist to sift through and correct bad data than it is for a UX professional, it absolutely makes sense to have the data scientist do the work. But the UX doesn't get to take credit for that decision.

His follow through after the initial bad analogy is then frustratingly vague; he just hand waves at Apple and gives no concrete examples of solving UX problems.

And he's wrong. It is far easier to get everyone to classify their trash. Separating trash that has been put in a single trash bin is far more complicated later on. “It allows people to think less” isn't an excuse for making shit worse in every other possible imaginable respect.

Well, except for the fact that half the people won't bother and the job will have to be done at some point anyway.

That is a strong assertion.

It takes a bit of culture remapping, but certainly doable.

Want good examples? Spend some time in Germany or Sweden.

Making humans change their habits is extremely difficult, though. Scandinavia and Germany are outliers — and I say that as a Scandinavian (who has spent a lot of time in Germany).

Here in New York, I recently lived in a building where people would, on a weekly basis, discard pizzas, soiled napkins and rotisserie chicken carcasses in the recycling bin. This was a modern building with just two different recycling bins (one for plastic/metal, the other for paper/cardboard). It's amazing how little people care.

In my current NYC neighbourhood, there are no recycling bins at all, and people have to sort and bag their recycling and put it on the street one night of the week. Not surprisingly, almost nobody bothers. Other than myself, I've only observed bags from my neighbour next door. The US can be pretty infuriating/depressing sometimes.

Author here. The point here is not the trash, I go by those bins twice a day and can affor to think a few more seconds if I am carrying something unusual. Plus it makes you feel like you are part of a bigger cause to put near-zero effort to help save the planet.

The point is software. There I should not spend a fraction of a second thinking, because that does not happen twice a day. It happens every 15 minutes if we are talking about me looking at my phone. UX thinking there makes a real, tangible difference.

The analogy might work better if you went into why the idea of reducing to one or two bins was the best solution. Is that better than, for example 3 bins "aluminum cans", "plastic bottles" and "everything else"? By what measure?

Without the background, it just sort of sounds like "consult your UX people for the answer, always...we're never wrong".

What do you think of my solution posted above?

I like it better than reading different signs in every office I visit.

In the US the problem however is that recycling collection is not standardized. Each city does it differently, which gets in the way of the standardization you propose. We would need a Federal standard (or at least an agreement by the relevant industry association) to help there.

Not necessarily although a federal standard would help. A single big state like California could implement it and the standard would propagate itself from there.

It's even better if we move the problem of classifying from the person throwing trash to the time of manufacturing of the article. You could mark each article with #1, #2 or #3 and standardize each bin to be called bin #1, #2 or #3.

The person then simply matches number on article to the number on bin and throws, dead simple.

See my comment above for detailed description of this.

Those labels exist, at least in Japan. They're not numbers, though. http://www.barcode-net.com/products/recycle/img/ex-img_recyc...

The problem is when items have multiple labels, because they're not made of one thing. The simplest example is Saran wrap, where the box is "paper", and the part to cut plastic is either "aluminium" or "plastic" (there are brands that make it in paper so that it's easier, though). And both parts go in different bins. Bottles can have 3 parts: plastic cap, PET bottle, paper label. All in different bins.

Then you add rules where things need to be clean, which mean in theory, your toothpaste tube needs to be cut open, and cleaned, before putting it in the bin.

And different cities have different rules.

9 labels is too many. Also, those pictures are kind of hard to match.

It needs to be dead simple: number of labels = number of bins available. Maybe number of labels can be more than number of bins by 1 or 2 at most.

Secondly, use numbering instead of icons. Numbering is dead simple to match, icons require effort to match on the box against the picture on bin.

In the case of saran wrap: the box should clearly say #2 for box and #3 for contents (saran wrap). That would resolve the case you mentioned.

The fun part is: in many cities, you actually have to separate almost all 9 categories.

As for the salan wrap, the point is that it's not a box vs contents problem. The box itself needs to be broken up (removing the cutter part) before being thrown away.

Here's the problem with current trash UX:

1. Person walks up with trash in hand to 3 bins. Each bin has a poster with pictures of items which are meant for that bin. Each person has to make O(n) comparisons for each of the bin and then make the closest judgment call. Too exhausting, error prone and inefficient as each person is solving the classification problem for a given trash item over and over again.

Here's a simple solution to the problem above:

1. Setup a regulation that each article be simply labelled with a numeral marking: "1", "2" or "3". Standardize each trash bin to be called bin #1, #2 or #3. Each person simply throws the trash in the matching bin.

This moves the classification problem from the person to the time of manufacturing of the article. Also, the classification is only done once by experts and not by each person at the time of throwing away the article. Also, reduces the classification problem for the person from O(n) to O(1).

Simple solution which solves the problem in elegant fashion.

You completely miss the point of what he is saying. There is nothing intuitive about "1", "2", "3". Your proposed solution requires everyone to build expertise at throwing things away.

You also open the system up to folklore about what the numbers mean and what should go in each bin. And that folklore is impossible to control and correct.

