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The May 23, 2002 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Computerized Complexity: Frustrations of Everyday Life

(Sandy) When the radio in my '86 Toyota Supra quit working, I tried to focus on the positives about buying a new one. The so-called "double-DIN" slot in my car limited my choices, but the new unit has a CD player as well as a better FM tuner and casette deck - it's also XM satellite radio ready.

As I was leaving the shop post-installation, the manager suggested he show me how to use the unit. That seemed strange--after all, what did I need to learn about a car radio that wasn't obvious? After a 5 minute lesson, I had seen the basics -- but was a little uncertain about why I needed a remote for my tuner and why he insisted that I read the manual.

Car radio front panel and remote control --> Click for larger pictureArriving home and turning off the car, the radio alarmingly started beeping at me. A look at the manual explained it was just an alert, reminding me to remove the front panel. The theory is that if you park in an unsavory area, you can remove it, thus averting theft. However, it's not clear why I have to listen to it beeping when I park in my own garage. Since the installer had suggested I might want to look at the removable front panel while I read the manual, I dutifully took it out and brought it inside with me.

Things went downhill from there. When Dave borrowed my car, he couldn't figure out how to turn on the radio - there's nothing as obvious as an "on/off" switch. Next I wanted to re-set the clock. I'll spare you the details, except to say that even by following the manual, I couldn't make it work. This time Dave came to the rescue. By carefully reading the manual, he discovered that what I was doing wrong was pressing the function button. What I should have been doing was HOLDING IN the function button (which invokes a different function)!!

I've now graduated to the point where I've mastered the pre-sets for radio stations and, if I concentrate, can vary the sound to simulate a club, studio or for jazz (if I should want to). Of course I haven't started yet on learning all the different things the function button can do when used with the CD player. Nor have I tried yet to disable the warning tone when I park--the manual tells me that also requires use of the function button!

THIS IS CRAZY! Why should we have to read manuals to do things we've known how to do for years? If your company is designing technology based products and services, think about helping the user accomplish their goal easily and intuitively. On radios that means things like an on/off switch, not buttons that are labeled "esc" (escape), "f" (for function) and "d" for DSP. And certainly not similar but not identical functions on different buttons on different places on the radio and on the remote.

Reading Alan Cooper's book, "The Inmates are Running the Asylum--Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity" is one way to get some perspective on how we have gotten to this state--and perhaps a guide to escaping it. Cooper's "riddles for the information age" ask questions like "what do you get when you cross a computer with ...?", where the devices are as varied as airplanes, cameras, alarm clocks, cars and banks (and presumably radios too). The answer in each case is the same: "a computer." No wonder my radio has an "escape" function!

A recent review of the new BMW 745i (NY Times, May 12) convinced me I was lucky I only had to replace my radio and not the whole car. It's hard for me to covet a car that requires the dealer to spend three hours explaining it. The car also comes with a set of instructions for the owner to hand a valet, so that a bewildered parking attendant can figure out how to move the car!

The sentence that stuck with me after reading the BMW review is "a fundamental issue is how the 7 forces the driver to think and act in new ways." Let's keep the user in mind as we try to bring the benefits of broadband technology to the home!

( www.cooper.com )