Jon, I think you have hit on one of the biggest issues and challenges today for companies producing products, even if they don't identify with the label of software developer. The cream of the crop of today's consumer devices have gotten consumers very used to a streamlined, intuitive user experience where they can nearly effortlessly navigate the device and be up and running in fairly short order.
I'll conceed there are still exceptions--much like your phone experience. But increasingly, that is not the norm and the expectation from consumers is that they should be able to go from zero to 60 on a device without a lot of handholding and definitely without having to read arcane technical documentation. Case in point: I can generally hand my tween-agers an app or a Web site that has me confounded and they can zero in on the proper navigation and cut to the chase in fairly short order.
The whole trend around consumer devices setting the expectation stage for the user experience for both business and personal products is not going away. Companies are going to have to step up to the plate if they want happy and engaged customers.
I agree, Beth. Companies try hard to get a product on store shelves as quickly as possible and might "update" an older user interface to force fit it to a new product in the interest of saving time. My story about the Samsung phone gets sadder by the day. Instead of trying the exasperating Bluetooth connection with my old phone I decided to enter my important contacts in the phone's directory manually. The phone has fields for First Name (Joe) and Last Name (Smith), and it combines these fields to display the name "Joe Smith" in the directory. Apparently the search "feature" looks only at the first name because a search for "Sm" cannot find "Joe Smith" in the directory. The software lacks the capability to list last names first. The user should have that choice, or the software should find a string of characters anywhere in name fields.
I admit some other search capability might exist, but if so, the user interface has it well hidden, as does the phone's instruction booklet.
Sometimes I would be happy to go back to the days when I didn't know the phone number of the person calling (Caller's ID), or had to reachable 24/7 (cell phone, email on my cell phone, text on my cell phone, etc.). I can hear the boos, lol. Cell phones like the many other products and systems with user interfaces (UI), can have you saying "who in the world design this thing????". Sometimes I don't think the design companies actually have design requirements or even take the consumers into consideration. Some UIs I have found to be easy while others haven't been the opposite. Just when you have your cell phone all figured out it is time for a new one and I have yet to have a new phone that allows me to navigate the same way as the last one.
I believe designing a user interface has to be extremely hard... guess you can't please everyone.
Cell phones especially, go through rapid version changes. The 2-year contract that is normal with phones will likely put you three or four firmware versions behind by the time you get to upgrade again. The user interface has to change with the firmware (or else how will we dumb users know that something changed). The rapid pace means kludgy interfaces.
I'd really, really like to see that rate of change slow down, but that industry doesn't agree with me.
Hi, TJ. We could go back to a phone monopoly such as the one AT&T had for many years. Then it was a big deal to get a colored "shell" for a phone and the phone company fought any attempts to add non-AT&T equipment to a phone line. (Just kidding about going back to the monopoly.)
Competition among suppliers of all types of equipment drives the "need" for new features and capabilities. We saw this effect in the early days of PCs, when many companies jumped into the market with new features, proprietary operating systems, off graphic formats, and the like. Eventually things settled down and a PC is a PC, regardless of vendor. Perhaps the same thing will happen in the cell-phone market in 10 to 15 years.
Jon, I hope you are right about phone interfaces and tech following the PC interface/tech curve. But I'm less hopeful, mostly because the volumes and target customers are quite different. People who have to use computers for actual work tend to be less patient with too much "choice" in features and interfaces, etc. and just want to get on with things. But "choice" is something that consumers, buyers of cellphones, either actually want or are perceived to want by manufacturers. I mean, to a lot of people they're a fashion accessory, lol.
There's something to be said for a more controlled environment. At the very least, there would be some accountability. It's unforgivable for a software bug to cross major revisions; that tells me the software developer is more interested in marketing hype of a new release to maintain the revenue stream. Flash over function, I suppose one could say.
I could not agree more with the general premise of this article. User interfaces are getting worse, particularly those that are in the second, third or fourth revisions, because the designers assume that the user is familiar with the earlier versions. I recently drove a rental car in Los Angeles with a radio that was so complicated, I couldn't figure out how to turn it on in five minutes, so I went on my way without ever using it. Again, the assumption is that the driver has used similar devices in the past. I'm sure the interfaces are easy to use once you are familiar with them, but there seems to be no thought given to first-time users.
