User Interface Blues

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

I have no patience with poor user interface design. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop manufacturers from making such products. It's been about a year since I last wrote on this subject. Little has changed in the interim.

Take even a simple device, like the smoke detector in my hallway. A few months ago, I needed to replace its battery. I spent over thirty minutes trying to get the cover off without breaking the case. I gave up and called the alarm company that had installed the device. Their service tech couldn't figure it out either! After about 20 minutes of us working together (looking a bit like a bomb squad unit attempting to dismantle a mine), we finally removed the cover without damaging it. Good thing too. I was about two minutes away from reaching for a sledge hammer. Getting the cover back on was an equally fun task.

There is no excuse for such infuriating design. None. Zero. Zip.

So how do manufacturers ever allow such products to come to market?

I can think of three possibilities: they don't care, they don't know, or they don't realize. The first is the most likely explanation. They simply don't care about user interface design, figuring that they can make a tidy profit without wasting money on such trivia. The second amounts to incompetence: they don't have the skills to properly design a product even if they cared. The third amounts to cluelessness: they don't even realize that there is a problem to be solved ("Hey, our engineers didn't have any trouble figuring it out, so it must be fine.").

Apple, of course, is generally a welcome exception to this sad rule. From the very beginning, Apple understood that ease of use, intuitive features, attractive layout, and the sheer pleasure that comes from something working just the way you anticipated — can trump a variety of omissions and weaknesses. That's why, for example, the iPhone became a huge success despite missing such basic features as voice dialing and video (until the just-released iPhone 3GS).

More often, you will find products such as the the following three "technology" devices, all of which I have had the misfortune of using in the last year:

VR3 VRBT300V Hands-Free Car Kit. After California passed a law limiting mobile phone use to hands-free-only in a car, I decided to go with a car kit rather than a Bluetooth headset. Trusting Costco (as it usually offers good quality merchandise despite a limited selection), I purchased the VR3 kit it was selling at the time. Mistake!

The VR3 worked okay for receiving incoming calls — as long as it didn't turn itself off without telling you, which it did with irritating regularity.

The true horribleness of this device, however, became apparent if you attempted to use it to make a call. The manual detailed the car kit's collection of three "log books," one each for recently dialed, missed and received calls. In theory, you could call a number from any of these logs, without having to access your phone at all. In practice...well, see for yourself:

The first step is to briefly press the device's confusing "3-way button." This is important. If you forget this step, and otherwise attempt to use the button, your next actions will adjust the volume rather than navigate to a log.

Next, slide the button left or right to search for your desired log. Unfortunately, the three logs are not identified in any way; memory and luck are your only guides to knowing which one is which. Assuming you somehow arrived at the desired log, press the three-way button again, so as to "enter" the log.

You now return to sliding the button right and left, so as to locate the desired phone number, which (if you're lucky) appears in the small dimly lit LCD display. If you do find the number, press the button to make the call.

Even if you do everything correctly, there's still a good chance of failure. Why? Because, at least in my experience, the device added new numbers to the logs only on an infrequent and random basis. Most of the time I was unable to locate the sought-after number.

The procedure is so cumbersome that I became convinced that I was more likely to get into an accident using the VR3 than the iPhone itself.

Sony Walkman WM-FX455. This month is the 30th anniversary of the Sony Walkman. Noting the occasion, several recent articles (such as this one) have described both the initial success of this device and how, over the years, Apple's iPod has replaced the Walkman as the leader of portable music players.

Much of the credit for the iPod's success goes to its superior user interface. However, Apple was aided by the often shoot-yourself-in-the-foot poor design of Walkman models. Case in point is the WM-FX455 model. I know because I own one. It mostly spends its time tucked in a far corner of my closet. However, a few weeks ago, I had to reluctantly drag it out because someone needed me to make a cassette recording. I was quickly reminded why I should have dumped this device altogether.

In what seems to be a good thing at first, it can play a tape in either direction, without having to eject the tape and turn it over. Just use the toggle switch.

The bad news is that there is no way to know which direction the tape is actually playing at any moment, as you can't see inside the case. Making matters worse, the layout of the Play-FF-Rewind buttons only add to your confusion. When you hold the device so that you can read the word "PLAY" above the Play button, the triangle on the button itself points in the opposite (right to left) direction of what is typical. Or is it that when you hold the device correctly, the word "PLAY" is upside down? Who knows? Either way, trying to locate a desired selection in the middle of a tape is about as easy as solving a Rubik's Cube puzzle.

If Sony had wanted to help Apple sell iPods, it couldn't have done a better job.

Panasonic DMR-ES10 DVD Recorder. I saved the best for last. I have a Panasonic DMR-ES10 DVD recorder. It's now a couple of years old. I have long ago abandoned it as a recorder, shifting to TiVo instead. But I still use it as a DVD player connected to one of my televisions.

Every time there is even a one second power failure, it loses its clock settings. That's regrettable but tolerable. It is certainly not the only device I own without any backup clock capability. What is intolerable is the scavenger hunt that you need to go through to restore the correct time:

1. The first step of your journey is to press the Functions button on the remote control. Nope, don't press Direct Navigator or Submenus or anything else that may sound equally plausible. It's Functions that you want.

