Pause, on, off, whatever: human interface design

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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:

A1 A2 A3 A4 A5
B1 B2 B3 B4 B5
C1 C2 C3 C4 C5

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.


  1. Elizabeth McCullough said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    Preach it, brother.

    When I was enrolled in a cognitive psych program in the mid-80s, the best minds of my generation were going to work for ITT and Bell Labs in "human factors." What ever happened to that field? I guess it went the way of ITT and Bell Labs…

  2. Harry said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 8:40 am

    I have a remote control for a PVR/DVD recorder that has 74 buttons on it. They had to have a flap so they could fit them all on. This despite the fact that the machine makes extensive use of on-screen menus.

    I would call it bad UI design if I thought that any design had actually happened.

  3. Georgia Bracey said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 8:43 am

    Amen!! Trial and error often seems to be the only way to go… not efficient, though, and sometimes dangerous/costly! ;-)

  4. claude lambert said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    What a delightful paper! I used to live in a very bad neighborhood and I thought that I should buy a cell phone to be able to call the police. The instruction on how to find the ON button came on page 31 of a 270 pages booklet.
    My main problem is not that I am not smart enough to deal with all this, it is that I got to pay for it: all kinds of useless programs on the washing machine, the coffee machine, the television….
    I also got green blinking spots everywhere in the house, leaving me with the unpleasant choice of taping them (and the house looks like a hospital for techno stuff) or painting over them with tar.

  5. David said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    Read The Design of Everyday Things (at least) by Donald Norman!

  6. Fran said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    Well in some instances you could make a start by not buying things that are obviously badly designed. ;-)

  7. Peter Howard said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:01 am

    I think it's in large part down to the fact that engineers (and I speak as one) think they can design user interfaces while actually being unable to do so. Thus they feel it's a waste of money to bring in a cognitive psychologist who will just tell them to change to colours of the buttons, or whatever. I once visited an industrial design laboratory where they showed me a fax machine they'd worked on. They hadn't changed the function of any of the buttons; they'd just relabelled and regrouped them. But the improvement in usability was remarkable.

  8. finlayson said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:03 am

    There's lots of good work going on in computer science departments in what's now mostly called Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), with many research projects, papers, courses, etc. The problem is that none of this is filtering through to industry.

    Cost is an important consideration, but time-to-market is probably even more important. The essence of HCI is research, testing, measurement, iterative change. When most electronics companies rate their divisions on who gets to market fastest and with the fewest revisions/retoolings/respins, there is an obvious problem.

    And people figure out how the projector works eventually, and probably now remember how to use it (even if you have to write the sequence of button-presses on a post-it note and stick it to the projector). So even if they subsequently get a beautifully designed product, it won't work how they expect (I've heard people say this a lot about Apple products, they spend time looking for complexity that isn't there). I think for this reason we're so mired in a world of bad design that we may never get out of it.

  9. Andrew Merryweather said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:11 am

    Rest assured, there's a small army of interaction designers taking on these problems one by one. There is some very good design out there. And some entertaining literature – start with The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, and explore.

    You're right of course about the sea of interaction design dross we wade through on a daily basis. A beautiful local example for any fellow-Londoners: the automatic doors in the glass-fronted entrance to Kings Cross station. I still experience that horrible moment of uncertainty as I stride towards the glass, 'is this bit of glass a sliding door, or just a bit of the wall?' Stand and watch for a while, and count how many people get it wrong.

  10. finlayson said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:12 am

    Remote controls can be explained by a "design" mentality that says "we have 77 parameters, therefore we need 77 buttons, one per parameter, each button turns something on or off, what could be simpler?" And if you don't set aside any time to design an interface, this is what happens.

  11. Vincent said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    In the Seventies I designed minicomputer systems for virgin computer users, when the VDU was little-known outside air-conditioned computer rooms. Gerry Weinberg and Tom Gilb had written a wonderfully witty and wise book called "Humanized Input", which pointed out to techies like me how not to baffle that peculiar species known as "the user" – that is the ordinary human being who wouldn't have known how to use even a typewriter.

    there are doubtless some interface virgins left in the Western world below the age of eighty-three, but the designers (for want of a better word) that you speak of are probably of a generation which could set the date and time on every appliance in the house before it knew how to read and write; and are blind to the entire issue of human-machine interfacing.

    I do wish that what you say about the need for training in a frightening array of subjects is not true. It seems to me that in this as so many other aspects of this hideously complicated twenty-first century, an unlearning is needed, to reduce ourselves to the level of understanding of someone who is merely literate.

    I'm like you with touch-screens. I've been a computer professional since 1965, and haven't lost my marbles, but in Tesco or the public library, I shun the touch screen and go to the human being. It's a patriotic duty, anyhow, in these days of job redundancies.

  12. Amy Reynaldo said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:22 am

    I miss my old TiVo remote, where everything was as it should be. No mystery buttons, pretty much everything working as you'd think it would, sensible layout.

