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How can we make digital devices easier to use?

I have a new Sony CD/MP3 player (the "Walkman" type) and a new Phililps combination DVD / VCR.  Both devices are hard to use.

I'm wondering whether computers and other digital devices will only become easy to use if and when there is some remarkable breakthrough in artificial intelligence, or whether we already have the tools and techniques to engineer easy-to-use gizmos.

Alex Chernavsky
Sunday, February 22, 2004

I can't really explain it. It seems like some consumer electronics companies... no, *most* consumer electronics companies just can't do good UI or ergonomics no matter how much they try. They don't even realize that they are missing this skill. There's nothing intrinsically impossible about making these devices easier to use.

Joel Spolsky
Fog Creek Software
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Great topic. It may not always be entire companies, but the divisions within them. I have a Sony TV remote control that is the best remote out of the lot. But the Sony audio equipment I have is horrid in UI terms. Recently bought a new Pioneer amplifier. I got the simplest one I could find. I took me several weeks to figure out how to get it not to bypass bass from the stereo outputs. i still haven't figured out how to get the thing to pass a plain uncolored signal to the outputs. VCRs - I've gone through a dozen and never really figured any of them out.

Dennis Atkins
Tuesday, February 24, 2004


IMO, the introduction of better 'on screen' (tv) programmability for consumer electronic devices such as DVD's and even stereos would make them easier to use.

I know many DVD's already have on screen menus but they seem to be constrained by the meagre processing available to the player.  When the technology becomes cheap enough, every device should have a fully functional, easy to use, self explanatory on screen ui for setup/maintenance.

Take sky in the uk for example.  The on screen EPG is excellent.  There is no reason why the TV setup menu shouldn't be just as easy to use.

Im sure there’s a good opportunity there somewhere for someone with the right expertise.  A toolkit for developing TV ui’s on Linux anyone?

MattR
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Best example of any UI of an electronic device is TIVO. Its incredible in its simplicity and power. I was amazed the first time I used it. Taught my wife in 30 seconds.

moses whitecotton
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Seems to me that adding on-screen programming isn't going to help any.  Look at DVD menus: some movies have the most atrocious navigation schemes their menus.  Processing power or screen real-estate has nothing to do with it, it's just designers who don't understand that I don't want to wait thirty seconds for the animation to complete before I can see the next menu.  Similarly, my DVD player's own on-screen menu takes advantage of my big-screen TV by representing all the functions as cryptic icons across the top of the screen; I have no idea what most of them do.  To top it off, if I'm playing a CD I have to turn on my TV to put the thing in random mode.  It's absurd.

When people buy consumer electronics, they look at how many gigafloozies it has, the colour of the marfinbrat , and how loudly it yodels.  They don't make purchasing decisions based on usability, so the companies don't waste money improving it.

Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things has some good discussion on this topic.

Eponymous
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

My point is that with the right user interface widgets and the ability to display them on a TV as oppose to on a tiny LCD, you have all the neccessary ingredients to improve the useability of consumer electronics devices.

I put the fact that most devices either don't have on-screen configuration or that it is woefully inadequete and difficult to use down to the lack of technology.

If this is not the case that it may be that the software is just badly written which I find completely unacepptable. 

The last guy but one makes a good point about TIVO.  Why shouldn't all devices (DVDs, CDs, surround amp) display setup/maintenance and 'operational' menus that are just as fully functional and easy to use/understand as TIVO?

MattR
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

For a funny story about this, read the book "The inmates are running the asylum" by the daddy of Visual Basic Mr. Cooper. His discussion about the new alarm clock his wife bought him will have you rolling.

The sad thing is that I really understood after I got my Timex Desk Alarm Clock. I literally could not figure out how to turn on a CD to play music! Finally (with the help of a half of dozen of engineers) we figured it out. It has both an on AND an off button, and then a special "Mode" button to decide if you want nature sounds, radio or CD.

Then you have to press the Pause/Play button.

I was stunned!

michael christopher
Thursday, February 26, 2004

For consumer electronics, I think Sony has the best UI.

For example, the remotes are the most comfortable to hold.  The remote buttons have this je no sais quoi quality when you press them.  The TV remote has big "TV" in "reverse video" printed on it so you can distinguish it from "DVD" on the other remote.

In addition, their products don't rely on goofy symbols for on-screen displays; they use actual words!

I find their products easiest to use.

(I don't work for Sony)

Gary
Friday, February 27, 2004

Alex, if it will make you feel any better, hopefully some of that money you spent on your expensive toys will go into R&D for an interim solution:

1) optional soft e-ink+touch panel skin as an add-on or plain boring ui replacement for all future electronic devices so that we can program the interface the way we want (www.e-ink.com);

2) a wireless programmable interface to the device interface (java tv)

Li-fan Chen
Friday, March 05, 2004

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