AskTog, June, 2003
The following delightful letter illustrates the dangers of compound error all too well.
The GE dishwasher suffers from two separate and distinct design defects, either one of which would have made its use difficult. Combined, they are a recipe for disaster.
Not only does a simple visual appearance not automatically result in a simple interface, it usually results in the opposite, unless the task domain is equally simple--and foolproof.
Often, the only thing a simple visual interface indicates is reduced manufacturing costs, as hardware is pulled out by the roots, with software left to clean up the mess.
That is certainly the case with the horrible clocks we've been saddled with in this digital age that only allow you to set the time in a single direction.
Couple such cost cutting with inferior software design and you end up with a frustrated consumer. Can no clock chip designer figure out that no one needs to get up at exactly 6:03? If they just allowed the alarm sequence to go forward in five minute increments, instead of one minute increments, they would improve our lives immeasurably.
Then there are the designers who really like a good challenge, like the challenged folks at BMW who have managed to reduce all the clutter of controls in the high-end BMW 7 Series to such an extent that the dozens of dials and controls that used to populate the center console have been replaced by a single knob, the iDrive (googleSearch) with claimed access to 700 different functions. The boys at PistonHeads said it best:
[Any] device that requires you to take one hand off the wheel while distracting you from the road ahead is positively Darwinian. BMW's...iDrive is in a different league: challenging you to check your tyre pressure in the middle of a skid.
The trouble is, no one but the designers can use it. The dealers actually offer one and two day courses in how to, for example, adjust the air conditioning. Somehow BMW didn't think this would be a problem. Quite the contrary: They continue to crow about how "intuitive" it is. For shame!
The Beemer looked really cool at the auto shows, and equally slick on the showroom floor, yet another demo that looked so cool it shipped.
People think that a GUI interface is simple, on account of all you have is a mouse and a screen, but look at the informational complexity of that screen. Users deal with far more variables than was ever imagined in the days of MS-DOS. It is that messy complexity that gives them the power to perform tasks unthinkable in the days of MS-DOS.
The complexity of other people's screens, particularly that of new users, who leave everything open everywhere, often leads observers to conclude that something must be done to take control of their screens and clean them up, by putting everything away neatly. No! Many people work well in clutter. They know where everything is, and just how to get to it quickly, without having to remember where they left it.
Pilot lights gleaming at aesthetically pleasing locations, rather than at the focus of the user's attention, are useless, as in the case of the dishwasher. If you save even more money, resulting in ambiguous meanings, they can even be dangerous.
Consider the case of the budding terrorist a few years ago who failed to notice the subtlety of the pilot light which was not lit up to indicate that the time was set 12 hours off.
The terrorist thought he had set the clock to, for example, 8 PM, the current time, and the alarm for 11 AM, when he would have safely (?) delivered the bomb.
Unfortunately for him, he had set the both the clock and the alarm to PM. The bomb blew him up in his sleep shortly thereafter. (How the crime boys reconstructed that one, I'll never know.)
You know the alarm clocks I mean, of course. Their builders save money by not having both an AM and a PM LED. The LED is off for AM, on for PM. Pretty subtle, subtle enough to kill.
Microsoft is notorious for adding "shortcut" keys to everything. I'm forever getting weird results in Microsoft Word when my fingers accidentally press down on what I don't know as I type and having some strange window fly open.
On the Mac, I've grown use to the Mac help system ponderously spinning itself up from deep, deep sleep at random intervals, obviously in response to some slip of the keyboard or mouse on my part.
Apple, at least up through System 9, has done a nice job with "power user" features, which are often attached to the Option key. Press that key while opening menus, selecting buttons, etc., and interesting things might happen. Leave it alone, and things will go on in their normal course.
(I just discovered one such Mac feature today, after 20 years of using the machine: Option click on a title bar and, instead of just "rolling up" the current window, it will "roll up" all the windows in the application.)
Apple has failed, unlike Microsoft, to "booby trap" every single possible key on the keyboard, making for a less jarring experience.
If you want to add power-user features--and you do--either test them to make sure they will not hamper the majority of your users, or ship them turned off, with, preferably, a single that will enable them all at once.
Which brings me to the coup de grace that GE gave themselves, ensuring their products ultimate failure in Denver, as well as Lake Woebegone.
What works in a home, where users have the manual and sometimes take the time to read it, won't necessarily work in public settings.
Unless you are testing under a variety of conditions, your product will fail under a variety of conditions.
We have a dishwasher with subtle controls, not unlike the GE's. We've learned to use it. We have no problems now, although we certainly did when we were learning.
The problem with such an appliance in the public setting is that you have a constant flow of new people, all needing to learn how to use it. That's why commercial laundry machines continue to use easy-to-understand, easy-to-operate mechanical controls.
Quiet vs. Noisy
What works in a quiet lab doesn't necessarily work in a noisy--or even normal--environment.
I learned the GE lesson back in the '70s, when my partner, David Eisenberg and I were working on a tutorial to be packed with every Apple II. We tested it thoroughly in the lab, ensuring that it would work with new users who had never even touched a computer before. Then we took it to a computer show.
The screen would periodically lock up, as the computer fetched new information off the floppy disk. Always before, the sound of the head scrubbing the disk alerted people to the fact that the system was busy processing their command. Suddenly, even those noisy early drives were drowned out by the cacophonous crowd around them. It appeared the system had crashed.
We returned to Apple and put in visual delay indicators "Fetching information from the disk"), and the problem was solved.
There's nothing inherently complex or confusing about electronic controls. It's just that they are, almost universally, poorly implemented. Someday, someone will stop using them as an excuse for pulling out parts, and they will instantly become easier to use than their mechanical counterparts.
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