Blind World Magazine

Why are tech gizmos so hard to figure out?

November 02, 2005.

You've just brought home a hot new high-definition TV or digital camcorder. You can't wait to enjoy it. Just one little problem: You're going nuts trying to set up and use the darn thing.

Today's tech toys throw in goodies we scarcely used to imagine, from cellphones with tiny TV screens to computers that stream video wirelessly through your house. But lots of those features you probably don't want, can't use or don't know exist.

Don't expect to be saved by the instruction manual - if there is one. If it hasn't been written by geeks, it's been translated, verbatim, from Korean or Japanese. Too many gadgets pay scant attention to ease of use.

Now, an army of "usability" advocates are vowing to do something about it. They're determined to exert a stronger hand in the design of tech products. If they get their way, simple-to-use will be the new normal five years from now.

You won't need to give the baby sitter a crash course on how to turn on your TV and stereo. You'll be able to rent a car without spending 10 minutes learning to turn on the wipers, lights and air conditioning. You'll be able to navigate websites without crying out, "I can't find what the%$#* I'm looking for!"

"We expect brain surgery to be hard," says Whitney Quesenbery, of Whitney Interactive Design, a consultant who helps design easy-to-use websites and applications. "We expect making a call and turning on the TV to be simple."

Thursday has been declared the first World Usability Day by the Usability Professionals' Association (made up of product testers, designers and others). The aim: to promote "user-centered design and every user's responsibility to ask for things that work better." Earth-Day-style events in 35 countries will spotlight people who want to bring simpler products to the market.

"We as an industry need to do a better job," says Ben Shneiderman, a University of Maryland professor and author of Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies. "The public needs to be banging on the table and saying it should be better than it is."

A sampling of events Thursday:

. The Museum of Science in Boston is setting up exhibits to teach school kids about user-centered design. Also, designers of products and websites can submit their wares to a team of experts for rapid-fire feedback on the product's usability strengths and weaknesses.

. Visitors touring IBM's usability lab in Tucson will see the process of designing cellphones.

. At Michigan State University, real usability success stories will be displayed. Example: a Whirlpool washer that lets blind users speak commands to the machine.

"We all have the same goal," says World Usability Day event director Elizabeth Rosenzweig. "We're not here to mold ourselves around technology; technology should work for us."

If only it were that simple.

"It really is hard to be easy," says Keith Karn, senior usability engineer at Xerox.

The struggle to tame technology is not new. "I still am fond of a wonderful quote in a manual for the phonograph: 'This phonograph only takes two years to [learn to] use,' " says Donald Norman of the Nielsen Norman Group, which helps companies make "human-centered" products.

Not so many years ago, we tended to fret about the VCR's flashing clock. Zenith's solution was downright Dilbert-esque: It put instructions on videotape.

The loose equivalent today is putting tutorials on the Web. (Printing manuals is costly, and research suggests few people read them.) But that's hardly the solution.

"I don't want to go to the website in order to find out how to use a product," says Eva Barnett, a New York lawyer.

The use of too many products is surprisingly counter-intuitive. To turn off a Windows XP computer, you click the "start" button. And why do you turn on your cellphone by holding down the "end" button?

Doris Santella, 67, of Sound Beach, N.Y., says: "I have friends who won't go near computers because they're terrified of breaking something."

A highly visible example

The phenomenal success of Apple's easy-to-use iPods is instructive: Companies that successfully unveil usable products aren't just providing a nice service; it's good business, too. Companies that excel in usability can boost their return on "usability" investment more than 100-to-1, estimates Randolph Bias, a University of Texas professor who co-wrote the book Cost-Justifying Usability.

Why? Simpler-to-operate products tend to sell better, and a company can spend less on tech support.

But some tech engineers and designers assume too much: that since they understand how the gadget works, everyone should. Bias quips: "A whole lot of companies went out of business because their users were too stupid."

