When it Doesn’t Just Work

We came back home after a few days away to a rather amusing note from the gal who house-sat out home (and dog) while we visited family over the holidays.

She noted a few “issues” with our digitally-controlled stuff, summarized thusly:

  1. The radio in the kitchen does not work like a radio,
  2. The TV in the family room does not work like a TV,
  3. The TV in the master bedroom does not work like a TV,
  4. The atomic-interfaced alarm clock is now into 2017.

Anyone who, like us, has more modern digital video/sound systems knows the problem with the proliferation of remote controls and the occasional complexity of doing simple tasks, like, say, turning the thing on and changing channels. What if the prior input was for the Tivo, and now I want to watch a broadcast channel, or a DVD, or skate on over to Netflix-on-demand? Eventually, you get used to which buttons to press and in what order, but when someone else comes into the house, you now have…utter confusion.

Back in the day, when you walked into someone else’s house, every TV pretty much worked the same. And radios had on-off buttons and simple station selectors. It wasn’t HD, but it was simple. It worked.

We’ve come a long way in making great technology. I was reflecting with Joe Cascio over coffee a few days back how we old-timers were trained, by Microsoft primarily, to expect disaster and hardship and trouble with every new version, every peripheral, every update (the “Microsoft Flinch”). I still get angst-y whenever I install something or bring up a new device – except now, stuff mostly just works (OK, so I am now mostly working with Apple products, but the PC stuff is WAY better as well!)

But we’re not there yet. When a house-sitter can’t even get a TV to work, we have a user-interface problem. When I STILL need my kids to occasionally remind me that I have to press button Q on remote #3 in order to actually reach the proper menu to do X, this is not good design. We’ve crossed the threshold of easy on a lot of products and systems, but we still have a ways to go to make everything just work. I guess that’ll keep some of our talented people permanently employed!


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About Steve Woodruff
Steve Woodruff is a blogger, a Connection Agent, and a consultant in the pharma/healthcare industry. He specializes in helping people and companies make mutually beneficial connections.

7 Responses to When it Doesn’t Just Work

  1. Jane Bozarth says:

    Yeah, roger that. My husband says I could build a rocket launcher in the garage, but I can’t figure out how to watch “Grey’s Anatomy” if he’s not home. I read somewhere (wish I’d saved it; might have been the New Yorker a couple of years ago) that the tension here is between designers and engineers. Designers see the remote as an object of art to be streamlined; engineers see any empty space as a place to put one more button, no matter how useless.

    Looks like the engineers are winning.

    Happy new year,

    • Eric Matas says:

      @JaneBozarth — I bet you could get that rocket launcher going! Meanwhile, “easy” gadgets and Grey’s Anatomy are difficult because there is some integration. A cord needs to be attached, an input setting needs changing…somehow the one thing, say TV, needs to talk to another thing, say cable box. If you’re lucky, there is a one page instruction sheet. If you are not, someone is on hold for 20 minutes minimum, or trying to live chat online with customer service…and Grey’s Anatomy is over!

      I like the sync button on my Wii — click it and then click the same button on the controller. Voila. They are synced and ready to go. No codes, no customer service voice-activated holding patterns.

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  3. David Perdew says:

    Gadgets, innovations, new products – the time from concept to market is getting shorter, yet more complicated for those who are not familiar with advanced technology (which is just about everyone except the person who designed it). I’m thinking of the movie “Click” when I say that some people long for the ultimate “universal” remote, knowing the danger they hold in their hands.

    I used to know people who never read manuals, that walked you through all the basic functions when you bought something new. These days, those people are finding it necessary to…read the manuals.

  4. Jane Bozarth says:

    David’s comment about manuals reminded me of this. Kindle doesn’t ship with one. But this is how the screen looks when you open the box (not turn it on, not plug it in, but when you just open the box): http://twitpic.com/qrp27 .

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