2. From the options that appear, select the third one: Other Functions. Yup, from Functions to Other Functions. You can see where this is heading.

3. From the next menu, select Setup. This one is easy, as it's the only choice. Although it does make you wonder why they made it a menu at all. Why not just skip directly to the next menu? Alas, my little grasshopper, if you stop to ponder such questions, you will never finish your journey.

4. From the seven options in the Setup menu that next appears, select the second item: Setup. That's right, it's the same name as the superfluous Setup choice you just made. But if this is the Setup option, then what are the other six items in this Setup menu? If by now you're thinking "Who cares?," you are finally beginning to master this task.

5. From the five choices in this second Setup menu, select Clock Settings. Yes, the end is near! You'll now have two choices: Set Clock Automatically and Set Clock Manually.

Forget the "Automatically" choice. Although, given what it took to get here, calling anything "automatic" at this point must be spoken with irony, it's even worse. The option doesn't work! Ever. Just click "Manually" and move along.

6. At last (Etta James singing in the background)! You can now set the date and time. Just remember to press the Enter button when you're done or all your efforts will be lost — and you'll have to start over again.

By the way, this is hardly the only example of the cruel jokes that this Panasonic device loves to play. It's only the worst case. Similarly annoying examples pop up no matter what you try to do. If there was any user testing done for this product, I'd love to see the video. Better yet, Panasonic should release it as a horror movie. I see "summer blockbuster" written all over it.



I’ll commiserate by issuing my own worst-software-ever complaint:  Citrix ICA Client.

This ugly as sin beast is perhaps the worst example of supposedly high quality software designed by people who don’t actually have to use it that I have ever encountered.  I won’t go into all the gory details, but suffice to say that if you didn’t have carpal tunnel syndrome before using Citrix, give it a few months and you surely will.  The designers of this mess couldn’t have possibly cared one iota for the end user.


As diehard Mac users, I think we make certain assumptions about how user interfaces are supposed to be, either in tangibles or in software.  Thankfully, user interfaces have improved substantially over the years, however they still, for the most part, suck.

I will never figure out why electronics manufacturers go to extreme extents to make their user interfaces confusing and simply unusable.  I can only assume they work from a template without any thought toward the end-user.

Need I remind anybody of the flashing “12:00” on most every VCR in existence in it’s heydays?  If the clock were easy/intuitive to set, people would’ve done it.

Lee Dronick

If Dante Alighieri had written the Divine Comedy in these days he would have said that lowest level of hell was for the engineers who design the interface of DVD players and remote controls for such. Come on guys is it so hard to put a “Menu” button on the player so when the remote gets lost you can navigate the disk?

Yes, us Mac users expect good human user interface.


My favorite example of poor UI designs is the world of digital watches.  Press and hold the S2 key for 3 seconds, then quickly double depress the S1 key to enter time setting mode.  Then, press and hold the S3 key for 3 seconds to set the seconds.  Press the S1 key to change the seconds, or press the S2 key to set the minutes.

It’s gotten so that I carry my watch’s manual around in my wallet in case I have to set something.


Digital watch? Pfft. Have you ever tried to set a Suunto wristwatch heartrate monitor? There is a torture that should be catalogued by the Human Rights Commission.


Personally I feel that some times manufacturers and designers go out of their way to see how bad a design they can come up with before there is a customer revolt.


hello all

oops ,you forgot windows, to shutdown please press start


Gray lettering on matte black backgrounds - a staple on all sorts of remotes, TVs, DVRs, etc.  Do they think I actually don’t need to see what is written on the buttons?

I want to hurt someone.  Really, really hurt someone.

Lee Dronick

I want to hurt someone.? Really, really hurt someone.

Give them a universal remote to use, that will drive them insane. I got so tired of “Honey it isn’t working, can you fix it again?” that I took an Exacto Knife and cut down the programing button so that it was below flush. That way the family couldn’t activate it by accident and reset the codes. A few months ago one of the regulars here commented on the battery covers for remotes, the are all horrid and I have tape on mine.

Ted, on the Cooking Detectors, errr Smoke Detectors, mine have these little safety pins you need to pull before you can remove the cover. However, your comments still stand. Almost as bad is the Apple Airport Extreme, the flying saucer, and the bracket that holds it to the wall.

Alarm clocks and setting them. On some of the electronic models when you click on the minutes and roll over go then the hour increases and there is no back button. I got to using my iPod for an alarm, but replaced it with my iPhone which makes having and setting multiple alarms very easy. I am rolling my own ringtones now.


I second the gray on black lettering on my audio equipment.  I also hate the companies that can’t bother with anything but raised lettering, black on black, for audio and video jack identifications.  You might think, big deal, you only hook up cables once.  But I’ve moved and reconfigured my stuff enough that it is a real pain.  On some equipment I’ve taken liquid white-out and given the raised letters a touch.

In a more general sense, any web application that does not allow keyboard commands.  I do a lot of work coding documents for litigation, and on web-based programs it is—literally—a pain to have to click, click, click, click, click, and keep sliding around for each document. 