It's fine if you want to build systems that way. They may be good and work well enough. But a more intuitive system will prevail at some point.

It doesn't have to be "1", "2" or "3" necessarily, it could be A, B or C or any other marker or some other icon.

This system could be adaptable as well. So suppose, you have only 2 bins, say bins: #1 and #2. The article to be thrown is marked as #3. So, in the absence of the relevant bin, throw the article to the closest matching bin, in this case: #2. The system would be composed of simple rules that people can remember in obvious fashion.

> You also open the system up to folklore about what the numbers mean and what should go in each bin. And that folklore is impossible to control and correct.

I don't know what "folklore" means here. This efficiency of the system comes from standardization. It seems no different than rules at a traffic light intersection. One could argue that color of traffic lights could open up the system to folklore then?

Jeesh, take it easy. I took the numbers to be rhetorical. Of course you'd want to use intuitive icons instead of just numbers. What I'm curious about is what kind of prevailing more intuitive system you had in mind.

Plastic recycling uses numbers.

Works until you carry something into the area that wasn't made there. Where do I throw away the packaging from the Vietnamese cookies I bought while on vacation? Or what do you do when a new recycling process is now able to handle (imaginary example) aluminum, so it should move from cat 3 to cat 2?

> Where do I throw away the packaging from the Vietnamese cookies I bought while on vacation?

Of course there are corner cases to be handled. But what percentage of the trash is Vietnamese cookie box and Japanese candy wrappers? In these cases, the person uses their best judgment.

I totally agree with the article for user interfaces that are meant to be used by a broad audience.

What I'm struggling wrapping my head around is, coming up with user interfaces/experience for big, specialized applications whose value proposition IS to give the user full control over the "machine". Think GarageBand vs Pro Tools, SketchUp vs Maya, iPhoto vs Photoshop.

for example within an digital audio workstation I think it is great for quick experimentation and beginners to have some guitar pedal style plugins with just on/off switches and few knobs, that can change multiple parameters at once in a predefined way. But if you don't also give me an alternative way to control all the parameter myself the application becomes useless to me except in a few use cases.

Does anyone have recommended readings for ux projects where you can't "just" turn 4 into 1 and be done with it? (Not meant to be demeaning to the author, it is just not always possible to just remove things:))

Trash sorting is the absolute worst UX. A newspaper goes in paper recycling, fine. Does a glossy magazine also go in paper recycling? Cardboard goes in paper recycling. Does paper cardboard with a plastic overcoat go in paper recycling? Can TetraPaks or whatever the heck Zico/juice boxes/etc. uses be recycled as "paper"? What about steel cans (which most coconut water in southern California is packed in), do they go in "cans" recycling, since there is no "Aluminum"-specific stream in my workplace?

Trash UX is really awful. In my office it's even worse - the custodial staff just dump the at-desks blue recycling bins into the same large trash can as the black waste bins. Why the heck do we even have recycling bins if it's just going to be commingled anyway?

I get particular joy out of seeing that type of multiple waste-bin installation in municipalities that use mixed-waste processing [1]. Knowing that all bins are being combined at pick-up and then re-sorted at the material recovery facility makes me chuckle.

Incidentally, is mixed-waste processing still picking up steam anywhere?

[1] http://www.waste360.com/mrfs/10-points-explain-mixed-waste-p...

But sometimes education is the best UX. Just give people an exhaustive list of trash for each bin.

There is no simple and elegant solution to knowing what goes where, since it depends on the recycling process etc.

Recycling bins at community recycling centers here just have alphabetic lists that list every item, and helpful staff that tells you were to put things if you are unsure.

People throw away the same things over and over again. Teach them once, and they‘ll throw it in the right bin.

No need to come up with a confusing icon or throw everything in a single bin.

The best UX I've seen for recycling & composting is putting up a board with examples of each item for each bin. So the aluminum bin would have cans, the commingled bin would have paper, bottles, etc., compost would have a banana peel, compostable forks, etc., and trash would have all the non-recyclable stuff. The only remaining problem is that the examples are non-exhaustive so you still have to guess if the thing you want to throw away isn't up there, but the trash is always safe.

What do you think of my proposed solution I posted above?

If you are going to whine and whinge about something in a blog, why not define the bloody thing first? You (for a given value of you) and I know that UX means User eXperience.

Could that be a blog UX fail? If someone doesn't even know what you are on about from the title, then your message may not get through. To be fair, the intended audience for this might allow the author assume a certain subset of knowledge but it wouldn't hurt to cover a wider casual readership.

Many people do not understand UX and its role, but in my experience UX teams do not really understand how to operate within organizations and adapt to processes either.

How do you integrate UX in the agile process? People think that UX is UI. Unless you work one or two sprints ahead, it's challenging to integrate design thinking or the users in the process.

Processes are a shared responsibility. It's not on a given team to adapt to existing processes, but it's on both teams to adjust the process to incorporate all the concerns.

I wonder if making the doors transparent would help in any way. I fully share the frustration of the end user. I'm a UX designer myself and appreciate the little moments that are few and far between in every day life where people have got the basics right.