Other usability challenges:

.Corporate demands. Companies must regularly feed new products into the pipeline or upgrade existing gear. Marketers sometimes push products out before they've been fully tested with real folks. "There's the potential to be presumptuous and assume you're meeting users' needs without being rigorous," says Lee Green, IBM's head of corporate design. "There are pressures for getting to market quickly."

Bias cautions companies to avoid the, "Well, it's too late, we have to ship anyway," syndrome.

.Making it usable for all ages. "I try to pick products that look simple to operate because they're less intimidating," says Shelby Schwartz, a retiree in Madeira Beach, Fla.

.Technological progress. Faster chips, abundant storage and other advances lead to new products. But complexity is often the flip side of innovation. In the old days, you could plug a TV in and start watching. You just had to position rabbit ears or install a roof antenna. You had only a few channels to choose from.

In the digital era, you almost need an engineering degree to connect a TV to a home-theater system. Do you run cables through the set-top box, DVD player, VCR or TiVo? Which of the gaggle of buttons on the remote do you press?

"The consequence of TV, audio and video convergence is in having to interconnect what were previously disparate applications," says Gus Rodriguez of Philips Design in the Netherlands. But Philips thinks usability sells. It's marketing consumer electronics gear around a "Sense & Simplicity" campaign.

.Mobility. To keep portable devices compact, buttons tend to serve more than one function. As with the "end" button that turns on a cellphone, companies don't always make the smart design decision.

.The product does too much. Gadgets that excel at one or two things become more complex as new features are added. Some of us want our cellphone just to make and receive calls. We don't want it to also be a camera, a video-game player or a TV.

Yet, advertisers serve up the myth that products with more features are, naturally, superior. That means "creeping feature-itis."

Usability experts point to the iPod as the poster child of good usability. But even Apple has had to make tough design calls.

"Making the iPod a great music player means saying no to a checklist of features," says Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president for worldwide product marketing. The result: Apple has managed to keep iPod simple, even as it's morphed from a portable music player into one that can also show pictures and video.

"The feature-list wars were not good for software," consultant Quesenbery says. "People threw a function in because it gave them a check-box on a list, not because it met the needs of the marketplace."

Microsoft is redesigning the user interface for the next version of Office, due next fall. Microsoft will display only the tools you'll likely use most frequently. The goal: to cut the number of clicks to complete a task. In Office 2003, it took 26 clicks to insert a text box into a document; with the new version, four.

Setting a usable goal

Intuit is a leader in usability testing. Based on user tests (and feedback from tech support), Intuit recently altered the user interface of one of its popular software programs, QuickBooks, because customers couldn't figure out where to start. Intuit, which publishes TurboTax, is unveiling a simpler program called SnapTax for those who fill out the 1040 short forms.

During usability tests, Intuit's director of user experience, Kaaren Hanson, gives people tasks to complete in a specific program. Quantifiable goals are set: Success, for example, would be achieved if nine of every 10 people could complete tasks deemed "critical."

"Anytime you're designing products, you have to have compromises," Hanson says, and "prioritize some features over others." As part of their usability research, Intuit, Microsoft and others observe real customers at company labs and follow them to their homes and workplaces.

Sprint is testing the usability of camera phones by asking customers to take a picture and upload it to a website. Success is measured not only by who completes the task but also how quickly.

Based on its usability tests, TTE, which markets RCA TVs, changed the menu screens on some upcoming models. Some users, in setting up their TVs, had been skipping over the automatic channel search feature, which later meant they couldn't watch certain channels. Now, a new window will pop up to say, "Are you sure you want to skip this step?"

Companies have taken other steps to ease confusion: color-coded cables and connectors and "start here" guides. Meantime, experts urge folks to complain and return products that don't work or are too hard to use.

"The rate of improvement is accelerating," Bias says, hopefully. "I think things are going to be better tomorrow and a lot better in five years."

If so, Quesenbery says, maybe, "I won't get calls from my mother asking, 'How did you put that number in my cellphone?' "

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