I spend a lot of time getting cross at crappy interfaces on software, but the fact is that real life objects are just as bad. I’m typing this at a laptop, for example, with a trackpad. And while Apple have multitouch, click-sensitive trackpads that make sense, this one scrolls using the right hand half a centimetre of pad, which is visually and tactilely indistinguishable from the rest of it. It’s the little things, like Jeff Atwood’s cat feeders, but it’s also the really big things. Our old DVD recorder which asked, when you put a DVD in, if you would like to “access the disc contents” — and to get to the DVD menu, you had to say ‘no’. Toasters which measure time in completely arbitrary units, at least as far as I’m aware. Washing machines that have a key to their own interface on the front. TVs that have a hundred buttons to do basically one thing and you still have to tap ‘circle with an arrow’ four times to watch a DVD.
It’s like people don’t learn. I remember when I could operate a microwave oven by typing in a time and pressing ‘cook’. Ryan North has one where you can just bark numbers at it. And yet this is the thing we have at work:
Obviously that’s absurdly overcomplicated for a device which, much as manufacturers kid themselves otherwise, has only two modes: on and off. (Really, who wants to ‘slow defrost’ anything?) But my main objection is that I have had a bagel spinning around in there for ages, with the microwave all humming to itself and lit up, and without the bagel getting so much as lukewarm. Apparently it only heats food if you set the timer. Where exactly the clue to this is supposed to be is not clear. I assumed when a microwave lit up and span your food round it was cooking. Apparently this one also has a ‘shop demonstration’ mode.
Because the fact is that outward appearances matter. I forgive the absurd obsession of washing machine manufactures with putting any and all options on dials because that at least makes their products obviously washing machines. Humans in Western society have loads of cues and associations built in — say, we pull doors with handles — and it’s daft not to take advantage of them and insane to actively work against them. Putting a handle on a push-only door will confuse and annoy, and this… This is the sink in a bar in Manchester:
Perhaps they considered it designery and artsy, but in fact what they have done is add taps to a urinal and call it a sink. The thing is that I took it for a urinal when I first saw it, and while I noticed the taps fairly quickly, I don’t trust the entire inebriated male population of Manchester to all have done so on any given night. That is a sink which I confidently predict has been pissed in and that is enough to put me off washing in it.
What you need, when cleaning yourself, is a clear interface. So don’t get this brand of shower:
I put it to you that it’s less than totally clear which way is ‘hot’ on this dial. The arrow points right, but it’s on the left. If you’re standing in a room full of steam and you wear glasses, that’s fairly dangerous. And it’s obvious what the dial does, so all they had to do was convey which way was which. That is literally the smallest amount of information it is possible to encode. And still it’s ambiguous.
Even stranger is the dimmer switch in our new conference room.
This has two buttons, one at the top of the switch, and one at the bottom. Here is how I assumed it would work:
- Pressing the top switch would make the lights brighter.
- Pressing the bottom switch would make the lights dimmer.
Here is how it works:
- A short tap of the bottom switch turns the lights on or off.
- A long hold of the bottom switch makes the lights brighter.
- A second long hold of the bottom switch makes the lights dimmer. This alternates between brighter and dimmer.
- The top switch exists only to make the object resemble a lightswitch.
The upshot of this is that we all look stupid when presenting the work of the Unit to outsiders, because we are supposed to be carefully controlling illumination in clinical trials and can’t operate our own office lights.
And I suppose I just thought that stuff like toasters and lights would have been around for long enough by now for us to have basically mastered the art of making them usable. We don’t have Steve Jobs around any more to fix this stuff up for us, so perhaps it would be a fitting tribute to him if we all stopped making watches that require one long and fourteen short button presses, each with its own high-pitched beep, just to correct for daylight savings, hmm?