    Now I have the Comcast DVR and its accompanying remote. If you'd like to fast-forward or rewind by 5-minute increments rather than by scanning through all the video at high speed, you can do that with the page-up and page-down buttons. (These buttons aren't labeled to tell you they'll jump 5 minutes. I found out when I pressed one by accident.) So why why why is the jump-forward-5-minutes button placed by the rewind button, while the jump-back button is near the fast-forward one?

    The Comcast remote also has a set of buttons labeled A, B, and C with different shapes. I have no idea what they do, and I'm afraid to push them to find out.

  13. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:31 am

    For twenty years now, Donald Norman has been writing (often very entertainingly) about the bad design of everyday objects and how they could be improved — starting with The Psychology of Everyday Things in 1988 (now in print as The Design of Everyday Things) and continuing through The Design of Future Things in 2007.

    (I see now that while I was writing this comment, several other people recommended Norman.)

  14. Cason Harris said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:37 am

    Just a quick comment about remote interfaces; I recently bought a Harmony Remote by Logitech to control my Television, Receiver, DVD player and Satellite. One remote for all and under 40 buttons. One remote controlling all components: Priceless; Replacing 4 remotes with one: Awesome. These guys have it down to a science or at least they are working on better control of our everyday products. Sorry for the product placement…

  15. Mattias Östergren said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    Hey, I'm in year two at the Cognitive Science Program at Linköping University, Sweden. right now I'm trying to choose between leaning my curriculum towards interaction design or language technology, and you are not making it any easier at all!

    I actually find both fields very interesting, but my despise of badly designed interfaces is drawing me in direction of IxD.

  16. Mai Kuha said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    I think there are two different situations illustrated here. Most of the examples above are clear examples of inexcusably bad design.

    But I see a different possibility in the original ON / OFF example: there are coexisting systems of meaning, and the user cannot easily tell which one the designers had in mind. That is, one of the options (ON / OFF) being highlighted can mean one of two things: "this is the current state" or "this is available for you to do". Both meanings seem reasonable to me.

    The second one seems reasonable because, for example, on a website organized by means of tabs with internal links on them, the current tab is greyed out (meaning "this is already in effect, so clicking here would have no effect") and the links tabs for pages currently not being viewed are active.

  17. Paul said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    On my office computer, of course, if I want to stop using it and turn it off, I have to click on "start". Not that Microsoft are the only ones to blame: I first worked on a combination of old-fashioned Macs (if you want your disk back you have to throw it in the bin) and Unix (not exactly known for its intuitive interface…).

  18. Dylan said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 10:00 am

    The thing is, that companies can make a lot of money just by being better than everyone else at this stuff. That's what Apple knows, but apparently no one else.

    And what are even more awful are instruction manuals. Don't even get me started.

  19. John Ellis said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    I work in software development. A colleague (not me, honest!) once produced an egregious interface, consisting of panel after panel of options and parameters, about 200 in all. When you finally clicked the OK button, this leviathon dialog would disappear, and the program would check that all the entries were in range and consistent. If any were wrong it would not tell you which, but instead pop up a box with 2 buttons on, one labeled 'Yes', the other 'Cancel'. A true master of the art!

    We are the real rulers of the world. We call ourselves 'The Confuserati'.

  20. Fencing Bear said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are now all of the things that work without our doing anything, particularly in public restrooms. I am tired of toilets flushing simply because I bend over while seated. I've also been musing of late on what it will be like when everything works automatically, like the faucets (taps), and we forget how to turn a knob. I've done this in older buildings and found myself waving my hands under the faucet wondering why it wouldn't turn on.

  21. Nik Berry said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    Not just the hardware – manuals that helped would be nice. I once had a printer the manual for which included a section on 'Boustrophedonic Printing'. Now, as a language lover that was fine with me. But how many printer users would have a clue what boustrophedonic means?

    (the word is underlined as I type by the spell checker, so it doesn't know.)

  22. Mark Liberman said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Sometimes things do get better: the situation described in this Guide for the Perplexed (and discussed in a LL post "When bad interaction happens to good people) has been improved enormously by the service organization who were its principal victims.

  23. Stephen Jones said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 11:08 am

    The basic problem is that people reinvent the wheel.

    It is a standard tenet of UI design that you do what the user expects, not something you think is better even if it is. If you are designing for the PC, particularly the windows PC, then there is a long tradition (and a top class book from Microsoft Press) telling you how to do it.

    With butons the matter is simple; depressed means on and not depressed means off. This was decided a long time ago, probably with hardware buttons, and it's what you follow.

    Now when you are dealing with consumer objects problems arise. The first problem is that there is no home operating system you can take for granted. Making a button that stays depressed on 'on' is not necessarily a question of just choosing one option from a window. No doubt the most sensible alternative to having one button that depresses is to have one button that says 'Turn off' when it's on (if it says 'off' when it's 'on' then there is going to be discussion over whether the 'off' refers to its present state or what you want to do to it) and 'Turn on' when it's off.

    I'm not sure how the Max Planck projector button works. If you're using a mouse then the Javascript norm would be that if the button is not the standard color when the mouse is nowhere near then it is depressed. So in your picture the white button would change on mouseover, showing that it was available for pressing, and the blue button wouldn't. When you pressed white off button it would change color (probably to blue) and the blue button would revert to white.

