Friday, September 22, 2006

Technological tyranny

This is a post about user interfaces and how we are tyrannized by them. I am a technologist, but I'm also a user of technology and I'm pissed off about the user interfaces I encounter in most technology. I suspect this irritation is something that has come with age and having grown up in an era when technology was easier to use.

Today, my microwave oven decided to die in a spectacular manner with high energy electric arcing spewing out of the magnetron compartment into the food area. It was entertaining in the perverse manner that most catastrophic failures (non-fatal to me) usually are. However, the oven's expiration necessitated the purchase of a new unit.

This was an event I've been dreading for quite some time now. You see, the old microwave was indeed a very old Panasonic unit - one of the very first "safe" microwaves ever made. I believe it dated back to the early 1970's. Its origin was never very clear to me, since I wasn't its original purchaser. Back in the early 80's I traded a $10 bill and a box of floppy disks for it, and it was old and well used even then. It was low power, only 500W, heavy as hell, but most importantly, this ancient unit didn't require a user's manual to operate. Its user interface consisted of a single knob you turned to set the time you wanted and a single button you punched to turn it on. The thing was simplicity. Its design allowed one to cook without needing to know anything about a user interface.

People inherently understand timer knobs because they resemble clocks. The physical similarity allows for understanding the knob's function intuitively. People understand single buttons intuitively because of all the children's toys we grow up with that "do something" when a "button like" object is pressed. Deterministic direct action-reaction situations are easy to comprehend because they don't require remembering any complex state information. Its like a Talking Elmo. Push its belly, or yank a string and it speaks. Direct action-reaction. People understand single buttons, even pretty stupid people.

Given the old microwave's dubious origins and indeterminate age, I've been expecting it to fail at any moment for about 15 years now. So of course, I've been eyeballing the state of the art in possible replacements over those 15 years whenever I happened to walk by some microwaves in a store. This window shopping for the past 15 years is what filled me with dread anticipating the Panasonic's impending demise. The vast majority of possible replacement models had atrocious user interfaces compared to the old Panasonic's intuitive single knob and button. All pretenders were equipped with LED/LCD displays, a plethora of buttons, some even so complex they had "modes" of operation, and all sported "user guides" that one would actually have to read to cook anything with the damn things.


If you need to print an extensive user manual to explain the user interface for a common consumer appliance, YOU. HAVE. FAILED. The design phase of that appliance WAS. A. FAILURE.

So, filled with loathing and dread, I trudged off today expecting to be forced into buying some wretched object of consumer confusion and torture that only coincidentally might happen to cook food when all the correct incantations were uttered. Based on what I'd seen so far, I was fully expecting to have to stock up on live chickens to offer as animal sacrifices to the gods of complexity if I wanted some hot soup.

In no hurry to pay to be become a victim of poor design, I wandered around WalMart for an hour or so. I circle at a distance the aisles where microwaves might be found, but can't bring myself to actually enter them yet. I play with the cordless tools on display in hardware -- fondling tools usually lift my spirits. I like tools. Tools are enablers of personal independence from the tyranny of modernity and an economy that has "service" as a major component. Tools and a bit of knowledge can save people thousands of dollars over hiring supposed "professional" service persons.

Even the tools couldn't lift my spirits this day. I would have to bite the bullet, buy something that would annoy me for years to come, and find solace elsewhere. In spite of all the tools I own, and even those I might be able to buy locally, manufacturing a microwave from scratch in my garage is beyond my ability. So I somberly veered down the appliance aisle like a man heading to his own execution.

I happen to enter the dread aisle at the end where the most expensive models sit in grand repose. Shiny, stylish looking, some costing hundreds of dollars. All sport the reviled display screens, vast quantities of buttons, and more complexity than I care to contemplate. I continue on down the aisle to the lower priced models. If I'm going to pay to be annoyed and tortured, I resolve to pay as little as possible for that privilege. Similar disappointments await on all the mid priced models. There is no joy here. Only somewhat lower prices and painted shells rather than the stylish stainless steel of the expensive models reside here.

Now I move on down to the low priced end of the aisle. Sizes are somewhat smaller, and power somewhat lower than the higher priced models, and unfortunately these too seem to sport the same painfully poor user controls. Lo, tucked in at the very far end, kind of hidden, resides the cheapest model. What? What is this? My heart soars with elation. This $34, absolute lowest end, cheapest of the cheap microwave has KNOBS for controls, only two of them. BLESSED. INTUITIVE. KNOBS. One sets the time to cook, the other sets the power level you want. If one doesn't care to twiddle with the power setting, this little marvel of simplicity is even simpler than the old Panasonic that had a knob and a button. Turning the timer knob on this little fellow automatically turns it on.

I snatched one up and sped off to the checkout a happy man.


The Merry Widow said...

PA- What was the maker's name? Blessed simplicity! I didn't see one of those when I bought my new one earlier this year. I agree, you should only have a user guide for big end items, now even cheap clocks and calculators have them! Sheesh!
Good morning, G*D bless and Maranatha!

Case in point, all this nonsense with :cough, gag, spit: google!

Purple Avenger said...

It was made my a Chinese outfit called Galanz. Apparently they are quite large, having about 30% of the microwave market.

I found a pic online of one of their models that looks somewhat similar to the one I bought(and added it to the post). In looking through their web site, I notice they actually make quite a few manual knob controled models.

Curious that very few of these are on the shelves in the US. Almost everything here is the dreaded electronic controls.

I wonder where all those manual control models are going? Who is buying them? Practical, people with lots of practical common sense of course, but what country and demographics would be interesting to know.

Alan said...

The trouble is, El Cheapo will break in a few months, rather than decades.

Purple Avenger said...

There is no microwave made today that will last for decades.

I'm willing to take bets on how long this unit lasts. It has a one year warranty, so we know the manufacturer expects it to last at least that long.

I'm willing to bet $100 that it makes the year once it makes it past the first week (eliminate the infant mortality period that all new products are subject to).

Any takers?

That Broad said...

My last microwave lasted about 3 years, now it is just used for decoration, we use the inside as a storage unit for mix matched socks.

Not really, but it's not a bad idea I guess. I'm actually in the market for a new one, but I'm not in all that big of a hurry to get one.