The design of everyday items

Not content with rambling and ranting on to no one about games, I’ve decided to widen my topic area for discussion. My biggest interest in games and their design has been UI for some time now but UI design theory doesn’t just apply to games. It applies to other software, it applies to your dish washer and it even applies to a door!

This is mainly inspired by my recent difficulty to actually dry my clothes using the washer/dryer in my new flat. I don’t have a copy of the manual so I decided to go by the dials and buttons, the user interface.

From first impression it is straight forward enough. I picked out my cycle based on my experiences with my previous washer, set a drying time and let it start. Once done I went to retrieve what turned out to be my soaking wet clothes. Further investigation (ie downloading the manual) helped me somewhat, although of course that it written so that only people already skilled with the appliance can use it. My parents up until recently owned a laundry and if you asked them to identify how to do your average wash on a brand new washing machine, they probably couldn’t. It differs so much between machines and they have consistently poor dials and instructions.

It amazes me that what should be a simple to use and straightforward appliance is in fact insanely complex. When I then had a look around my flat I came to realise just how bad it is. My TV remote has about 2 dozen buttons on it, some that I’ve never used and have no idea what they are for. The buzzer for my secure entry has a bunch of numbers and a lock, what are they for? Can I dial other flats in the block? What?! The actual phone in the flat has a random black button with no explanation. My heaters have two dials and neither are explicitly “Hot/Cold”. My shower has a button on it that does nothing as far as I can make out.

A lot of this seems to come from trying to add functionality to provide the user with a host of options or features to put on the box. For example with my washer I can probably customise a wash perfectly to the items I have but only if I can translate the damned thing and lets be frank, how many people really want to spend time perfecting their cycle? I certainly don’t.

Another example is a TV and its remote. Most modern TVs have an insane amount of options to provide you with that perfect viewing pleasure. However it is complicated. There are a vast array of options with little, if any description of what they are and how they should be used. Many a year ago, TVs were simpler but we still dealt with complex remotes for the sake of teletext. Despite being a redundant technology we still have controls for that, in addition to support for the various sources and other features such as “Picture in Picture”. In addition to that you have equally complex remotes for your DVD player, Sky TV and maybe even an audio system.

I’m sure many people found remotes overly complex 15 years ago, yet it appears that we still haven’t tried to develop anything better! At the very least those responsible for developing them could maybe look at the feature list and evaluate, after the initial setup how often will a certain button be required? If its rarely used, look at an alternative way of accessing it! Lets not overcomplicate things, or provide more opportunity for user error.

No doubt over the next few days my mind is going to be stuck on this, fixating on all the incredibly poor designs that are part of our lives yet we accept. A game must be designed to be intuitive and user friendly otherwise it risks poor scores and low sales, however in electrical appliances and other everyday items, UI design isn’t really regarded as a priority. Well I think it should be.

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