    Perhaps you could get a screen shot via your mobile phone camera showing what happens at each stage, and post the files on the web.

    Incidentally, I agree with other posters that we are spoiled with PCs and Macs. When I got my first mobile phone I found that I needed to see the training video to be able to show it. I went round to a friend house to use his video machine for him to give me a fifty page manual showing how the video machine works.

    I've just got a DVR so I can view the highlights of British audiovisual culture (aka fifteen year old repeats of 'Fools and Horses' and 'The Vicar of Dibley'). So far I have spent seven hours working out how it and the Satellite receiver work (the latter came without a manual) and four hours working out what programs to record and how to do it on a weekly basis, and precisely two hours watching on TV rerun.

  24. Ray Girvan said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    Hmph, yes. We just got a new digital TV with an indicator light that is:

    Off when the TV is off and power off.
    On (a vivid blue) when the TV is in standby (i.e. power on, TV off)
    Off when the the TV is on.

    It is logical. It tells you when you're wasting power on standby, and is pointless (and perhaps a visual distraction) when the TV is visibly on. But it goes against a far more ingrained convention that indicator light on = power on, whatever mode the device may be in.

  25. James Wimberley said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    The Interface Hall of Shame is a good cure for low blood pressure. I recommend the panel of 22 tabs in 5 rows from MultiEdit 8.0, the icon tabs in Lotus Notes, and IBM OS/2 Warp Server's tabs-on-tabs.

  26. Nicholas Waller said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

    Stephen Jones – "With butons the matter is simple; depressed means on and not depressed means off." – I have a Hotpoint washing machine which is OFF when the (hardware) button is depressed and ON when it is sticking out.

    On aircraft flight decks it has long been the practice to make various levers – throttles, flaps – different shapes to make them easier to deal with, especially by feel and in the dark. Undercarriage levers even have a little wheel at the end so the pilot can be sure of lowering the wheels as you can see from this pano picture of a B-707 cockpit (to right of middle panel). I don't know if things have got less obvious with the more computerised flight decks.

    I remember seeing a photo of a nuclear power station control room where someone had customised some of the very similar-looking levers that did very different things by taping various memorable objects to the ends, including a tennis ball and a tin can, if I remember right.

  27. bread & roses said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

    Well, Steven Jones, I'm glad to have an explanation that "depressed" means "operating", and that "greyed out" means "depressed" but in 34 years of interacting with the world, I had not picked that up intuitively, so I think it's still a failure. And with old hardware (mercury light switches, forklift control panels, typewriters) it is often true that "depressed" means "operating" but quite frequently not. Is a light switch "depressed" when it is up or down? When the button on the doorknob is depressed, does that mean that the door is operating, and you can open it, or that the lock is "operating" and it's locked? On a stereo, or forklift, often buttons light up when they are operating, so greying out a button that's operating can have an exactly opposite intuitive meaning. And on modern tech devices, I find it rare to encounter a button that stays depressed when pushed, which means the metaphor becomes diluted as people have less experience with typewriters and forklifts.

    I think the subject of inquiry could be broadened (if you like) quite a bit- I work in construction, and we have the same problem with building design. It seems to me to come from builders scorning architects, and architects scorning specialists. It is traditional for builders to value their own expertise and to distain the work of architects (who often bring this upon themselves by, say, specifying faucets that have no clear way to turn on and off). And the architects think that they are great designers, so they often don't enlist the help of a different designer who understands user interface and wayfinding. So we get the glass doors that you can't find in the glass wall, the elevator that gives you a choice between going to "M", "B", "P"or "L", doors that bang into one another, and a proliferation of 8 1/2x 11 sheets of paper with big arrows that say "conference room that way" or "NO! DO NOT work in the workroom! The workroom is for storage only!"

    In these cases, I'm sure that wishing to avoid hiring another person and spending more time is relevant. There is also past experience of hiring an architect, consultant, or expert who spent a great deal of time and money and made no apparent improvement. (Lighting designers come to mind as a particular specialty that can make a world of difference; or, can ask you to change every fixture to a non-standard, expensive variety in an awkward location with the result of making the space more hip to the lighting-design world and just incredibly expensive to maintain for the owners). But I see another force at work also; architects and designers who don't see their own failure. There is very little way for feedback on how a building actually works to make its way to the architect or designer. And I have certainly met enough architects who find the failure of the public to understand their buildings to reflect poorly on the public, not themselves. I suspect the same is true of tech devices.

  28. Pekka said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    The Daily WTF has a regular feature called Error'd. It's all about the error messages that computer systems and applications come up with. And it does not paint a pretty picture.

    You can read it here:

    Following James Wimberley, I should warn you that reading this site can increase your blood pressure too. But if you did, for some reason, enjoy the Interface Hall of Shame, don't expect to run out of these things any time soon!

  29. Damon Siefert said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    I just wanted to join in the complaint-fest; the worst part of the situation is that, as far as I can tell, as our devices have become more sophisticated and more ubiquitous, the problem has become worse, not better. Every time I replace some old device with a new one the interface is always worse.