Finally, in Windows, there are a ton of programs that give you a drop down menu with scroll bars, even when there is plenty of room to give you an expanded menu without scroll bars.  Another pain.


The second (they don’t know) is related to the first (don’t care) - i.e. a lot of management will pay lip service to design, but when you (say) recruit software engineers by testing their knowledge of SQL and Java web frameworks, then it’s only going to be luck if those developers turn out to have great UI design skills.

i.e. very few firms recruit people with experience in ergonomics, but make the mistake of using a combination of software engineers and graphic designers (to apply some polish to a fundamentally flawed design)


A very large discount retailer has revised the time clock software, “Bad programmer!, No doughnut!”

Ted Landau

Rereading what I wrote, I realized that, despite my best efforts, I did not capture the full extent to which these devices suck. Figuring better late than never, here are a few more tidbits:

The VR3:
? The unit comes with a car charger. That’s nice. Except that connecting the charger turns off the device! That’s right: The only time you can charge the device while driving is when you don’t otherwise want to use the device. Q. How often will that happen? A. Never.
? If you wind up in the wrong log, there is no way to backstep out of it. You must cancel and start completely over.

The Sony:
? To be expand a bit: There are 4 combinations of play possibilities: Insert Side A up, play Side A; Insert Side A up, play Side B; Insert Side B up, play Side A; Insert Side B up, play Side B. While you can control which side is up when you insert it (assuming you can tell up from down with this unit, which is not at all clear), you still have no idea what side will play when you hit the PLAY button. If you are unfamiliar with the content, you’ll have almost no idea what side is playing ever!

The Panasonic:
? The first time you turn it on after a power failure, it warns you that you need to reset the clock. Helpful. But how about offering to take you to the clock setting screen at that point? Nope. You’re still left to figure that out on your own. If you don’t check the manual and master the sequence described in the article, you may never figure it out.


I develop database applications for a living. Once I figured out interface ergonomics, my mantra has been, “If you need an instruction manual to use the application, your interface has failed”. Things should be simple, to the point, and self-explanatory.

I think that’s what Apple has learned. If you see/use an iPhone for the very first time, it takes just a few minutes to figure out what it can do and how to use it.

“It just works”, is a theme that the great majority of hardware/software/appliance engineers need to tattoo on their forehead (or butt if they are retentive in that direction).


I have a Panasonic DMR-E20.  It’s now 8 years old. I always thought it was bad because it was a new design. It doesn’t have a “Functions” button on the remote. But it does have “Menu” - and “Top Menu”, “Top Window” and of course “Direct Navigator”. It also has very, very small buttons on the recorder itself; so small that it needs a magnifying glass to determine their purpose.
But - I saw the warning signs before I bought it - The Users Manual is the size of a small city telephone book and the remote is frightening.
The only redeeming feature is the unit’s ability utilize RAM discs.
My neighbor has a new Panasonic DVD Recorder. I noticed that all the poor UI design features are still there - when I helped him to set the clock. After so many years it’s amazing because I can’t believe Panasonic don’t know, don’t care or don’t realize.


Regarding the Instruction Manual:  This is one of the key elements of any and every application I use.  If I cannot install it and manage to do real work in it without having to open the help manual or the instruction manual, then it has failed the first test of usability.  I believe that a word processor should not require extensive training to learn.  Same thing for any graphics or audio processing program.  I do cut some of the more technical packages, LaTeX, SAS, SPSS, Matlab, Mathematica a bit of slack.  Those programs have a language that must be learned before usable results can be achieved.  After learning the language, the results can be truly spectacular.

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There is one simple answer to the question why many - not all - user interfaces are still that bad:

It is not a trivial task to design thought-out interfaces especially for consumer products.

There is not enough well trained personnel out there and many people have a different understanding of usability. And, and, and ...

No question, Apple is doing a good job (probably the best). But there were times when they were in serious troubles. The reason was that they neglected the engineering part and the technical base eventually was a crap.

Success came back with OS X based on Unix, still technically one of the most adavanced OS. Combined with a well-designed user interface. And of course the return of Steve Jobs grin But also Apple has lot of capabilities for improvements.


It’s a chicken and egg situation though - there aren’t enough well trained personnel out there because there isn’t a high demand for the skills, or many firms investing in developing them.

Equally, as with learning a programming language, formal training only gets you so far - the rest comes from continued practice. That’s why there’s a good argument for getting a specialist in to do it, if you are not in the business of continually producing new interfaces - you’ll struggle to build up and retain in-house skills at a sufficient level.

(It’s notable that our main interface guy is a lot better, just by having to do it and practice, that any formal training or aptitude)

I’m not entirely sure Apple’s wilderness years were down to neglecting the engineering side either, as it was also the time of great engineering follies, like OpenDoc, and other projects Jobs cancelled on his return. I think what Jobs brought back - and learnt from the Lisa and NeXT - was actually a focus on product first - with engineering supporting, but not being allowed to compromise, the product vision.


To design something well you must solve every problem, not just those who are obvious.  It takes some thought and time.

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