Difficult by Design

October 20, 2003

Maybe I'm paranoid, but sometimesI think that there are people who really try to make things difficult for others. You see them in all walks of life. For example: The folks who dream up complex phone messaging systems that never let you talk to a real, live person. When you call, a recorded voice gives you a menu of choices and every time you pick one, you get another menu, none of which relates to your situation. I imagine a roomful of trolls designing such systems, each one bragging about how frustrating he just made his messaging system.

"Hah, let's see you top this one, Fred. I'm forcing the suckers through 10 menus."

"That's nuthin,' Harry. I'm building one with 16 menus."

Fred and Harry have soul mates in virtually every industry. Recently, I learned that they've infiltrated consumer electronics, too.

A few weeks ago, I bought a new Panasonic TV and proceeded to hook it up to my Motorola cable box. The directions were abysmal, but we've talked about confusing instructions before. You shouldn't need instructions anyway, because, after all, we're not talking about building a TV, just connecting it. Locating the proper connections on the back of the TV itself was easy. They were clearly marked and it was totally intuitive. Then, I turned to the cable box.

Now the TV and cable box are on a three-shelf stand close to a wall in a well-lit room. The cable box is on the bottom shelf. I moved the stand away from the wall, got down on my hands and knees, and looked for the connections. There were plenty for all the possible peripherals, and they were all labeled. But, gadzooks, the labels were all unreadable-silver ink on a silver back plate. I had to get a flashlight and shine it on the writing so I could make it out, banging my head on the shelving in the process.

In between my curses, I'm sure I heard Fred and Harry laughing.

Call me picky, but I think silver letters on a silver back plate is a design flaw. And you can see similar flaws in other products. Have you ever tried to read the settings on an alarm clock in a hotel room? They all seem to be black on black, and in small type. Thank heavens for wake-up calls.

Am I just a curmudgeon, or do others feel victimized by thoughtless design? How common is this shoddiness, and how does it happen? To find out, I went to an expert, Aaron Oppenheimer, a computer engineer and principal integration designer at engineering firm Design Continuum here in Newton, MA. User interface design and usability are among his specialties. He and his team sweat the details so no one can say, "Who designed this piece of --?" Aaron's conclusions: 1) I am a curmudgeon, and 2) Such shoddy design is common. It results from moving too fast through the design process and failing to make sure that everyone involved understands the design intent. "One person has a product idea, another designs it,

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