Wired Lifestyle Usability Issues

I’ve just moved into a new place (see previous posts about Ikea) and bundled in one of the drawers in the kitchen was a telephone book sized folder containing all the manuals for the respective household appliances. I’ve not got round to reading many of them yet as, frankly, there are better things in life.

But this raised a interesting point, how much of the technology and engineering scattered about my place is intuitive and usable? There are certain things that, as a tech-savvy 20-something I should intuitively know how to use: microwave, washing machine, oven, electric shower. Additionally there are things that are new to me: dishwasher, integrated multi-room audio, under floor heating and I’ve enjoyed fiddling with this stuff to understand how it works to some extent. The hardest to ‘get’ was the audio system (an EGi Domos) though to be fair I’ve not even started to look at the heating yet.

To start with there are two main interfaces, a central control panel and individual room controls. The first is a complicated panel with multiple tiny buttons and LEDs, icons and descriptors are small and not always intuitive. The second is considerably smaller but, being concealed and discrete, was quite confusing in its own way. Within a few seconds of turning the control panel on I was able to start piping radio to at least one room, good stuff. It did seem quiet though… I went to the room control and pressed the two visible buttons, the station changed and it made beeping sounds. That’s all I could work out. It seemed to have two channels which presumably meant one room could be on one channel and another on a different one. Great, still quiet though….

By this point I was a little bit disappointed and complained to the missus that it must be a consequence of the location in a block of similar flats that the volume is restricted. She sighed and got on with her important stuff. About twenty seconds later I heard a loud laugh and a call to come and see what she’d done. She’d turned the volume up by simply opening the smart plastic flap covering the control and pressing the + button. She’s delighted of course, she’s worked out in about ten seconds (she claims it was obvious) and if it wasn’t for her I’d still be listening to it at library volume. Except I wouldn’t because I’d have read the manual eventually in a bid to understand what it ALL does (something girls seem to care little about, they only want to know the functionality that they’ll need). I wanted to write something insightful about how this demonstrates why users are stupid, why the obvious isn’t always so, why basic users (her) are more clever than potential experts (me) and so on but my own personal embarrassment wants to get me off the topic as soon as possible.

Not before I’ve mentioned the manual though. Which is dire. I’m so used to being fortunate to read manuals in my native language that when you find one in ‘foreign’ it can be either amusing (Asian hardware manuals in over-polite Victorian English) or baffling (in this case). The manual was originally in spanish but had had the English translation on the same page in italics making it really fiddly to keep finding the English bits and meant that the pages with diagrams were confused with twice as much text as they needed to have. Why not simply repeat the information in English as it’s done in 90% of guide manuals with the same layout? They’d decided to reduce costs by printing one manual for every product in the range too. So you have to thumb through and find the specific version of the control panels you’ve got installed and then read their pages complete with footnotes explaining that feature x might not be available depending on your installation. I’d really rather be given a piece of paper inviting me to their (ghastly) site to download the specific manual in English for my installation. It would cost less than sending one rubbish bi-lingual manual to every customer and be a hundred times more effective.

To that end I’ve not even bothered to set some of the more advanced functions, pre-set radio, wake alarms, door entry intercom etc. etc. Finally, the input interface for external audio equipment … a 7-pin DIN! I can’t remember the last time I saw one of these for audio, probably on my Dad’s 1970s B&O tape deck. It’s unbelievable that there wasn’t a dual phono or 3.5mm jack input. I spent ages in Maplin trying to find a cable to fit, it did but wasn’t in stereo (presumably down to the peculiar wiring in the DIN) so I had to order a specific part from the manufacturer. The customer experience of owning something like this shouldn’t be such hard work

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