On being … lab tested

By Ingrid Sapona

Awhile back I read a car review for the new Fiat 500. Because it was in the Wheels section of the newspaper, and because it was written by the Wheels Editor, I expected it to be kinda technical – you know, a discussion of the horsepower, fuel efficiency, number of air bags, and so on. But, looking back at it, I guess the headline (“Button drove me crazy”) was a tipoff.

Apparently the editor test drove the “cute European car” for a week. After a brief history of Chrysler’s North American launch of the car, the editor said, plainly, that he wouldn’t buy one. His reason was not what you might expect from someone who makes a living writing about cars -- it was because of the “stupid seat heater switch” on the dashboard.

It seems the white light on the button that’s meant to show if the heater is on or off is “so poorly designed that if there’s any kind of daylight in the vehicle, you just can’t see it.” The editor admitted the button is “a very small foible” but, he said, “it would bug me every single day until I sold the thing.”

He then explained about a BMW he once test drove that was fabulous during the day but at night a warning light that indicated that the passenger airbag was off “became the eye’s only focus”. He finally “fixed” the problem by covering the annoying light with some black electrical tape. Inventive solution, no doubt, but electrical tape on a BMW’s dashboard surely isn’t the look those famed German engineers were going for.

Wondering if he’s the only one who finds that some small, nagging thing negates everything good about a car, he invited readers to write in. Well – did he get a response! Over the next two weeks many column-inches in the Wheels section were devoted to complaints from readers about questionable design features.

Though I don’t have any specific car-related stories, I certainly can relate. Indeed, I’m finding more and more gadgets with features that are useless at best, and irritating at worst. Lots of them relate to design features I usually describe as “too cute by half”, meaning they may be neat ideas in specific (ideal?) conditions but they’re a pain in most circumstances.

My mother recently got a wireless gizmo that converts the audio from her t.v. into a signal her hearing aids can pick up. With it, the t.v.’s volume can be set to a normal level for the rest of us, but she can hear it directly. It’s a two-part system including a transmitter and a necklace with a pendant that picks up the signal and relays it wirelessly to her hearing aids. Remarkable technology, but they made some design decisions that make using it tricky if you’ve got arthritis, dexterity issues, or vision problems (which one would think would be many in of the seniors in the device’s target market).

The pendant is nice and light but, I guess to make it sleek, the on/off button is recessed along one edge, making it hard to find and hard to push. To turn the thing on or off you have to keep the button depressed for quite a while (more than the two seconds the instructions say) until one of the small (you could say miniscule) lights along the edge comes on. If you see a solid red light, that means you’ve turned it off. But, whatever you do, don’t look away as you’re pressing the button because you may miss the red light’s temporary illumination. If you press the button too long you might see a green light, in which case you’ve probably turned it off and then on again.

Then, if the green light is flashing, it means the device is on but the sound is muted. A solid green light means the hearing aid should be picking up the sound. An orange light may also appear (I don’t remember if it’s flashing or solid) to warn that the battery is low. Honestly, the different lights going on and off makes you think you need to know Morse code to use it. Too clever by half, I tell you!

And then there are some products where it seems attention was paid to every little thing, and yet they’ve left off a feature that seems pretty basic. The iPod Touch is an example of this. It’s amazing all the clever things you can do on it with the merest touch of a finger. And yet, I found that the only way to correct a typo when inputting information on it is by backspacing out all that you’ve typed after the mis-typed letter.

Indeed, I found that so unbelievable, I assumed I simply hadn’t figured out how to do it. So, I asked Sandy, my tech guru. When she confirmed there isn’t a way to go back without backspacing, I said I thought that was a serious design flaw. Her comment was: “so you think they should have made even smaller keys so they could cram in more functions?” I see her point, but FCOL*, surely I’m not the only person who still writes out whole words?

The thing that gets me about these kinds of irritants is that you know that every design decision was made consciously (lights don’t get put on dashboards or devices by accident, after all). And yet, it so often seems design engineers don’t really “get” how normal people use things, or they seem to ignore the conditions that exist out in the real world -- you know, the world where people actually use the gadgets. Oh, if only the engineers left the lab now and then…

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona

*for those of you not up on your texting abbreviations: FCOL = for crying out loud! (And no, I didn’t know that -- I Googled text message shorthand!)


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