    This despite the popularity of the Norman book mentioned above, and despite the fact that Apple has successfully developed a niche as a company that creates good products with well-designed interfaces. No other company seems to be capable of learning, either from widespread complaints or from examples.

    I'm starting to suspect that there's something about the capacity to write computer programs that is somehow inherently incompatible with the ability to competently design user interfaces.

  30. Bill Poser said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    "Unix (not exactly known for its intuitive interface…)."

    Hunh? In Unix to log out without shutting down the machine you type "logout" and to shut the machine down you type "shutdown -h now". What is unintuitive about that? If you're using a GUI, there are menu entries like "logout" and "shutdown".

  31. Richard said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    Before we unwisely start thinking too highly of Apple, let us remember that even they are not immune to this kind of idiocy: they pioneered (or adopted, if they didn't invent it) the idea of expecting the user who wants to eject a disk/drive to drag and drop its icon into the "trash can" in the same way used for deleting a file. I see more recent versions of their OS have modified that counterintuitive procedure, which was an action that seemed to me something I would do if and only if I never wanted to see any of the disk or drive's contents again (the equivalent of the DOS del *.*!).

  32. Ken Grabach said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

    Counterintuitive buttons and signs abound. On my stereo receiver, made by Rotel, there is what I call the 'Stereo' button. But it is labelled 'Mono'. When it is depressed (in On mode) it is in Mono, which I think of as Stereo Off mode. I use this button because my preferred station is distant enough that I often get less audible interference with it in Mono On mode (that is Stereo Off mode). If I want to play a CD, I must remember that to hear it in stereophonic sound, rather than monaural, I must turn Off (button up) the Mono mode, which I think of as Stereo On. And to complicate matters, when using the tuner, a light (green LED) reminds me of Stereo on, which is of course activated by Mono Off. With the CD chosen, the radio frequency is still displayed, but the Stereo light is off, even when the Mono is Off, I mean the if the Stereo is on. Oy! I tried explaining this to my wife last night when the radio signal got bad and we wanted to play a CD. I realized how much cognitive dissonance exists in this simple little button and (sometimes lack of) indicator light.

  33. Michael said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

    For Elizabeth –

    There may yet be hope – the field of human factors still exists:

    I'm not sure how many card-carrying members the HFES boasts, but there seem to be many local chapters.

  34. Ellen K. said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    We just bought a clock radio CD player with a button labeled "Power". It's taken some getting used to to realize that it's okay to press this button, that it won't turn off power to the clock. Would be better labeled "on/off" I think.

  35. Mark Liberman said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    As others have pointed out, there have been human-interface psychologists around for decades, and they're capable of giving good advice. As far as I can tell, the main problem is not that no one knows how to design reasonable interfaces, but that most companies don't bother to try.

  36. Per Jørgensen said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    Elizabeth McCullough asked whatever happened to the human factors field, and I'm happy to report it's very much alive. There's no shortage of practitioners or knowledge.

    As finlayson pointed out, the problem is to get manufacturers and software vendors to pay for that knowledge.

    It's really quite simple. Meet Bob, the software development manager. He's measured on two things: Time and cost. Executive management tells him the customer experience is very important. The company's Web site says so as well — our customers' experience is very important to us.

    Sure. Meanwhile, Bob's performance is still measured on time and cost. Is he going to hire a designer, thereby adding to the product development timeline and and budget? No, he's going to have the software engineers do the user interface as they go along, call it intuitive, and then later come up some BS list of enhancements and new features under the heading "usability" or "user experience." The list passes up the chain to upper management, who immediately add it to their own quarterly performance report. The product is declared intuitive, therefore a success, and launched. The word "intuitive" is included at least five times on the box.

    Bob gets to keep his job. Everyone is happy, except you, the sap who end up buying the thing. Maybe you'll never buy from that vendor again, or maybe you will (because the competition does things exactly the same way with the same results). That doesn't matter, because most processes in most companies operate quarter by quarter, not long-term success or, God forbid, customer satisfaction.

    There will be no improvement until consumers revolt.

  37. Nele Van den Ende said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    We're working on it! I'm a PhD student at Philips Research and I promise you that the field of User System Interaction / Human Factors / Computer Human Interaction is very much alive and kicking. Eduction in it as well… and for those interested, also read "The inmates are running the asylum" from Alan Cooper and the Coding Horror blog

  38. Joe Bleau said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    DVD players irk me. Why can't I just put a disk in and hit the play button? CD players work that way.

    I design embedded systems, and let me tell you, it can be very difficult to design a working user interface when you're limited to just a small number of buttons and very few display items.

    While we have no formal training in user interface design, we do consider the user all along the way. Our goal is to end up with a product that can be configured and operated with no user's manual.

  39. Tim said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

    Okay, here's what I find interesting about the projector buttons in the original post. You can figure out how to make it work, but I don't think you can ever determine which color means what (aside from finding the manual and hoping it tells you).

