User Interface Blues

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.