Electronic Design

KISS Is Still Job One, In Case You Forgot (And Some Of You Have...)

"I'm mad as hell, and I am not going to take it any more." Peter Finch spoke that line, playing the deranged anchor Howard Beal, in the 1976 Oscar-winning movie Network. (It's still a great and relevant movie in case you've never seen it.) And frankly, it sums up how I feel about the ease of use -- or actually the lack thereof -- of modern electronic devices.

I would hope that designers still keep the user in mind these days when they design their products, but I’m not sure that's the case. The products we have today are amazing and do things we couldn't even imagine a few years ago. But they are a bear to use. I've had this problem more than a few times recently, and it ticks me off.

A good example is the satellite radio in my new car. After sitting with the 40-page manual several times in the driveway and playing around with it, I can finally make the radio work. But I still haven't figured out how to set the stations. This is a radio. I've been using radios since I was about 6, and they all have had an off/on volume knob and a tuning knob. Well, they don't anymore. The modern radio has lots of buttons and multiple menus with choices I can't even imagine. This satellite radio also includes AM and FM, and I figured out how to work them. But this manufacturer has managed to obfuscate how to use even these familiar functions.

I'm proud of myself for figuring out how to turn on the RDS function. How to use a product should be obvious to a user -- or at least, the product should give the user some clues about what to do. More and more, this isn't the case. For example, multifunction buttons really make things tough. The radio works well once I get it going, but God forbid trying to operate the thing while driving.

I saw the ultimate version of an automobile control panel recently. Maybe you have heard of it. It is the infamous iDrive. I won't embarrass the manufacturer who makes perhaps the best cars in the world. This system provides access to all dash controls and displays via one big knob and a display. It has so many positions, menus, and functions that the new driver needs a four-day full-immersion course to learn how to use the thing. Brutal…

And that doesn't include the power seats. The four power-seat controls have multiple settings, and each makes seat adjustment either a frustrating adventure or an amusement park ride, depending on your attitude that day. And that doesn't include the bank of memories available to store multiple seat positions for the driver and front passenger. Cool, but a pain to use.

My new amateur radio transceiver, whose identity will remain a secret here, is even more difficult to use. It has many multi-use buttons and a display with dozens of menus that go so deep I'll never find them all. Its 90-page manual just barely describes how to use it. Three-digit codes are also required for many items. I could never memorize all of them. One day I even stumbled on the selection that lets me change the display backlight to one of six colors. Wow…

This radio truly looks cool and works great. But setting it up for what you want to do is a nightmare. Nothing is intuitive or easy. Why? When I worked at Heathkit in the 1970s and 1980s, we made ham equipment that was very easy to use. It used knobs, buttons, and switches clearly marked for every mode and function. It was easy and intuitive to use. You could operate the bloody thing in the dark by feel. And I'm not making that up.

The modern cell phone is another great example. My phone, and again I won't name the manufacturer, is a tiny thing that has an impossible menu system. It can work miracles if you can figure out how to access them. It takes many clicks to get to the menu and the choice you want. I still haven't figured out how to use all of its features. Thankfully, and this is a key point, I never have to use most of them.

I could go on and on, and I know all of you have had similar experiences. Some of you are whizzes at diving right in and using a product. So maybe it's just me. But I don't think so. I continue to hear complaints from many sectors about how hard things are to use. So let this be a warning to all you designers out there who create these marvelous products we all lust after but can't actually use, at least not fully.

It is possible to produce products with endless features that also are easy to use. It just takes time to get it that way. For example, the Garmin GPS receiver is very easy and intuitive to use despite its multiple menus and buttons. The BlackBerry phone is also pretty easy with its icons and thumbwheel. You could probably think of others.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. I’m just a whiner, and besides, how could a technology editor not know how to use even the most arcane electronic products? The answer is I not only could design one of these products, I could even figure out how to use them -- eventually. And that’s the whole point. These things take time to figure out. But consumers, steeped in the instant gratification of the modern world, may not have that kind of patience.

Aren't electronic products supposed to save time and improve productivity? Consider the amount of time you spend screwing around trying to use a product or implement a new feature on your cell phone or radio. It takes more time than you think. And I have better things to do.

Of course, we have such complexity these days because every product contains a powerful embedded controller that operates everything. The products include a keyboard or series of buttons, a display, and a menu system that selects, sets up, and controls all the features and modes. Once you have such a system, it is pretty easy to add new features and modes. All you need to do in most cases is write a few more lines of code, and presto, the new function happens.

The marketing people love this because your competitors may lack those new functions. Of course, your competitors can easily add these functions after they see your product because they have similar embedded systems. So much for competition.

Just because you can add something with little or no more cost or time doesn't necessarily mean that you should. Wouldn't it be a good idea to investigate the need for such an addition or the possible reaction to it? I know we all add features that we "think" the user wants, and many times, we get it right. But we also get it wrong sometimes, and the end result is a mad customer who frets about not being able to use the product. Maddening… It does not bode well for repeat business.

So as you're designing your next product, be aware of the feature creep that is so prevalent today. Go easy, think things through, or at least provide some simple and better way to teach the customer how to use it. Say, how about a 5-hour DVD self-instruction course? Or a training cadre of 9-year-old kids with vast gaming experience?

Many times when I look at a new product, as an engineer, I'll I think I could design it too. But while I could design it, I couldn't figure out how to use it. That's just not right. I still feel this way about PCs, which you could blame on the software, since it defines the usability. The so-called look and feel. I'm sure Microsoft thought about the ease of use of its new Vista. Yet most of Microsoft's designers seem to believe that everyone already knows how to use Windows, so no further training is needed. Wrong…

I still can't find or use all the features in my XP. Frankly, I don't want or need to. Vista is a whole new learning curve. I have work to do, and the PC helps me do it, and I hate to fool around with the software. I'm not the only one who feels that way. That is why I more often than not resort to my Mac. It is just faster and easier to use. The Apple iPhone appears to have solved the user interface problem on a very complex cell phone. I wish designers would emulate Apple from now on.

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