    You have two possibilities for the colors :

    A. blue = selectedB. white = selected

    You also have two possibilities for the meaning of the words :

    1. ON = projector is on/unpaused2. ON = pause is on, projector is off

    The combination A1 would result in a running projector, given the situation in the original post. But, so would B2. On the other hand, if the projector as presented is not running, we could go with either A2 or B1.

    There's no way to logically deduce the designer's intent. He/she would have to tell you what he/she meant.

    (Out of curiosity, what was the outcome? Was the projector on or off?)

  40. Tim said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

    Apparently, BR tags get stripped out of the comments, even though the preview shows their effects intact. Pretend there are two distinct lines of text in each of my blockquotes above.

  41. Nick Lamb said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    The reason the Hotpoint washing machine (I've got one here too) makes "pushed in" = "off" is that it was felt to be safer this way (washing machines can be quite dangerous, particularly since they're inevitably at floor level where children can reach them easily). Notice that in a laboratory or machine shop the prominent red emergency stop buttons are also "pushed in" = "machine off" If you flail wildly (perhaps blindly) you will very likely turn everything off, which is good.

    Good UI design is available, but it costs money. Most people won't pay money for something they can't see. So people who struggle to use a digital clock radio will go to a store, see one oven for $500 and another for $700 and buy the $500 oven, even though it has three unlabelled buttons, and an alpha wheel plus a four hundred page manual that explains nothing, badly. Whereas if they'd bought the $700 model it would be easy to use all of its features, they'd all work exactly how you thought they would, all the dials are properly labelled and thoughtfully positioned, it's great.

    And the lesson manufacturers take away is "No-one bought the $700 model – we won't make that mistake again". So they put the HCI work only into models that are high priced anyway, so you find that next time only the $1500 oven has the nice interface, all the cheaper ones are awful.

    In my country the government discovered that people would choose to buy say a $380 fridge rather than a $400 fridge, to save $20, even though the poor design of the $380 fridge meant it would cost them $50 per year more to run. So they forced electrical retail companies to label every product with a A-F sliding scale of efficiency, based on specific metrics (e.g. kWh to run the fridge half-full for a year) – sure enough within a few years manufacturers were putting a LOT more thought into efficiency, because now customers wouldn't buy the C or D models if they could afford the A model. In some cases efficiency improved so much they had to introduce an A+ score.

    So what you need is an A-F usability scale, and a public awareness campaign. "Do you struggle to use your television? Insist on A rated usability in your new appliances". It won't be as successful as the efficiency scheme, because that saved people real cash. But it should help encourage manufacturers to try harder.

  42. HeyTeach said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    The late great Douglas Adams penned a short, yet amazingly insightful bit dealing with just this sort of angst in "So Long and Thanks For All the Fish."

    'Ford flipped the switch which he saw was now marked "Mode Execute Ready," instead of the now old-fashioned "Access Standby," which had so long ago replaced the appallingly stone-aged "Off"'

    "Access Standby" is my fave.

    As I see it, the problem begins with manufacturers who believe in making gadgets that do multiple things. My current cell phone can take the place of a typewriter, internet browser, video game console, flashlight, intercom, MP3 player, TV, camera, hard drive, alarm clock, calculator, GPS locator and stopwatch, just to name a few.

    I say "believe in" because it seems to be a deeply-held philosophical viewpoint that the more something does, the "better" it is. On this altar, it seems we must lay logic, common sense, and intuition when it comes to layout and interface. There's no common language in use to identify similar functions (note the differences in "Power" labels vs. "ON\OFF," or what indicator lights actually mean, nor are there standards of design and layout for different versions of the same general item.

    Would it be a useful endeavor to compaign for common language, layout, design, etc., in our technology? Or are we just too diversified for that to be worth the trouble?

    But I'm not a fan of "Sameness." Read Lois Lowry's "The Giver" for a vision of a possible frightening future where everything IS the same. Yikes. I'd rather sacrifice logic and common sense in my technology than give up the freedom to choose which gadget to be frustrated by.

  43. Jonathan Lundell said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

    to shut the machine down you type "shutdown -h now". What is unintuitive about that?

    The unintuitive among us might wonder what the difference might be between "shutdown -h now" and simply saying "shutdown". Unix stands ready, as always, to jog our intuition.

    The following options are available:

    -h The system is halted at the specified time.

    -r The system is rebooted at the specified time.

    -k Kick everybody off. The -k option does not actually halt the system, but leaves the system
    multi-user with logins disabled (for all but super-user).

    -o If -h or -r is specified, shutdown will execute halt(8) or reboot(8) instead of sending signal
    to init(8).

    -n If the -o is specified, prevent the file system cache from being flushed by passing -n option
    to halt(8) or reboot(8). This option should probably not be used.

    -u The system is halted up until the point of removing system power, but waits before removing
    power for 5 minutes so that an external UPS (uninterruptible power supply) can forcibly remove
    power. This simulates a dirty shutdown to permit a later automatic power on. OS X uses this
    mode automatically with supported UPSs in emergency shutdowns.

