What does this button do?

“The only ‘intuitive’ interface is the nipple. After that, it’s all learned.”

Well, restring my guitar, this is interesting in a “come back and haunt you” sort of way. The gist of the article is a bloke from Samsung saying “Apple? Release a TV? They don’t frighten us.” Well, bloke from Samsung, 1) they should frighten you because they understand something that you do not: how to put the customer in the centre of the experience and 2) I really hope that you have a truly magnificent three piece suite as there’s a slight possibility that you are going to get caught with your pants firmly locked in the down position. I own a Samsung television, so I can speak with the armchair-general authority of a customer. Here’s my feedback:

  • The buttons on the front are touch sensitive and cannot be seen or used unless the sunlight is so bright that you can’t see the screen. Indeed, we owned the panel for a year before even knowing that they were even there (more on that later)
  • As is so often the case in this digital age, configuration requires an unnecessary number of screens and buttons to operate with too many layers between related actions. This, coupled with duplicate, obfuscated methods of achieving the same thing but in a different way leads to incredible frustration making any adjustments to the device. In fact, it gets to the point that you think “oh, fuck it” and just leave it on whatever freaky setting you’ve ended up configuring and you’ll never touch it again
  • The remote controller is far, far too complicated. I can program machine code on four different CPUs, one of which I can pretty much do in raw hexadecimal due to not having an assembler back in ’82. However, I’d rather rub chilli-peppers on my testicles than do that out of choice, so quite why Samsung believe that rocket-science complexity was appropriate is a mystery to me and Columbo. Was the layout designed by letting drunken baboons throw things at a whiteboard? Perhaps they believe that users rate their television’s quality by the number of buttons that there are on the remote?

Captain Rattles McCoils

Concorde: marginally easier to use and configure than most modern televisions, although to be fair, Captain Rattles McCoil is going to find it rather hard to open the throttles.
Original picture by Christian Kath before I ruined it by adding snakes

I’ll let them off the backlight bleed because it’s not that bad, but I won’t let them off all this “app” crap, weird Internet configuration rubbish and other features that I care so little about that I can’t even be bothered to mention them. The only person to start any of those features up is my daughter when she found the aforementioned buttons on the front of the TV that Mrs Cobras and I didn’t even know existed. We couldn’t work out how Baby Cobra had switched the bloody telly off just by pawing the front. It took me a fair while to undo the reconfiguration that a 12 month old managed to achieve in seconds. Clearly all this was mentioned in the documentation, but really, reading the supplied manual is an exercise in willingly choosing to have broken glass rubbed in your eyes.

Then there’s the habit the thing has of changing mode all by itself depending on what’s going on with the attached HDMI devices. Its mode change is never to a sensible one, like an active input, it’s always to white noise or a blank screen. A journey through the documentation (hahahaha! Documentation, my arse) and menus made me want to give up in despair. I couldn’t figure it out. Hell, I wrote a multithreaded highly parallelised client-server run-time programmable architecture for MMOGs in C++ in the noughties but can I figure out how to use my own television? It appears not.

So, Chris Mosely, AV Product Manager from Samsung, your problem is that like so many companies before you, you believe your own PR department. This is rarely a good move and may suggest an acute dose of resting on one’s laurels. You may well have 10,000 people working on R&D and you may well have fantastic panels and acceptably reasonable design and presentation of your devices, but if your customers cannot figure out how to use the bloody things, your time is wasted. Just like the pure, unadulterated joy I felt when I was able to move from my Nokia N95 (what a pile of utter shite that was from a UI perspective) to an iPhone, if Apple release a TV, the thing that they will get absolutely positively right is the entire user experience: end to end. You will not need to have a doctorate in UIs just to use it. It will work. Out of the box, which in itself will be a wonderful thing to unpack. And it will be a pleasure to use. You may well have some of the best panels but they do not auto-configure meaning manual configuration is the only choice. I gave up. One of my friends gave up. We’re not fundamentally stupid people, but in the end, your amazing 10,000 person researched panel is sitting in my living room poorly configured because you, like Nokia before you, are thinking more about the hardware than the user experience.

You’re not alone, though, Chris, in this live, rolling train wreck of buffoonery: take the other components of my AV system such as the amplifier/receiver thing that even a musician who works with this stuff couldn’t figure out, oh, and that was supposed to configure itself. “Front left speaker missing”. No it fucking isn’t. It’s right there. Look: there is a lamp on the top of it. See? In fact, the only device in the whole pile of incompetence that doesn’t deliberately make your life a misery is the XBOX 360 and you wouldn’t believe how painful that is to admit given the super-duper-low build quality. The UI on that is a pleasure to use – which is good, because it sounds like a jet engine when it is on and my first one blew up (but not before it had scratched several 50 quid game disks beyond repair).

It has taken my wife and me an unacceptably long amount of time to work out how to use the four remote controllers that we need in order to make our viewing monstrosity function and Chris, I blame people like you. You’re so obsessed with the performance of the engine that you’ve not noticed that the steering wheel is triangular, facing the rear of the car and is in the boot. You, and others like you, have fooled yourself into believing that your average person cares two decomposing sparrow’s balls about the screen quality being slightly better than anyone else’s. They don’t. They care about it working, being easy to use, looking reasonable and working acceptably out of the box without having to fiddle with six sliders that mean nothing to anyone except A/V experts. On top of this, most customers won’t place it correctly, won’t view it from the correct angle or height and will leave it on whatever rubbish configuration it ships with and thus wouldn’t be able to spot the panel’s supposed superiority anyway. It is about time that the manufacturers of the electrical devices that we use in our day to day lives started from the user experience and worked backwards. This is why Apple continue to shit on incumbents in various markets – invariably there are better specified devices out there in all fields, but none of them just BEG to be touched, held and used. None of them capture the owner from purchase onwards.

