I Think I Am in Trouble

Today, November 3, 2005 is the first annual World Usability Day. I learned of it through a message from a friend directing me to a USA Today article called “Why are tech gizmos so hard to figure out?” The concept resonates with me. More and more I use elaborate converged devices, like my wonderful Treo 650, but I use decreasingly smaller subsets of their overall functionality.

So, I looked forward to reading the article. But I was caught up after the first paragraph – and as I begin writing this article, I have not even yet read beyond the third paragraph - by the image of a beautiful, white iPod. The byline for the image read: “Usability experts point to the iPod as the poster child of good usability.” Gulp.

Here’s the article. It’s a good one. I recommend it. I’ve now read it all and it’s quite thoughtful.

Why I am in trouble is that while I have played with friends’ iPods, my stunning lack of ability to understand exactly how to use one has caused me to shy away from purchasing one. I can’t even get ear buds to stay in my ears. Instead, I lay grand schemes to figure out how to get my laptop’s iTunes music onto my Treo and purchase easier-to-use but uncool earphones; schemes that never quite hatch, due partially to lack of time and partially to “fear of learning curve.”

Age is a factor, of course. Everything is a little bit tougher to do when you have to find and put your reading glasses on first. Have you ever run across what is now one of my current pet peeves? I check into a really nice hotel and fall asleep reading. The next morning I get up, get the shower water streaming just right, step in, and then realize that I cannot tell which of those three little bottles of liquid contains shampoo–as opposed to conditioner or lotion--without my glasses on. Since I am already wet and don’t really know where my glasses ended up the night before anyway, I have been known to “shampoo” with conditioner; not a good thing.

At the moment, with two young adults still at home. I can continue to do what nearly all parents do, and ask my son or daughter how to, oh, how to work the settings on our new stove top. D'es “broil high” mean you are setting it to broil at a high temperature, or that you are placing the food to be broiled at one of the higher positions inside the oven? Actually, neither my kids nor I have figured that one out yet. And the manual is not helpful, having clearly been inadequately translated from a non-English language.

But even my kids can’t help me with some techie issues. For example, I have yet to figure out how to properly use the extended memory card in my Treo 650. So I keep on getting messages telling me that the memory is near full and I have to painstakingly figure out how to erase something. The kids can’t help me because they don’t have Treos D’oh! Not only can they not afford them and I won’t shell out the cash, they don’t even want a Treo.

One of the few people in the United States who probably d'esn’t have to worry about this kind of thing is President Bush. He travels with his pockets empty of technology, and everything else. No doubt there is someone right there to help with the telephone when he needs to put someone on hold.

So, why are so many products less easy to use than they could be? Why is it, for example, that to shut down a Windows computer the first thing you have to do is go to “start?” The article identifies forces: corporate demands, such as “Get it out and start selling it!; the demands made on design by vastly different generational needs; the complexity caused by adding more and more features to things.

Given my experiences in life, I think the biggest reason is the assumption by engineers and other techies that everyone else thinks like them. As one person interviewed in the USA Today article said, "A whole lot of companies went out of business because their users were too stupid."

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