    Don't let your intuition nudge to toward "shut down", though:

    ~ $ shut down
    -bash: shut: command not found

  44. Jonathan Lundell said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

    BTW, the comment previewer honors <pre>, but it gets stripped from the published comment. Unintuitively.

  45. JAK said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    As an software engineer with some experience in UI design, I have a point to make. Not all things are badly designed. However, when we see something that had an intuitive enough design (not necessarily a revolutionary design, but simple enough to have come from common sense) it is often patented. As long as companies keep thinking that simple design elements are IP and patent laws support them, we have no way of adapting successful designs to more products, which unfortunately sometimes results in products that are plainly awful.

    The flip side to relaxing the patent laws or too much reuse is, we might end up having a standard interface for everything we use. It might good from a usability point, but I would assume that it would be a pretty boring world to be in.

  46. mgh said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

    So — was the projector on or off??

  47. Noumenon said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    Just finally this year I had it explained to me that when a power switch is labeled '|' and 'O' that 'O' does not stand for "On" or "Off." I could never figure out which, but it turns out it's actually "one" and "zero" — like a computer circuit. I know how binary works, but I never made the connection to the little line on the switch.

  48. Bobbie said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    I turn off my "simple" cell phone by pressing END (fairly intuitive) but I turn it on again by pressing END again (not intuitive).
    I recently aided an older woman in a public lavatory who was unable to: start the water (by holding her hand under the faucet/tap), obtain the soap (by holding her hand under the dispenser), and dry her hands (by waving her hands under the blower.) I had just figured out how to obtain the soap a few seconds before she stood in front of her sink! There were no diagrams, no words of instruction. Somehow we were supposed to "know" what to do. And there was no way to adjust the temperature of the water which was extremely hot!

  49. Jürgen Lorenz said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

    That ceiling projector wouldn't be an Apple product, would it? All either/or controls on my iPod touch are: blue=enabled (on), no color=disabled (off). Took me just a couple of months to get used to it.

    I have been helping a friend to set up his new and first ever mobile (cell) phone. We entered a few phone numbers, added the required pre-payment and went through the manual together. He is 90 years old and rather sharp.
    A few days later his regular (land-line) phone went dead. He told me afterwards that he could not use his cell phone either: It had no dial tone!. Nowhere in the manual was it highlighted that you need to enter the number first, then push 'send'. I had not warned him either, it never occurred to me, duh.

  50. peter mcburney said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

    An economic & sociological reason for the prevalence of poor design is the following design principle which marketers know: The easier something is for the user or customer, the harder it is for the designer, engineer or salesperson.

    Commenter Nicholas Waller (January 27, 2009 @ 12:19 pm) mentions design of aircraft controls. An even more fundamental user design problem in any modern aircraft cockpit can be seen with the pieces of dark plastic, cellophane, or cardboard which pilots almost invariably tape to the inside of their windows, so that they are not blinded by the sun as they fly. I presume there are regulatory reasons why fixed sunshades are not installed in cockpits at the time that aircraft are manufactured, but one would think manufacturers would have by now invented some detachable, fast-reconfigurable sunscreens to avoid the Heath Robinson constructions pilots have to make themselves.

    While on the topic of user-unfriendly design, could we please humbly request the Acting Assistant Deputy Director (Operations and Facilities) (pro tem) at Language Log Plaza to enable comments to be automatically numbered (effected usually with just a parameter change in your blogging software), so that we poor commentors may refer more easily to each other's comments?

  51. peter said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    Jurgen Lorenz — The absence of dialtone in mobile networks has led some network operators to insist manufacturers to simulate it in their handsets, to overcome precisely the situation you describe. This, of course, can create its own problem, since the presence of simulated dialtone may not indicate the availability of network signal.

  52. Rick S said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

    JAK: The flip side to relaxing the patent laws or too much reuse is, we might end up having a standard interface for everything we use. It might good from a usability point, but I would assume that it would be a pretty boring world to be in.

    Surely we can find enough novelty in the arts, friendly conversation, and the random happenings of the day. I, too, have a giant appetite for new things, but not so much that I'd want to live in Wonderland.

    My own gripe: In the lavatory at work we have taps that hang down from a narrow ledge over a broad sink. The proximity detectors are on the front of the ledge, of course, but you have to stand back so far that your forearms aren't close enough to activate the taps. To get water, you have to lean over the ledge to bring your forearms closer—in which position you can't see your hands, and your nose is nearly touching the mirror.

  53. dr pepper said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    @Andrew Merryweather

    A beautiful local example for any fellow-Londoners: the automatic doors in the glass-fronted entrance to Kings Cross station. I still experience that horrible moment of uncertainty as I stride towards the glass, 'is this bit of glass a sliding door, or just a bit of the wall?' Stand and watch for a while, and count how many people get it wrong.

    That situation cries out for guerilla action. If i had to use a door like that a lot, i'd put a decal on it when no one was looking.

    I actually did once walk through a glass panel beside a doorway. It was not funny.

  54. Troy S. said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

    On a recent road trip, the gas pump, normally a user-friendly device, gave me a most perplexing error message after I swiped my card: "Insert into boot." Insert what into what boot? Surely they didn't intend me to open my trunk? I eventually gave up and moved my business elsewhere.