My thoughts on the transparent doors are that 60-70% of people will get this trash system correct. The contents made visible will promote the correct behaviour and may reduce the question of what goes where.

Probably need a picture for the first bin too - People might be compelled to toss old batteries into that bin with that icon design.

Why should the option to do more complicated things be taken away? If some behaviour is needed and preferable for the vast majority of users, then of course this should be default - but why, oh why, must their not be an option, hidden behind some series of menus, to change that behaviour for those users who are so inclined?

The recycling industry should develop automated ways to separate garbage appropriately, in a central location; perhaps using machine learning. Then you eliminate the UX altogether. The best UX is no UX.

> perhaps using machine learning.

What? You can't just say 'machine learning' about every (perceived) problem you hear.

To be honest, this sounds like a perfect application for ML. Especially if you look at how people separate their trash. And it might well be how it's actually done (i don't know anything about recycling)

It might be a good idea to separate paper/dry stuff from wet stuff and glass from the start, though. Just the way it's done in many countries.

(I heard that in one of the poorer regions of the city I live in, the trash is thrown into a single "bin" after collection, and possibly separated from there. Don't know if that's true though).

Machine learning excels at classification, and trash sorting is at heart a classification problem.

Applying ML to non-classification problems is when it is NOT appropriate, but this is a good pick.

> Machine learning excels at classification, and trash sorting is at heart a classification problem.

Classifying by physical properties is even easier by simply classifying by physical properties. Want to pull all ferrous metals out of a pile of stuff? Just use a magnet. Want to sort tin from plastic? Blower and conveyor bins by flight distance.

Incidentally, those elements not easily covered by this kind of sorting (which has been used for many years) is also not easy to cover by magical do-all machine learning, which will have a hard time sorting plastic-coated paper from paper from plastics, just like the processes above.

> Want to sort tin from plastic? Blower and conveyor bins by flight distance.

ML is useful when you cannot make a clear difference using physical properties only. For example, if you treat different types of plastic garbage, you will probably want to separate bottles from other types of plastics, and you can do that with visual sorting and pattern matching.

> which will have a hard time sorting plastic-coated paper from paper from plastics, just like the processes above.

Certainly, but then this is when you still need some manual work at some point of the chain. But physical filtering + ML could reduce the human part of the work to exceptions.

Just separate your trash yourself.

(0) It isn't hard.

(1) If the trash bins are aligned in a predictable manner, then you can even do it without thinking.

I am, but that does not mean further sorting is not needed at the recycling plant anyway. It is.

I think physical properties are already being used in the sorting process.

> (which has been used for many years)

The nVidia blog had an article about, among others, a machine learning trash-sorting start-up:


What would ML do with an empty bag of chips with banana peel inside? Or with a bag with some trash and more bags of different trash inside of it?

If it would send it to separate process of separating the bag from its contents then I will up the game. How about a can with something in it. Or a cardboard box with bags in it.

I think you can't just slap ML on the problem and say it's done.

> ways to separate garbage appropriately, in a central location

It's called mixed-waste processing: http://greenblue.org/reloop-what-is-mixed-waste-processing-o...

How do you separate a half eaten cup of yoghurt from glass shards and paper towels?

Not mixing trash is definitely easier.

Correction: the best UI is no UI. A UI doesn't have to be point and click; it can be 4 confusing refuse receptacles.

The best UX is happiness, beauty, convenience, pleasure, security, justice, idealism, power and so on. Did you really mean to say the best UX is no UX? :)

Noone care about the UX. People just throw their garbage wherever.

That is actually a better point for recycling UX than saving a user's time, as most people do not throw away trash so many times a day to make UX matter. But the system does not work if it defeats the user's willingness to cooperate, as the escalating documentation shows.

Thanks! I shall add it to the article.

You really don't deserve the downvotes because this is also the rational behavior. It's not worth anyone's time to learn any UX because the "Trash" bin can contain everything.

> Making things simple is about taking options away

Dangerous. The hard part is knowing what you can take away and providing the right default for all other things.

I literally just found some UX in the trash.

I like that they call out issues in the ux then throw up their hands and say "this is a messy problem" and redefine their scope instead "well just collect everything in my beautiful ux" and "pay someone else to do the hard work". I don't know of a single stream place that takes food commingled with recyclables and trash except the landfill. Basically it sounds like "my ux is harmed, user education is hard, let business or engineers figure it out"! Yay now here's a ton of tenents to guide your way into making your job easy because your job should be trivalizing things.

They didn't throw up their hands, they recognized a very important fact:

Trying to teach every trash bin user how to sort is very difficult. It might be much easier to instead teach a few specialized people how to sort (the single stream recyclable service). This is easier for the trash users, and probably a lot more efficient as the number of sorting errors might be greatly reduced.

The food vs other items problem is probably why they explicitly said it would likely be two bins, and one only if it could be made to work.

This is the point of the article: UX is not UI. The solution encompasses changes to the entire system, not just the UI.

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