In the lecture room where I will be giving a talk later today at the Max-Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, the audiovisual equipment is controlled by a small touch-screen unit. Right now, the part of the display that controls the ceiling-mounted projector looks like this:
That is almost exactly what it looks like. Now, you tell me: would that mean that the projector is on, or that it is off? Is the blue button the operative one, showing the name of the current state? Or is it the white button beside it that we should pay attention to? (I should make it clear that the PAUSE across below them is not a button: only the ON and the OFF buttons change color when touched.) And then once we have decided whether we should see this as saying "ON" or as saying "OFF", do you think it means that the pausing function is on, which would mean that the projector is off? Or that the pausing function is off, which would mean that the projector is on?
Don't worry about me. I'll figure it out by trial and error. I simply offer this to you as proof number 37 (I have made mention of many such examples in the past: road sign psycholinguistics and so on) of my claim that human/machine interface design today is in a state of total freaking disaster.
Devices are being designed, constructed, and marketed with interfaces so badly botched one can only guess what to do with them. It's a neglected crisis for the economy. Human safety is at risk. Millions of people every day turn on the wrong burner because of badly designed cooktops. Some merely leave the vegetables sitting in cold water for a quarter of an hour beside a glowing burner, but some melt spatulas into pools of plastic, and some set light to dishcloths and die in the resultant apartment fires. Yet nothing is being done. Things are getting worse. (Am I going red in the face and developing weird staring eyes? I don't want to seem like those stringy-haired old guys you see in the street wearing sandwich boards that say the world is about to end; I feel I would lose credibility. Trust me. I'm not a loony. Really I'm not.)
In my own apartment in Edinburgh, neither of my parents (they were visiting at Christmas) could figure out how to get water to come out of the faucet in the bathroom. Why are people redesigning washbasin taps in such a way that people cannot figure out how to make the water flow? Did any of us ask for common water faucets to be redesigned?
And we didn't even give them a clock radio. We have a cheap clock radio with a front panel so badly designed that it would take me hours to explain it to you. The 15 buttons, each with several tiny words written under them (they all have multiple functions) are arranged like this:
And do you know how you switch from station number 1 to station number 2 using this array? I will tell you. It is B1, A4, A3. That's highly intuitive, isn't it? And never mind setting the time and date; I'm just not going to go through it. You couldn't bear it. We're going to have to throw it away and shell out for a Bose. (Bose are a counterexample to any claim about superb design being too difficult to achieve or too much to ask. With Bose clock radios, learning is fast and effortless; you can control them without trouble even in pitch darkness.)
I appeal to young, talented people everywhere: get trained in a few relevant subjects — psycholinguistics, visual perception, writing systems, reading, electronics, industrial design, microsociology of human interaction, ergonomics — and go to work in the design of human-machine interface systems. Get out there and make stuff that can be understood by the sort of mammals we happen to be. Please. We users are desperate. We read the manuals, we look at the display panels, and we simply cannot understand what the hell we are supposed to do to make the thing go.