  55. David said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

    wow, this is almost as hot a subject as prescriptivism!

    when I was younger i often had problems with physical, real word switches – things like this:

    i could never remember if the label on the switch indicated what
    a) would happen
    b) was the current state

    even now, although I think it's the latter, I would probably have to flick the switch to be sure. Which is what people said above – most people do this sort of reflex by drawing on past understanding of systems. At some point people (children in particular) have to learn these things, so they should be made clear in order to reduce the amount of trial and error necessary.

    Oh, and here is a link to lots of similar badly thought out controls etc..

  56. Brian said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

    It's marketers that design trying to trick people into believing more buttons it must do more

  57. David said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

    oh, i forgot a few things (sorry! an edit feature would be useful):

    i meant 'real world', not 'real word'

    i never used to know how to use elevators. does the 'up' button mean 'i want to go up' or 'i want the elevator to arrive from above'. With a bit of reflection, you can work it out, but it was never intuitive for me as a kid.

    i'd also like to point out that the website i linked to is very anal at times, but that sort of makes it more amusing.

  58. Nathan Myers said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

    That workable gadgets exist means these things are understood by plenty of people. That unworkable gadgets are more common means that the people making them have chosen not to care. People who choose what to buy are not choosing better-designed equipment; most equipment is chosen by people who won't be using it.

    This is a classic example of a market failure. It won't be fixed by training up more design experts; most will find themselves unemployed, and probably speaking the wrong language even to apply. Nick Lamb pointed out the only solution that has worked pretty well: standards. (Underwriters Laboratory has kept an enormous number of really dangerous products from reaching the market.) Of course this approach is limited to cases common enough for somebody to write standards. Halls-of-shame can help too, if designers or at least purchasers know about them.

  59. The other Mark P said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 11:01 pm

    to shut the machine down you type "shutdown -h now". What is unintuitive about that?

    It's been a while since I had the misfortune to need to enter Unix codes, but what bugged me most was the habit of requiring completely superfluous punctuation.
    e.g. "shutdown –h now" won't work. I entered the wrong dash — not that this system displays it. Likewise the need to distinguish / from \. And I was forever starting commands in Caps, because I am used to starting sentences with Caps, only to fail to get any recognition.

    I can generally remember words with related meanings, but punctuation is not so memorable — it takes much more effort to recall that http: requires //, but my MS C files C: names use \. Mental.

    Why not "shutdown halt now" ? instead of "-h". Because that would be much easier to remember, wouldn't it. And allow any variety of caps.

  60. Michael Maxwell said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

    Nobody has mentioned my favorite peeve (at the moment): the new Microsoft Word and Excel "ribbons" (the rest of Office is doomed to follow). These ribbons have about a tenth of the commands that the old menus had; the commands are represented by incomprehensible icons; and you can neither remove the commands you don't ever use, nor add the commands you do want. (Well, the latter is not quite true; you can add them to a separate mini-ribbon, but there's no way to organize them by use, or add a label.)

    Supposedly the ribbon was proved better by user testing, but I would love to meet the person who did that testing (preferably in a dark alley). I think the real reason is that the ribbon is New and Improved, sort of like tail fins on cars.

    Oh, and then there are the awful controls on my Prius, and…and…and…

  61. Bryan D said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

    Software programmers often think of problems in certain ways. That is in large part leads to the UI that is unintuitive for the rest of us.

    To remedy that problem, the software company I work for hires people specifically to design the UI with the software developers which helps minimize these problems.

    Maybe more companies could benefit from that sort of employee?

  62. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 12:26 am

    I can still remember being in a car driven by my mother, on my way to ride in an airplane for the very first time. As our car approached the terminal building, I noticed two signs for "arrivals" and "departures", and innocently remarked "Oh, 'arrivals', there's us." After all, we were arriving at the airport.

  63. Rubrick said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 12:58 am

    There are certainly some very good UI designers around (I work for Apple, which has plenty of them). Some, however, seem to take an "Elements of Style"-like approach to the subject, applying rules like "the fewer buttons the better", rather than using actual trained judgment. This can yield interfaces that are beautifully streamlined and don't let you accomplish anything.

  64. Nathan Myers said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:49 am

    other Mark P: Actually "halt" has always worked pretty well for me. It's been years since I typed "shutdown" into a shell. I wonder who still does that, really.

  65. Geoff Pullum said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 3:37 am

    64 comments so far! I know this is Language Log, not Human Interface Psychology Log; but people do seem to care. And I'm very happy to write a post that makes the first commenter begin "Preach it, brother!". Thanks for the recommendation to visit the Interface Hall of Shame; it makes me feel less alone, makes me feel there are plenty of people noticing what is so dreadful about the interfaces to so many things (Windows programs as always provide the truly stupidest examples, but all human life is there). Thanks to everyone for pitching in. A trouble shared is a trouble halved. —GKP

  66. Kellen said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 5:08 am

    last year i was employed by a chinese university where, for my lessons, i planned to make extensive use of their AV system. it was as bad as the above mentioned but written in chinese characters i couldn't read. i'd asked a couple times to have a student come help me work it, and received looks as baffled as my own. "just tell me which button says to change the input" was answered with "there's not one that's really marked as such". finally i gave up and started pushing buttons until i either figured it out for the AV dept head came to rescue me. this is after i've had years of experience working with complex AV setups. clearly not complex enough.

