`I Can't Work This Thing!'

"Kenneth Olsen, the engineer who founded and still runs Digital Equipment Corp., confessed at the annual meeting that he can't figure out how to heat a cup of coffee in the company's microwave oven."--The Design of Everyday Things

Donald A. Norman (Doubleday, 1990)

Every day, across America, millions of managers, bankers, doctors, teachers, chief executives, and otherwise highly competent men and women are driven to helpless frustration by the products around them. In their offices, once-familiar telephones and copiers have suddenly turned silent saboteurs, while new systems that were supposed to make work more efficient--computers, faxes, electronic mail--often do just the reverse.

En route from the office, their car dashboards have a dizzying array of digital displays and their radios sport a dozen tiny buttons too small to operate. Once home, it gets worse. Stress levels soar with VCRs, CDs, message machines, electronic thermostats, keypad burglar alarms, digital clocks, microwaves, more programmable phones, and home computers. People can't seem to get things to work right anymore. Their lives have become a nightmarish world of blinks and beeps.

Enough! The great revolution in electronic products that promised so much-- speed, efficiency, and, yes, fun--is not delivering. Office productivity isn't going up. Listening to music has been replaced by "programming." And VCRs? They're so painful to use that there are jokes about them: How do you know if a family has a teenager living at home? The clock on the VCR isn't flashing.

Human engineering--or the lack of it--has always been a problem in some products, of course. But there's a reason why it bedevils us much more now than ever before: the microchip. Modern electronics has turned the economics of design on its head. No more does the cost of adding features limit the number of capabilities a designer can put into a machine. The chip that was designed to perform a single basic function can frequently be made to do 2, 3, 4, or 50 operations at negligible cost--so why not pile on the features? Trouble is, too many companies wind up selling complex, overloaded gadgets that consumers can't figure out. Impenetrable manuals don't help much, either.

Ricoh Co., one of Japan's leading manufacturers of office equipment, recently found in a survey of its fax customers that nearly 95% never used three key features it deliberately built into the machines to make them more appealing. The customers either didn't know these features existed, didn't understand them, or didn't know how to use them. An Ogilvy & Mather survey of VCR owners recently found that only 3% of their total TV viewing time went to shows that were recorded in advance using the VCR's programming feature. Hardly anyone used his or her VCR except to play rented movies.

REVOLT. The marketing implications of overwhelming consumers with all these complex and rarely used features may be more profound than companies realize. Manufacturers of consumer products are not only losing the interest of their customers but they're also alienating them. People have come to believe that somehow it's their fault that they can't master these products. They have been made to feel like technological illiterates. And they don't like it.

Indeed, a revolt seems to be brewing that could shake up the world of electronic and electronic-bedecked products--everything from stereos to washing machines. "People are rebeling against the devil of design," says Bill Moggridge, president and director of ID Two, an award-winning design house based in San Francisco. "People have been burned by a kind of design hellso many times that they feel terribly cheated."

The big Japanese makers that all but monopolize U. S. consumer electronics are feeling the heat. "We've been getting more and more complaints about the difficulty of using VCRs," says Yuichi Okumura, general manager of the product-planning unit in JVC's Video Products Div. "All video makers have been working hard to make them simpler."

They are making some progress. Thus the new generation of VCRs with on-screen programming that walks people through the steps required to tape tomorrow's TV shows. Hitachi's VTM-141A even provides instructions in English, Spanish, and French. The RCA and GE lines of VCRs include VCR-Plus, which uses the seven-digit codes listed in local-television guides to directly program TV shows.

Not to be outdone, Mitsubishi Electric Corp. is selling the first CD changer that has on-screen commands. "The way we see it," read the Mitsubishi ads in several major stereo magazines, "you shouldn't have to spend the best years of your life figuring out how to work your audio equipment."

This trend to simplicity is hardly limited to Japanese VCRs. Philips, the Dutch electronics giant, is coming out with a group of consumer electronics called Easy Line. It will sell easy-to-use clock radios, VCRs, and tape players. "We decided to eliminate unnecessary complexity and design products that were easier to operate for everybody," says Robert Blaich, managing director of Philips' corporate industrial design group.

