I was testing out a few new devices this weekend, and found myself just immensely frustrated with them. At first I chalked it off to the pitiful, yet unbelievably tolerated excuse of “that’s technology”. But that’s really a pathetic answer. Gadgets should not suck as much as they do. So here’s my little list of Why Gadgets Suck:
- They are ill-conceived. I think the picture of the MP3 player slash breathalyzer I took at CES is the best example here. Too many people sitting in board rooms thinking up crazy ideas that apply to nobody. Also, convergence for the sake of convergence is a terrible idea. If you think consumers want keyboards in their living rooms, or more remote controls, or to carry around something that doesn’t fit in a pocket OR a backpack, you have the wrong consumer experts on your team.
- Too much jargon. If the average Joe can’t figure out how to add contacts using a Moto RAZR, forget putting in a network setup screen that asks them which type of wireless network security their SSID uses. If you can’t figure out how to make a setup screen have regular old English, then you’ve made your product too hard to figure out by regular people. Think of it this way: the average person out there is uncomfortable with the concepts of “inputs and outputs” on their stereos – so if you are even minorly more sophisticated than that, you are confusing people.
- Unusable interfaces. A product should be usable without an instruction manual. Sending an SMS, synching MP3s or podcasts, and creating Season Passes should be as easy as making instant popcorn in the microwave. Granted there’s always room for “power user features” but the power users should be the 20%, not the 80%, of people who buy your product. If your “usability designer” (who probably has a Ph. D) shows you something and you don’t instantly understand it without explanation, it’s not good enough.
- Usability designers. I’m sure there are plenty of these folks who have built great products in reality. Unfortunately it sure seems like most of them just do it on paper. My biggest tip here is that a really good usability person (a) doesn’t need a degree in it and (b) can point out not just flaws, but ways to improve most products they use, be it a coffee maker or a cell phone.
- Lack of visionaries. Remember the old “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” phrase? In the devices world, this applies doubly. Visionaries keep products focused, whereas teams build according to “specs”. Three products built by visionaries: iPod, Slingbox, TiVo. Three products built by the rest: the Nomad Jukebox, Sony LocationFree TV, Comcast’s DVR. Need I say more?
- Poor timing. With a domestic market of over 50% of Internet-connected households having broadband, today would be an acceptable time to attempt to ship “Internet devices”. But when 3Com tried to ship the Audrey in the late 90s, that was poor timing. I recently played with two different gadgets that both used dialup networking to get online. ONLY. Not even a broadband option. Really?
- The buttons don’t match the screens. My Syntax Olevia 32″ LCD (which, by the way, is having issues and their tech support department has been excessively slow in responding to) has a very simple menuing system that’s extremely easy to navigate. However, the buttons on the remote were not laid out in a way to match the on-screen menus, and literally 1/2 the time I make a setting the button I push is the one that cancels the setting! You can certainly call this user error, but if someone as comfortable with devices as I am has a recurring issue like this, there’s probably a way the product could be made better.
- Shoddy workmanship. I’m really talking about poor product testing here, but I just like that phrase so much. It amazes me when I try out a product with a basic feature set, such as a media extender or a digital picture frame, and run into an actual bug within minutes of use. One product I tried had the on-screen fonts render at double their normal size during video playback and when I asked their engineers about it, they hadn’t seen it before. I was using a standard file format and wasn’t even trying to trip it up. Always review your test cases to make sure they line up with real-world scenarios, not the ones in the labs.
I could probably double this list up with other common annoyances out there, but this seems like a good spot to take a pause.