If I get injured in an accident or become incapacitated in some way, I want a communication device that's easy to use so I can quickly connect with a 911 operator. I don't want to go through several steps to unlock a cell phone and make a call. And in an accident we don't always think clearly.
People who create new products often overlook the need to design for older people, too. Opening some boxes of food presents big challenges for stroke victims with only one useful hand or for people with limited flexibility due to arthritis, for example. I have a phone on my desk purchased specifically because it has large numbered buttons I find easier to press than smaller buttons on portable phones. I also abandoned the Apple keyboard that came with my Macintosh because the small buttons gave insufficient tactile feedback and make it too easy to hit an incorrect key. In this case, a practicel keyboard beat out a sleek and cool design.
Jon, you've hit three of my ticked-off consumer hot buttons: easy to use interfaces, stuff that's easy for first-time users to figure out, and stuff that's physically easy to open for the growing senior population. At one time or another I'm all three. I'm gravitating towards products that are well designed for older users mostly because they are simple and obvious. Plus I hate wasting time figuring out how to open or operate something, and am likely to take a scissors to it (like unruly clamshell packaging) or not buy/return it (usually I go for the first option--saves the most time of all).
My personal cell phone, which I only use when traveling, is the Jitterbug. Big easy to read buttons, obvious and simple menus. No weird icons that resemble nothing in the known universe and are too small to see anyway. It does absolutely nothing except receive and make voice calls. If I need to read email, I most likely need to do that on my computer. My home office desktop phone is so simple Plantronics doesn't make them anymore: a small black box with number, on/off, and mute buttons, and a volume adjust wheel, plus a headset.
If accidents or whatever happen, both are instantly easy to use.
I'm with you on this one, Jon. Sometimes when I'm struggling to open a container of apple juice or a jar of salsa, I think of my 86-year-old mother. There is no way she would be able to open these containers without a socket wrench. As for small buttons, I bought a calculator that has large, raised buttons. Can't find a phone that does. My thumbs are too big for texting.
Several months ago I switched from a very basic cell phone to an Android phone, with much trepidation. I actually had one salesman tell me that it might not be a good idea for me based upon the technological leap it was from my old phone. I decided to take the plunge, and I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I have never had a "smart" phone with a keyboard, so I can't speak to that issue, but I have been very impressed by the smoothness of the all-touch interface on my Android phone. I'm sure that the Apple interface is also very smooth, but I haven't really worked with it.
It is one of the few times that a software based product has exceeded my expectations. I began to feel like the darn thing was anticipating my every move when I started using it. It would flash help keys when it sensed that I was doing something that could be done an easier way, and lead me through a different way to do what I was trying to do. I found the learning curve to be very pleasant, and fast.
As to the issue of emergency dialing, my android phone allows emergency dialing by pushing a button on the screen, even when the phone is locked. I had never actually tried it until I saw these posts. It takes you straight to the number pad in one touch.
I have pretty big paws too, but I don't have much trouble with the interface. I use "swype" inputting for texting, and find it to be pretty unbelievable. You just drag your finger or thumb around on the keyboard (screen), and it detects what it thinks you are trying to spell. I find it to be very accurate. Don't know how it does it, but it works very well for me.
I'm eager to see what Windows 8 looks like, since it appears to be moving toward the tile and touch interface of the phone world.
I understand what you mean about the Android OS, Ttemple. My teenage daughter has a smartphone with Android. While I don't need the full functionality of a smartphone, it's important to her and she's willing to pay for it out of the funds she earns tutoring. The all-touch screen keyboard is much easier to use than a button keyboard. It has 4G and runs like a speedboat.
Rob: When you use this stuff all day long, as kids tend to, I suppose it seems obvious. But those of us who don't carry smartphones everywhere are going to have some problems catching up. Cadillac's CUE is based on smartphone interfaces and Toyota is working on an automotive interface with Microsoft and Intel. I think I can take a pretty good guess as to what those interfaces will look like.
Good point, Chuck. For some reason, these operating systems are very easy for kids to pickup. There are tons of stories about kids learning how to use an iPad or a smartphone before they are able to walk.