But there's a long way to go. Right now, most home and office products are simply technology platforms, not machines created for human use. "The guys who are designing most of these complex technological products are such techies that they think it's natural for everybody to hold down four buttons and twiddle a knob at the same time," says David Kelley, president of DKD, one of the top industrial-design firms in Silicon Valley. "They're so out-of-touch that they can't believe anyone would have trouble doing it. Insensitivity to the user is a big problem with them."

Kelley cites the example of the Bell operating companies, which he says have turned a lot of people off with the new public telephones they introduced into airports. The phones take all kinds of credit cards and allow the caller to use up to half a dozen different carriers. But the complex instructions and the dizzying series of numbers that have to be pushed make punching up a simple long-distance call an exercise in frustration. Worse, the positioning of the instructions sometimes makes it painful for persons wearing bifocals because they have to tilt their heads back and look down to read the directions in the cramped space. No wonder people go up to the new phones first, because they're cleaner and perhaps more interesting-looking, then bolt for the old, simple ones. Kelley believes they just don't have the time to figure out how to use the new ones.

Or how about the new car stereo that holds the frequencies and formats for all U. S. radio stations? When you set off on that cross-country drive, your radio is supposed to switch automatically to the station that plays your kind of music. All you have to do is find out how to program your city of origin, your direction, and your choice of classical, jazz, or rock music. Better not lose that manual.

FOLLOW THE RULES. At one time, the electronics market worshiped products with these kinds of bells and whistles. Complexity was equated with high-tech sophistication. The reality, however, is that "complexity is actually a sign of technological immaturity," says Daniel T. Ling, IBM's manager of human factors. Simplicity of use is the true mark of any well-designed product, whether it's a bank cash machine or a Patriot missile.

Designers who have contemplated the dilemma of high-tech overload say that just a few design principles can make the difference between a product that intimidates and one that is not just accessible, but enjoyable. Follow the rules, and the products become comprehensible, manageable, and likely to succeed. Break them, and the machines will drive people away, taking sales with them. And all the rules boil down to one thing: Be obvious. A machine should be designed so that customers can look at it, understand it, and figure out how to use it--quickly. Forget manuals. Industrial designers and manufacturers have discovered that there is an inverse ratio between the reading needed to learn how to operate a product and the use of that product.

One way to make a product obvious is to clarify its functions and provide feedback that guides the user through all the operations. A dialogue between machine and user is established so that users can see what they are actually doing.

Take Citibank's automated-teller machines. The screen clearly tells the customer what all the possibilities are and how to get to them. When mistakes are made, it flags them and points the way for you to get back on track easily. Most important, the single most popular function--taking money out--is made crystal clear in the on-screen menu. Citibank has designed an electronic product for stressed-out people in a hurry. The same can be said for Direct Access, Citibank's banking-by-computer program.

The new generation of faxes and telephones increasingly contains liquid-crystal displays doing the same thing. They take you through the options you choose then tell you when the task is done. Philips is even using LCDs on its new refrigerators. With all the functions piled onto even mundane kitchen appliances these days, displays are the only way to figure out how to make them work.

Without feedback, even a superb machine can fail in the marketplace. Back in 1980, the market rejected Xerox Corp.'s 8200 office copier. It was the first time in Xerox' history that people had balked at the company's copiers, and no one knew why. Technologically, the product was impressive. It was the most advanced machine available, packed with lots of on-board computer intelligence. And it worked perfectly in the lab.

HUMAN FACTOR. The problem was that the engineers had piled so many complex features onto the copier that casual users, who in the past had been able to operate Xerox machines easily, could not make it work. "Xerox' strategy at that time was to grow by expanding the use of collating, enlarging, reducing, and other fancy features," says Arnold S. Wasserman. Wasserman led the Industrial Design/Human Factors Design Center at Xerox' Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) between 1980 and 1986, then became vice-president for corporate industrial design at Unisys Corp. and was this month made dean of art and design at New York's Pratt Institute. "The only problem was that no one paid attention to the human interface--to the user," he recalls. "People had to wade through buttons and visual noise and manuals for all features, including the most frequently used one, copying a page or two." Old customers abandoned Xerox for simpler Japanese machines, and Xerox' share of the U. S. copier market plummeted.

