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Backward Steps

Entry 1953, on 2018-12-10 at 20:26:19 (Rating 3, Comments)

Many people would say that it is obvious that technology is getting better all the time. Others might disagree, saying that things were better back when they were younger, and that a lot of modern products are designed to fail relatively quickly and not be repairable.

I think both of these are true: technology is getting better in many ways, but reliability and repairability seem to have suffered at the same time. We now might expect that machines will fail and need to be replaced rather than repaired. That's not necessarily totally bad, because so many items today are a lot cheaper than they were, and improvements mean that more frequent replacement makes more sense.

In terms of pure performance and functionality there is little doubt that many forms of technology are far better today than they were 20 years ago. Computers are an obvious example because numerous attributes, such as speed, storage capacity, screen quality, and battery life are all clearly better. And TVs are also obviously better because an old standard definition CRT TV just looks terrible compared to a UHD HDR TV from today.

But this blog post isn't about simple quality measures like those. It is about design. And design is a difficult word, because it means so many different things to different people. The sort of design I mean though, is ergonomic design: how the device and the user interact.

At this stage I offer the fair warning that this carefully considered introduction is about to degenerate into a rant, so let's go...

I do quite a lot of cooking, I actually quite enjoy it as a practical creative outlet. So I need to use a microwave for cooking rice, defrosting stuff, etc. And when my microwave fails it's a bit of a disaster. The first one I had just worked for years and I eventually gave it away because I had a chance to upgrade quite cheaply. That one was quite good too, but I did replace it after quite a few years. The next one lasted maybe a year or two and then died horribly, taking out a circuit breaker in the process, about one month ago. And, yes, you guessed it, that one lasted just a month before also failing and taking out the same circuit.

This looks like an example of poor quality, but it goes beyond that. Because even when it was new, it was also slow, hard to use, noisy, and just plain crappy in every way, even though it was in the moderate price range.

By "slow" I mean that what used to take 20 seconds now seemed to take 40. And both the new and previous microwaves were rated at 1100W, so why the difference? And why have fans which make more noise than any other appliance I have? And touch controls must have improved over the years, so why does this one only work every second touch unless you press the keys like you might an old-style manual typewriter?

In general this thing was just a terrible example of design in every way imaginable. Yet microwave ovens have been around for decades, and you might reasonably expect that the technology would be pretty well perfected by now. Apparently not.

And if we can't expect a technology to be perfected in 50 years what about a few thousand years? You might think by now that the design of jugs, and other similar things might have been refined to a remarkable degree. Unfortunately the reality is that they haven't.

Recently the spout fell off our old faithful stainless steel teapot. So we got a new one, which was not really expensive but wan't super-cheap either. But this thing is almost unusable, because the handle gets so hot after 3 minutes (the time required to brew tea) that you need a cloth to pick it up. And when you pour the tea it tends to drip down the spout all over the table. How many millennia have we known how to make proper water containers with spouts that pour correctly?

It seems that pottery was being made 20,000 years ago. I don't know for sure, but I am confident that a good spout design was discovered some time between then and now. I suspect that by copying a design hundreds or even thousands of years old something which pours properly could be made. Yet it wasn't in this case. How is this progress?

But now we must get on to the most annoying class of design failures I have encountered recently: problems with computers, software, and technical documentation...

I recently had to get a printer to connect to a wifi router so it could be used wirelessly. I followed the instructions exactly, but that didn't work, of course. I then searched for a solution on the internet and followed those instructions. Obviously that also didn't work. But then I remembered an extra step I had used connecting a similar device in the past. When I included that step it worked perfectly.

Actually, it wasn't totally perfect, because the basic design of how the printer software worked was flawed, but at least the wireless devices could see it. But that only worked because I ignored the offical instructions and made it up myself.

This morning I had to fix another printer which was displaying an error message - error number 6000 actually, which is more a random number than a message. So I searched the internet and eventually found a manual, which I downloaded by following misleading links on a poorly designed web site.

I was quite impressed to see that the manual was no less than 932 pages long! Surely the answer would be here. Err, no... After searching for the error I found the answer was to cycle the power on the printer and hope that fixed it. In fact there were about 100 pages listing the same exact text as the answer to many errors!

Needless to say, that didn't work. After ignoring the manual I executed a "brutal manual adjustment" on the printer and found a piece of screwed up paper in the feed mechanism. After removing that the printer restarted normally, and after 10 minutes of recalibration it worked fine.

More generally, computer and mobile software today often suffers from poor design, even software created by the company which prides itself on having great design, Apple.

When I started Mac programming in 1984 the developer manuals dedicated about the first 100 pages to design guidelines which listed conventions for the location, size, and colour (or pattern, because the Mac at that time had no colour) of all the UI elements. Today it seems that anything goes, because many apps have active elements which are indistinguishable from passive text and graphics, or that use colour to indicate important text which looks the same as active links, or that locate different elements inconsistently.

This often looks nice, and is simple and elegant, but it is confusing and makes some features inaccessible to the average person who is unprepared to experiment. So the visual design is good, but the ergonomic design isn't.

So that's my rant. I'm sick of bad design, but I might as well get used to it, because it doesn't seem that it is likely to get much better soon. Instead I'm expecting a lot more backward steps.

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