Tag Archive for 'Consumer electronics'

Form contradicts Function!?!!

Sure thing, Form should follow Function… but some designers haven’t heard of that. Like the Sony designers responsible for the two weird design choices below.

Round knobs are round because they need to be gripped and rotated… an optimal design for our opposable-thumb grip.

But the radio below has a round knob whose function is to slide right and left between two positions. There are wonderful switch designs for that, some going back to the Industrial Revolution… and their oblong form reflects the lateral movement. Not here, though…

Confusing Round Knob on a Sony radio

And then there’s this little stereo system I use in my home office:

Sony Stereo System with odd knobs

This has four shiny round knobs, of which one – at the right – actually rotates to control the sound volume. The other three are flush with the panel and are actually two-way momentary push-button switches – you push the top or bottom part of the control for a “click” that might advance the tuning or track up or down. The use of a round form here is an abomination, and each time I use them I go into a tiny cognitive dissonance. Fortunately, the sound quality is good enough to put me in a forgiving mood…

How do you say “Plug and Play” in Russian?

We got this new Samsung flat panel TV, and when I first turned it on it went straight into a “first time setup” sequence. The first question that appeared on the OSD (On-Screen Display) was which language I wanted for the OSD; I started scrolling among the options, and my finger slipped and hit the “enter” button when the option “Russian” was selected. The OSD obediently changed to Cyrillic script, and presented me with the next setup dialog. In pure Russian. Yay.

Unfortunately, there was no “Back” button with a universally understood back arrow, so there was no way I could go back and un-choose Russian; or if there were, it was described in Russian right in front of me – and I don’t know this language. I tried mucking around the interface at random, but to no avail. I thought of reverting to factory settings, but the manual said I need to find the option “Plug and Play” – and I really couldn’t say what that phrase looks like in Russian, even if it were written in Latin characters, which it wasn’t.

And there things stood, until I remembered that Samsung had delivered the TV with three copies of the manual, in English, Hebrew and Russian. By carefully using this as a Rosetta Stone, I managed to find the equivalent Cyrillic words and finally found them in the UI. Once reset, I was back with an OSD I could read.

Poor interaction design, Samsung!…

The unexpected advantage of VHS tape over DVD

For the last couple of years I kept saying I’m not buying a DVD recorder until the VCR dies. Well – the VCR died, so I went and bought a DVD recorder. In fact I bought a dual-mode unit that has a VCR and a recording DVD in the same box.

I thought I was keeping a VCR option in order to play the many old tapes we have, and perhaps convert them all to DVD when I have some spare time (yeah right). And I thought I’d use the DVD side to dump to disc the many programs we record on hard disk in our cable PVR, just like I used to do with the old cassette unit, may it rest in peace. So guess what… after getting the hang of the new setup, I find myself dumping many programs to cassette tapes, rather than to DVD. Turns out the tape format has an inherent advantage over DVD in some situations; and it is precisely what we tend to think of as a disadvantage: its serial access.

An optical disc is a random access device; the head can skip to any position on its surface instantly. With tape, which is serial, you have to wind it slowly to get to a given spot. When would that be an advantage?

Here’s when: if you record, as I do, multiple chapters of a given TV series – say, half a dozen episodes of Babylon 5 – at one run to a single media, then watch them one at a time, then with a tape you hit Stop at the end of an episode and the next day, or week, or year, you stick the cassette back in and hit Play and the next episode starts immediately. With a disc, you need to find the start of each episode, and while the head can get there in an instant, it can’t tell where an episode begins, not if they were recorded in one run. So you have to start running forward and backward to locate it. That’s why I use the DVD to record single movies, and the VHS tapes for TV series.

Of course, I still haven’t converted a single movie from one format to the other…

Multi-device remote controls

Used to be, a TV set had a remote control (used to be, farther back, it didn’t; but that’s prehistory). These days, however, everything has a remote control; indeed, I can’t wait for someone to create a tiny remote control for the larger remote control itself! 🙂

Three Remote Control unitsThe proliferation of these gadgets has created a real problem, and home electronics makers are responding by creating R/C units that can control more than one item; most typically, a TV set and the DVD, PVR or VCR feeding it.