Wasserman took two years to redesign the controls on the new model. Working closely with John Reinfrank from RichardsonSmith, a major Ohio-based industrial-design firm, he developed a new overall design strategy for Xerox. He brought in anthropologists, sociologists, cognitive scientists, and--surprise--repair personnel who were actually in touch with the people who used the machines. In the end, Wasserman was able to devise very clear graphic displays for the complex copiers. These showed people how to operate the most used, basic function--copying a page or two--and took them through more complex operations only when they requested it. The new generation models have touch-screen menus that provide options and easy instructions.

Wasserman's work at Xerox PARC led to a major discovery: People don't mind trouble as long as they can understand what's wrong and correct it. But for that they need feedback. "We provided displays and maps of the copiers' insides to show paper flow and how to fix paper jams, the most common trouble with copiers," he says. "We saw that a machine must provide the user with tools to manage trouble."

Of course, the simplest way to make products easy to use is just to dump those features people don't use very often. Deliberately strip it down. Avoid the temptation to constantly test the limits of the microchip. If economics doesn't restrain designers, designers must restrain themselves -a wholly new design discipline born of the electronic age. "Who in the world programs three weeks of TV ahead of time?" asks Doug Spranger, principal at Human Factors Industrial Design Inc. in New York. "Who has the time or energy to do that? Why do we need those functions in a VCR or anything else?"

The answer, for most people, is--you don't. Nowhere is the clutter of needless features more obvious than in the world of music (box). With the dozens of knobs and buttons on most CD players, receivers, tape decks, and remotes, it is difficult to remember that the primary purpose of all this electronic apparatus is just one thing: to play music. "I don't know why the Japanese put so many buttons on their machines," complains Michael Kay, owner of Lyric Hi-Fi Inc., a well-known high-end audio store in New York. "They have given us programming, and programming is not music. Programming means computers."

BURIED INFORMATION. Not even that, it turns out. The rebellion against hard-to-use electronic products is sweeping the computer along in this tide of change. The frustration felt by many VCR owners is matched by the anxiety felt by the overwhelming majority of computer users when "system error-G4" flashes on their computer screens--accompanied by no further explanation of just what is wrong and how to fix it. That information is often buried in some dense, 100-page manual. Survey after survey has shown that consumers want "plug-and-play" computers. They want to turn the machines on and get to work immediately. They don't want to spend hours consulting manuals.

Responding to customer complaints, computer companies are beginning to use the growing intelligence of electronic products to make them friendlier. "The direction is to use the ever-increasing power of silicon chips to make things easier to use," says Bud Tribble, vice-president for software engineering at NeXT Computer Inc., the company Steven P. Jobs founded after his departure from Apple Computer Inc. "On the desktop today, 80% of computing power is going toward ease of use, such as menus, windows, and pop-ups. Only 20% is actually going toward doing the job, such as calculating your spreadsheet."

In the new world of computers, the metaphor is the message. The arcane, character-based commands that make so many IBM-based programs difficult to use are quickly giving way to the graphical world of icons and pictures made popular by Apple's Macintosh. The metaphor used on the screen--the classic is the Mac's use of a trash can for dumping unwanted files--makes the computer far more accessible to the general population.

"Metaphors are a way to draw a strong analogy to things people use in the real world," says Darryl Rubin, vice-president for applications strategy at Microsoft Corp. It's no accident that the company's Windows, based on pictures and menus, is the fastest-selling software around.

Displaying information in a way that people can understand and use is so important in the growing service economy that a whole new discipline, information design, is beginning to take form. Graphic designers are joining with product designers, social scientists, and engineers to create new, user-friendly "interfaces," from bank statements to computer screens. The aim is to make information easy to comprehend and hard to forget--a formula for busy people doing too many things at once. Too little time and too much stress is a major reason that many people are so unhappy with the complexity of the everyday products in their lives. Simplicity, not gadgetry, appears to be the code word for the 90s. "I tell the Japanese that time is a critical factor in our lives now and complexity in products means wasted time for most of us," says Sohrab Vossoughi of Ziba Design Inc. in Beaverton, Ore. It's a message that companies around the world are beginning to heed.

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