• Complicated User Interfaces: It’s Not Just Computers

    March 5th, 2005

    My commentary about the failings of today’s graphical user interface designs for personal computers clearly struck a nerve. Many of our readers agree, although I haven’t received any suggestions on how to solve the problem, other than enhanced voice recognition. But as you go through your daily life, and work with different electronic gadgets, you’ll find that computers are only part of the problem and surely not the worst offenders.

    The other day, for example, I decided to check out V CAST, a new multimedia feature for customers of Verizon Wireless that allows you to download and view videos and acquire enhanced 3D games on your cell phone. Right now, V CAST is only available in 30 markets in this country and is supported by just three models. Since I’m reviewing one of them, the LG Electronics VX8000 camera phone, I thought I’d join in the fun.

    Now V CAST is not something you get free. After a two month trial, it’s $15 per month and some of the things you can retrieve, such as those games are, as I said, optional extras. Despite that, I figured it was worth a try, but Verizon sure doesn’t make it easy to get you from here to there.

    On that VX8000, for example, to launch V CAST, you have to go through a multistep process that begins with selecting the GET IT NOW button, which is identified by a barely visible icon on the button to the right of OK. Once you get there, you’re not done. Now you have to pick option two, which is Get PIX & FLIX and then, on the next screen, choose option one, Video Clips. Why can’t they just call it V CAST? Who knows?

    Once you get there, however, selecting and watching the video of your choice isn’t hard, but it’s still rather involved. If you’re in a good reception area, in a city where the feature is available, you’ll be logged in automatically and view a menu of available videos. Scroll through the list to pick the one you want, and you’ll go through another level or two of sub-topics until you can actually watch something. If Verizon Wireless wants V CAST to become a substantial income stream, they ought to speak with their interface designers to find an easier way. The one they picked is perfectly awful. Besides, they must need the extra income to help pay for their merger with MCI, assuming that deal actually goes through, which is still uncertain.

    Understand that the LG phones are supposedly among the easiest to use, and they benefit by offering consistent interfaces from model to model. So if you learn how to fill out your contact list and manage the extra capabilities on one LG phone, your next can be set up in precisely the same fashion. To that extent, perhaps they do understand a little bit about what the Mac is all about, but the layout still remains quite inscrutable for most people.

    Of course this is just one example, and I bet you can find something on your mobile phone, regardless of make, that you’ll that you’ll also hate. Now take a TV, any TV, and try to customize the settings via the remote control or the Menu button, if there is one, on the set itself. Once again, you’ll be forced to wade through multiple layers of commands before you get the one you want, but how could it be otherwise? But if you really want to see what complicated means, have your local TV repair person show you the Service menu of a typical HDTV set. Talk about complicated. No wonder you have to undergo training and pore through service manuals to figure it out. Now what about simply “Fix Blue” or “Straighten Picture,” for example? On a Samsung rear projection set I’m reviewing, there are multiple color adjustments, separate for each input. They bear such arcane names as “BLU_C_COEFF.” I suppose the dudes who developed that system either wanted to frighten off hobbyists or were educated in graphical interfaces at Microsoft. By the way, don’t try this at home. If you happen to learn the secret commands on your remote to access the Service features, don’t forget that you can really screw up the picture on your set if you touch the wrong thing. That’s why they try to keep it hidden from anyone but trained professionals.

    An office phone or just a cordless phone? Don’t ask. If there’s a way to make them complicated to set up, don’t you worry. Some product designer has figured out a way. To be fair, I do have a speakerphone, from the RCA Executive Series, that offers guidance on the LCD display for the initial setup process. After that, it’s best to leave well enough alone.

    I could, of course, also mention the LCD setup display of the typical office multifunction printer or copying machine. Again levels and levels of commands and subcommands, and you best check the manual first for a factory reset function unless you adjust the wrong thing along the way in the quest to make a tiny adjustment. And we all know about all those VCRs with the flashing 12:00!

    Thank the stars toaster ovens haven’t succumbed to such lousy designs, but give it time.

    From its humble beginnings, poor graphical interfaces for electronics have definitely infected our society. There may be the exception from time to time, but don’t bet on it. No wonder so many carefully designed features go unused. Even the manuals can’t show you how to use them, assuming they come with more than a fold-out quick (more or less) setup guide.

    Oh, and by the way, that LG phone also has a voice dialing feature, but don’t get me started on how you set it up. I’d rather just tell it to shut up and be done with it!

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