Which is all very well, but how do you make one control work on many devices without confusing the user? There are different ways, and they vary in their usability a great deal. Let me illustrate with three units from my home: the remotes for (left to right) our LG recording DVD, our old Sony VCR, and the HOT cable company’s PVR. The first two can also control our Sony TV; the red one controls the cable box, the TV and a DVD or VCR. And each goes about the choice of function in a different manner, seen in the close-up photo.

Remote Control close ups

The R/C on the left simply has a section at the right dedicated to controlling the TV, with its own On/Off switch and channel and volume controls. This results in some redundancy with the controls of the DVD (which also has power and channel controls) but it completely eliminates any possibility of confusion.

The VCR controller in the middle incorporates a disappearing species – a mechanical slide switch at the top that determines what device is being controlled. The buttons on this unit change their role depending on the position of the switch, and have color coded dots to indicate whether they apply to the TV. Having to slide the switch is a bit more of a hassle than with the black R/C but at least you get definite visual feedback of which position you’re in.

The red unit works like this: you have to press the button (in the second row) corresponding to the device you wish to control; then, until you press another of these buttons, the unit controls that device. This is for sure the cheapest to produce; it’s all in the electronics. The price you pay is that there is no visual feedback at all; if you forget what you pressed, you will find yourself changing channel or cycling the power on the wrong equipment. There is also no labeling of which buttons work with which device.

All of these units do their job, but to my mind their user friendliness goes down from left to right. Not surprisingly, so does the cost to produce them…

LCD TV screens: can’t they just switch on?

One problem with CRT-based television sets and computer monitors was that they took a long moment to turn on, because of the inherent necessity to heat up the filament of the picture tube. How fortunate, then, that the new generation of flat screen displays does not have a filament, allowing them to turn on practically instantly.

But allowing is not the same as doing it. We bought this little 22″ LCD TV recently, made by MAG, and when you turn it on it takes a full 8 seconds before the picture shows up on the screen. And the last two of those seconds are devoted to showing the manufacturer’s logo! Opinions about User Experience may vary, but no one would argue that staring at a dark screen, with or without a logo on it, can really enhance that experience.

MAG LCD TV with logo on screen

With all respect, MAG designers, you’re welcome to etch your logo on the screen bezel in all its glory (as you have); but when I hit that On/Off switch, I want the screen to light up in 2 seconds, max. I know you could do it, if you set your minds to it!

Sluggish response in our Home Electronics

The Sony Mini-stereo on my desk has excellent sound, which is the main thing I suppose; but it has some annoying misfeatures. Take this one: what do you think happens when you hit the “Open CD Tray” button? If you said “The CD tray opens”, think again. Eventually it does, but first, the display switches to say “OPEN” and this word blinks a few times. Then, after 2-3 seconds of deliberation, the tray opens – making the display totally redundant (we can see that the tray is opening, Can’t we?!)

Sony mini-stereo display

Or take what happens when you hit the power off button. The same display now says “STANDBY”, and blinks this unsolicited information for maybe 6 seconds – then changes to “- – : – – “, its standby indication. So why didn’t it make this switch instantly? It isn’t as if it had to shut down a nuclear reactor core…

This behavior, where our electronic creations take their time before obeying, is seen in many devices around the house. I’d much rather have them do as they’re told and shut down (and up!) instantly.

The evolution of the On/Off power switch symbol

We all know the symbol with a vertical line in a circle: it identifies the On/Off power switch. It occurred to me that this familiar symbol is evolving in a bizarre fashion.On Off Power Switches

Originally, switches had a lever or slider that could move to either of two physical positions. In those days the switch was marked with the word POWER and its positions with ON and OFF. Then, as switches became smaller and more globalized, the two words were replaced with 1 and 0, as seen even today on many rocker switches.

And then the ubiquity of microprocessors made it more economic to do everything with momentary pushbutton switches; the computer inside could take care of figuring whether you meant ON or OFF. And so, the button now needed an icon that conveys both options; I surmise that is when the familiar “1-inside-a-0” symbol came into existence (if you know otherwise do share in the comments!) This round icon fit nicely on round buttons, and became ubiquitous.