You're probably aware of the theory that Millennials (those born after the proliferation of PCs) adapt to technology much faster than we do in part because their brains work differently after years of exposure to digital technology.
User Interfaces Should Be Easy to Navigate and that is the "social commitment aspect" of good design rather than design for the sake of realising functionalities. I think there should be a standard to ensure product design satisfies some aspects of this though this idea may sound as dictative in nature against the free spirit of design. But then no one should "suffer" just becasue s\he has bought the product ...!
When we have Bluetooth communications enabled on our Samsung phones, the Bluetooth logo obscures the digital-time display. It took a while to figure out how to disable Bluetooth and get rid of the logo, but doing so caused the digital time to disappear, too. Go figure.
Having spent 10 years in cellular product development during the exponential advance decade (1997-2007) I can tell you that the 3 main engineering disciplines (EE/ME/SW) really played leap-frog regarding discipline-specific advancements.Early cellular in mid 1990's, the breakthroughs were in EE as the chipsets grew smaller and more powerful.ME and SW lagged behind. Circa 2002, ME made many advancements with color displays, unique ID's and folding hinge configurations (sliders, flips, bi-folds); EE had multiple protocols and was stable and cruising; yet SW was still kludgy and still lagging. Finally the iPhone era arrived around 2005 and SW was the new king of disciplines for telecom engineers.
Because of the leap-frogging and un-equal yoking of the technology curves across these three disciplines, the marketeers were always hawking the latest advancement to drive sales, but the total product was almost always as awkward as a clumsy adolescent. I suspect its about at this point in the timeline that Jon Titus's phone was designed.
Today, I think all three engineering disciplines have a common maturity, as well as commonality across the big OEM's (RIM, HTC, NOK, MOT, Samsung, etc). Most new models are pretty stable, and many "expected" features are becoming common, if not already governed as a "standard".
But this fact is also causing the telecom industry to become so commoditized that the engineering activities are no longer fun.Its now so cut-throat and always racing to production with huge volumes and low margins. Invention is on the decline. But that should bode well for the end-users debating ease-of-use in this discussion. I guess when engineering gets boring, its better for the mass user public.
Usability studies are a great way to determine if a product will be easy to navigate. I believe it is very important to go through this process. The designer is way too close to the product to be able to determine if it is going to be easy to use. Whenever I develop a web site – I always send the link to a variety of people with a list of questions for them to answer so that I can determine if they are having a positive or a frustrating experience with it and why...
One thing I see a lot is someone trying to be creative so they rearrange things on their web site. What they are often doing in reality is shooting themselves in the foot – people want to navigate quickly and if the shopping cart is in the center of the page when 99% of other web pages have it on the upper right – the user will not be impressed, they will be frustrated looking for it. I think this applies to any interface...
I have to agree with the folks that usability studies are definitely essential in today's day of products laden with software code. Trying to get fancy or creative for the sake of being creative isn't going to resonate with users who are looking to do things quickly and who are often doing whatever they're doing on a cell/smart phone while they're doing something else. If you have to work it too much, it's just low utility.
The reason that some kids are able to pick up on some systems so quickly is that they have nothing in memory to point to intuitive actions. intuition and experience are detrimental to learning a system that is designed to be different. Think about the problems that you would have driving if you needed to turn the wheel clockwise to turn left. But a child with no experience at all in a car would not have that problem.
So the real source of the difficulties is the software, which is mostly written by programmers, and we all are quite aware that programmers are not normal people. That is not a criticism, it is just a fact. They think differently than I do, that is very clear, and they think differently than most people. And like the other postings assert, the systems designers are too close to see what is counter intuitive.
So because software is the part that causes the most problems, one suggestion is to reduce the amount of software.
Nancy, usability studies are really the way to go, and even better, if you can film the usability study for later review. It's really key to see the non-verbal responses when users attempt to complete a task. The way that they may hesitate, start to press the wrong button, or seem flustered.
William, you're right, Engineers are not normal people and Software Engineers, even less so (judging myself and close friends). The first test I always perform is to have my wife attempt to navigate the interface. She will always use the interface in a way that surprised me. When possible, I like to have the user capable of achieving the same task in multiple ways so that everything they do is right, instead of everything they do being wrong. After all frustration is defined as "blockage to a goal".
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