When Will Technology Make Life Simpler?

Wednesday Jul 11th 2007 by Rob England
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Technology has gone mad, with techno-freaks allowed to design user interfaces. Why does my car need a firmware upgrade?

Remember when a phone had a dial on the front with numbers, a TV had a volume knob and a dial with channels on it, and a record player had two controls: volume and speed?

Now:

• I have six remote controls on the TV room table, with more buttons than a 747.

• My deskphone has 25 buttons on it with four icons I don’t even know and one called “R.”

• My PocketPC PDA/phone keeps it secret that Bluetooth headset mode is disabled.

• There are five ways to connect a DVD player to a sound system but my sound system only has the four I don’t need.

• I need to navigate a menu just to watch a movie.

• And my car needs a firmware upgrade.

I want to pick the phone up, dial a number and talk to someone. When I’m done I will hang up. I want to turn on one device (or turn on all the devices at once) to watch Sky, DVD or video.

I want to change channels, play/stop/rewind/forward/eject, adjust volume, and mute from one remote. (The mute button is the only valuable advance in user interface in fifty years of consumer technology.) The remote should park in a socket on the front of the box and recharge while it’s there. I’m not going back into the TV room until the manufacturers get it together.

I want “dial tone” functionality for all the devices in my life, meaning they’re always on, and they work by engaging them physically, e.g., pick up the hand-piece or open the door or stick a disc in. I don’t want all this other stuff. Do you?

I’m not alone. A survey of 15,000 mobile phone users in 37 countries shows that “too many functions I did not use” is the number one device problem in all regions of the world. Of course manufacturers are not entirely to blame. As consumers we are naïve and childish, seduced by spec sheets and blinking lights. There are alternatives out there, if you can find them, such as Kyocera’s A101k phone.

But mostly manufacturers are to blame. As a comparison to the Kyocera, consider what Vodafone Australia thinks is a simple phone: polyphonic ring-tone downloads, phonebook with PC synchronisation, SMS messaging, timer, calculator and alarm.

What is wrong with these people? Push the geeks out of the driver’s seat and put someone normal in control of product design: someone who doesn’t have a home LAN with a firewall server in the hall closet, or a Bluetooth earpiece and keyboard for their PDA/phone.

What we need is:

• Transparent technology: automation of customization. Let the device work out all the options. With every passing decade, Windows inches towards this goal, but the geeks run ahead sprinkling new obstacles in the path. The old voice phones are insanely complex devices, but the user sees none of it. I want a screen that is always on, has a touch screen, and allows me to browse the Web. No modems, no network properties, no passwords. Game machines will be the first to deliver.

• Design for the non-geek. Even we geeks get tired and have times where we don’t want to wrestle with technology. Most people never want to. And they don’t trust technology so don’t ask them to. I heard a lovely story about the Toyota Auto-lock function that locks the door when you walk away: people would walk off, then wonder if the door had really locked, so would walk back – which would unlock it...

• Design for humans. There has been recent discussion suggesting that the iPhone might be useful for business. It’s not. It hasn’t delivered anything that my Windows-CE PDA/phone doesn’t already give me. They all suffer from one problem: the screen’s too small. You can’t pull a cow down a drainpipe and you can’t use a phone to do work: you can’t usefully read spreadsheets, or edit documents, or operate applications. Heck, you can’t surf: a million WAP-enabled phones proved that. You can’t even read. Why aren’t the trains and buses full of people reading e-books? Because the geeks overlooked the simple fact that screens aren’t good for reading (even big ones).

“It is not pleasant to read things on the Internet with a backlit screen. It is hard on your eyes. Eventually maybe they will find a way to make it a lot easier to read.

The other problem is that you have to scroll. It is primitive in the sense that the Internet is a scrolling medium. A printed book with pages was such an advance over scrolling. To go back to scrolls is to step into the past. That goes back to monks in the 13th century. A lot has happened since the 13th century to improve the technology of reading, and so far no one has come up, for sheer reading ease, with anything better than hard copy pages.” - Tom Wolfe

• Physical interfaces: the old devices had a wee button here and a switch there and a lever over there: car choke knob, camera shutter timer, phone receiver hook … Now we have rows of identical buttons with cryptic icons or abbreviations, or multifunction joysticks where the down action has five different meanings depending on the context. This is not intuitive. Put physical buttons on it, give them each a single function, make them different shapes and sizes, and put them in handy places spread around the device. Consumer electronics should not look like 747 cockpits.

The sophistication of the modern world makes our lives easier, but it is apparently too much to ask that technology should make our lives simpler.

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