OnOff power switches

But then we start to see the form shown in the two photos above right: a bastardized version combining the 1-in-a-circle with a 1 in the same symbol. This makes no sense at all – the correct representation would have been 1/0, for On slash Off. Instead we get On slash OnOff. Sloppy thinking…

Such erroneous contractions are often seen in spoken language – as in “IT technology”, which expands to “information technology technology” (there’s even a company by that name, and its slogan, amusingly, is “We make sense of IT“). But now we see the same error invading the more compact space of visual symbols…

Emergent misfeatures: more than meets the eye

Any wise consumer checks the specification of the purchased item in the store, in order to know what he’s getting. Unfortunately, this does not guarantee a happy deal…

One day we decided to go buy a new TV set. We went to the store and selected a top notch Sony, with impressive specs. We took it home, set it up, put the resident teenagers in front of it… and they expressed major discontent!

It’s not that the picture was bad (it was crisp and vibrant), or that the sound was poor (it was excellent), or that the set failed to live up to the impressive specs on the box. The problem was that when you used the remote to channel-surf, instead of the Zap-Zap-Zap of the old TV, this one went Zapppp…… Zapppp……Zappppp… you see, the TV needed a whole second to blank the screen and bring up the next channel, making rapid switching an impossibility. You’d think a second is no big deal, but I had to agree with the kids: it completely obliterated the user experience of the surf.

Now, this is one thing I could never have foreseen. The feature list on the box did not say, “Optimized for a crummy channel surfing experience”; and having never had a TV that needed to think about obeying the remote, I never thought to check this in the store. It was an undocumented feature in the design – an emergent misfeature, if you will – that the buyer would only find out at home.

Here’s another: we have a Sharp microwave oven that has the useful habit of beeping once when the time is up. Cool. It has the slightly less useful feature of beeping again a minute later if you didn’t notice the first beep. Okay. And then it has the maddeningly stupid feature of beeping three times every minute thereafter, never relenting until you give it your attention. Hey, stupid oven, I heard you, but I’m busy right now – keep the food inside and shut up!

Again, this is an undocumented feature – one no salesman would tell and no buyer would ask, but one that delivers a major annoyance once you get the thing home. These examples showcase how the imagination of a bad designer in inventing misfeatures transcends the buyer’s ability to foresee them…

Come on, designers, have a heart!

The Eject button: Location, location, location!

Here is our Toshiba DVD player. It works well enough, but its design does make you wonder…

I’ve already extolled its remote control’s virtues (Not). Well, here is the unit itself. You turn it on with the round button at the right; good enough. Then you look for the Eject button, to open the tray. And you look. And you look??? because it is in the wrong location.

Toshiba DVD Eject button location

The button is marked in the photo with the red arrow. The point is, that is the last place you’d look for it! It is there to open the disc tray, which is far to the left. You end up reading the button captions – and these are quite tiny and hard to discern, of course – until you find it.

To quantify the extent of this design crime, compare the DVD player with the VCR on which we have it standing. Compare the red and green arrows’ lengths. That’s the difference between Human Centric Design and… whatever it is they did on the DVD unit. See what I mean?

Eject Buttons on Toshiba DVD and on Sony VCR

Don’t forget the Remote Control’s usability!

When you see an ad for a piece of consumer electronics, you seldom see a close up of its remote control. In fact, most people ignore the lowly R/C when making a buying decision. Yet this little item is the main way we interact with our TVs, VCRs, and so on; and a its usability, or lack thereof, is going to impact our user experience many times every day.

Remote control usability comparison
Look at these two R/C units, from two similarly priced DVD players, one mine, one my parents’. See the difference? In the one at the top the important buttons – play, FF, Rew and Stop – are prominent, visible, obvious… in the other, they are hidden among a confusing jumble of similar small buttons. And this means slower operation and frequent errors when you hit the wrong button by accident. We can assume the two arrangements cost exactly the same to manufacture; this is not about cost, it’s about attention to usability in the design stage.

So, of course, the better one is mine, because I always check this when making a buying decision? Well… err…