Of course, it’s unfair to pick on Samsung exclusively because we’ve all seen worse. So Samsung only win tonight’s RUNNER-UP PRIZE. Which is me calling Chris Mosely a “Nucklehead McSpasatron”. It’s the prize at keeps on giving! In second place it’s Panasonic. Their DECT phone, which I have the misfortune to own, has the second worst user interface I have seen in my life. I honestly believe that it was designed as a practical joke: there is simply no other rational explanation for something so stunningly awful. They win an entry in my Panasonic DECT phone’s internal address book in the unlikely event that I can ever figure out how to do it. Put your hands together, folks, for Panasonic! Yeeeeaaahhhh! But really, and the reason we are all here tonight, is to welcome to the stage our GRAND WINNER. *tears open envelope* Oh my! ladies and gentlemen! Our winner tonight, by a country mile, is ANGELCARE and their outstandingly complex Baby Monitor! Nominated because two adults couldn’t configure it WITH the manual, when sober and with a good half hour in hand and also because it could ship with just three easy-to-use buttons and a knob instead of a complete micro controller based “interface”. The judges felt that it showed over-engineering at the user’s expense to levels that will be talked about for decades to come. Speech! Speech!

Angelcare can collect their prize from the prize-dispensing machine below. It should be a breeze to use as its user interface was designed by consultants from Panasonic, Sony, Sharp, Nokia and Samsung with additional help from the chaps at Microsoft who designed the Ribbon Interface. The overall project management was provided by the same people who built GIMP’s “UI” and the documentation is helpfully provided in a bloody great book in 45 languages (including Klingon and ancient Egyptian) which is printed in Times New Roman 1.5 point.

Prize Giving Machine: Angelcare's winning trophy is nearly in their hands!

Well, this machine looks easy to use. Of course it could have just been one button labeled "Give me my prize, you bastards!" However, given the expertise involved in its design, it should be pretty straightforward, right?

User interfaces are important. If that seems like a statement of the bloody obvious, you should consider just how wide the gap has become between your fingers and the operation you intend to perform in modern appliances. Angelcare1 won the prize because of their spectacularly non-obvious interface: without the documentation, it is close to impossible to figure out the operation of the device. They came down with a particularly serious case of “mode-fever”. It’s easy to explain with an example: in an old telly you would have a couple of knobs (teeheehee, I said “knobs”) to control contrast and brightness. On this interface, the gap between fingers and operation was zero. You could twiddle them one at a time or both at once and it was a doddle to adjust it to your liking. Furthermore, it was so easy that you’d do it all the time to counter light changes, programme type, etc. Generally, therefore, you were looking at an appropriately configured device. The finger-to-operation gap on my Samsung TV is broad enough to require a suspension bridge. Angelcare’s is so vast that you could slip three planets in and we’re not talking plutos here, either. There is no need for this gap. A good user interface uses itself and you barely notice its presence: “Don’t make me think”, as Steve Krug titled his book on human-computer interaction. The obsession with hardware over user experience will end and it will continue to end badly for some who will go down still baffled as to why. Nokia are still figuring out to get out of their rut after Apple creamed them (although letting someone else handle the UI is a good step).

I’m baffled as to why it isn’t obvious that making your customers feel stupid, frustrated, or angry makes incredibly bad business sense. I have a list of manufacturers or devices that I wouldn’t recommend to my worst enemy and my friends are likewise armed with their experiences and stories. Things go wrong. No device or interface is perfect. However, if the overall experience doesn’t net out positive, then ‘Tellafriend’ causes incredible damage especially in this modern, connected social networked world.

-~-

Apple may or may not be releasing a television at some point. I hope that they are. I know that it will be expensive, but people’s time and happiness is highly likely to be worth enough to bridge the gap. If it happens, companies like Samsung are likely to get caught with their pants so far down that you wouldn’t be able to find them with the Hubble telescope. The aftermath as everyone attempts to catch up should end up being a positive thing for the consumer who, one day, may even be able to configure and operate their own devices. Wow, eh? Won’t that be incredible!


(PS – special mentions in these awards go to Britax for the “documentation” that shipped with their otherwise superb Cow-moo-flage car seat. Mrs Cobras and I were simply speechless. It might as well have been in invisible ink. Despite our love for the product, as a result of the documentation, I’d think twice about recommending it to anyone: hell, even I could write documentation that would be at least two orders of magnitude cooler than theirs even if I was drunk)

1 I feel I ought to say that we wouldn’t have been without the Angelcare device but really, did it have to make such an effort to make us hate it? Reconfigurations were a waking nightmare. Oh, and how’s this for irony: at the time of writing, their link to their awards goes to a page not found. They can feel free to collect their award from me any time they wish if they need content on that page.

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3 Responses to What does this button do?

  1. Chief Cobra says:

    Found this interesting link. It seems like the BBC shares my impression that Smart TVs are unreasonably hard to use.

  2. Pingback: Atishoo, atishoo, their pants fall down | Cobras Cobras

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