I am suffering from interface overload, and I am not alone. Things used to be a lot less complicated, when everything from cars to microwaves to...
Imagine it’s the mid-’70s, and you want to watch “M*A*S*H.” You stand up. You walk over to the television. You press a button, turn a knob and there it is.
I miss that.
In my house, with our digital-cable-TV service, you’ve got to press a couple of buttons on the remote to ensure both the cable box and the TV are turned on. Then you’ve got to navigate an on-screen menu to select what you want to watch, choosing from what’s on now, what’s stored on the digital video recorder and what’s available on-demand.
Though the interface is relatively easy to grasp, I still haven’t mastered its intricacies and options. I look at screens a lot, and I feel like I’ve reached my limit in terms of the interfaces I’m required to comprehend.
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I am suffering from interface overload, and I am not alone.
Things used to be a lot less complicated, when everything from cars to microwaves to televisions to cameras were operated with buttons and knobs, rather than computer interfaces. But now, many of the things we use all the time, every day — the car is a notable example — include computer interfaces. The screen may be tiny, but it’s a computer interface, and there’s no avoiding it. More and more of our everyday playthings and tools will include them.
I know, enough already. I’ll stop complaining. Here we are, and there’s no turning back. But we can do something about this. When you buy a product now, you should consider the interface.
That’s because many of today’s devices are functional only to the extent that you can understand and use their interfaces. Yet interfaces come in all varieties, and many of them, frankly, are mind-numbingly confusing. Just because your $40,000 SUV comes with a feature-laden GPS system doesn’t mean you can operate it; if it requires days of learning to understand it, you may never use its much-lauded features.
We bought a $200 wireless phone with multiple handsets, and though we’ve had it for a year, I have yet to learn how to operate basic features, such as the speaker phone, with the phone’s tiny, glowing orange screen.
Granted, I may be a special case. I am manual-phobic. Yes, I will read the manual for a digital camera, or a specialized, professional-level Web page creation program, but a microwave? A telephone? A clock radio?
Sorry, but I can’t help thinking I should be able to operate these products without sequestering myself from the rest of life for hours or days.
And so, the next time you plan to buy a product, whether it’s a camera or a microwave, test out its screen. Do the icons and on-screen buttons make sense? Does the interface provide helpful clues to guide your use of the product, without turning to a manual? Do you come away from your test run feeling like the device’s functionality is enhanced through the interface, or do you wish it could be a whole lot less complicated?
I’d like to think if more consumers are interface literate, or at least discriminating about the interface of the products they buy, then companies will put a lot more thought into creating buttons and screens that are simple, intuitive and easy to learn.
Certainly, that’s one of the lessons from the success of the iPod and the iPhone. People like those products not just because of the slick look of them — that’s the least of it — but because their interfaces go a long way to making the experience of using them effortless and pleasurable, rather than perplexing and exasperating.