  67. izb said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 7:43 am

    Speaking as an engineer, I blame engineers. We have far too much say in this sort of thing and unfortunately engineers don't think the way that regular people do.

    Just last week I was involved in a small debate about how to present error messages to the user on a mobile phone. Most of the engineers wanted to display all the possible information available which included some rather technical details about what went wrong. I wanted it to say "There is a problem with the server. Please try again later."

    From the engineers point of view, they saw this as being wasted time building all that server error reporting stuff. They couldn't see that they were just going to end up bewildering people, after all what use is technical information to an end user?

  68. Per Jørgensen said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    User-interface design is my field, so I'm going to take the liberty of double dipping.

    There are a few common reasons why user interfaces are clunky:

    Design by committee. For some reason, the design field invites backseat driving like no other field.
    Design by engineers. This is not a slam on engineers. Few designers do engineering well just as few engineers do design well. It's a matter of mindset, experience, and training.
    Design by omission. There is no design process. You place and arrange things as they happen to fit.
    Design by decoration. "Now we just need a designer to make this look pretty." Lipstick on a pig etc.: There's a distinction between design and decoration. Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to sell pretty, cool, and sexy than easy to use, so that's what you do, especially if thorough design take two months and $200,000 while a little Photoshop work takes two days and $2,000.

    These are all known issues. It's not as if they couldn't be easily negotiated if there were incentive and will. So why aren't they? Nick Lamb makes a very good point: If you're selling to consumers who shop for price, your incentive is not to spend money on the design process. You're making a rational choice.

    The product hits the shelves. It's clunky to use, but the buyer doesn't know that until she's brought it home, broken the shrink wrap, and used it.

    Is she going to take it back for a refund and look for one with a better interface? No. She knows she will likely have to pay more for a better product, and if she were willing to do that she would have done so in the first place. She also knows from experience that most or all products in the same price range are likely to be just as clunky, so it's not worth the trouble. She's making a rational choice.

    (A useful analogy is airline travel. You've at some point said, "I'm never flying airline X again!" Yet, most people do come back for more. With very few exceptions, the airlines offer more or less identical service. If you could expect a significantly better service from airline Y at a, say, $25-$50 price difference, it would make sense to choose Y. Experience tells you that's not the case — you're just as likely to get crap from Y, so the rational choice is to go with the lowest price whether it's X, Y, or Z.)

    It follows that launching products with clunky interfaces does not carry a penalty in most cases. Only if your niche is good interface design (e.g. Apple) or you're in a quality conscious market that demands good design does it make sense to spend the money on good design.

  69. Jonathan Lundell said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    Per Jørgensen nails the problem, seems to me. There are exceptions, though. Apple's good design, UI included, no doubt contributes to their ability to keep their margins up. Sony likewise, though good design isn't quite so pervasive there as at Apple.

    Here's a very focused rant site: The language isn't entirely SFW, so you might not want to read it aloud.

  70. Gary said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    Hey, things could be worse!

    (screen shot from a Pixar short)

  71. Stephen Jones said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    Windows programs as always provide the truly stupidest examples, but all human life is there

    A pretty pointless statement, as it makes no mention as to who wrote the Windows program. There are awful UI designs for Windows, but they are almost overwhelmingly from third party vendors who chose to wilfully ignore the excellent Windows design guidelines. But of course Pullum never lets facts or evidence interfere with his pet peeves.

    As I stated before, in general the UI for PCs is much better than that for consumer items, mainly because there are standards users know about, and which are generally followed. It is true the UI design is probably better for programs for the Mac, but that is simply because there are so few programs written for the Mac compared to for Windows (there are plenty of programs written for both which have the same UI design, so in practice the number of programs written solely for the Mac is vanishingly small in most fields).

  72. Stephen Jones said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    "There is a problem with the server. Please try again later."

    The correct message is "Problem with server. Try again later.
    Joel Spolsky wrote an interesting article on how the managers at Juno, most of them Ivy League Arts Graduates, insisted on making error messages twice as long as optimal because they had to be in 'proper English'.

    Incidentally, Joel's book on UI interface is still available online. The first chapter starts here .

  73. Stephen Jones said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    Nobody has mentioned my favorite peeve (at the moment): the new Microsoft Word and Excel "ribbons" (the rest of Office is doomed to follow).

    The ribbons are a vast improvement over the old interface. The problem, however, is that millions of us are experts in the old interface and have zero interest in learning a new one, the advantage of which is that it makes it easier for the novice to find things (something we have spent years learning with the old interface and have no desire to learn again).

  74. Anonymous Programmer said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    Alternatively, we engineers could just keep designing things as dangerously as possible in the hopes of accelerating evolution and ending up with a race that thinks the same way as we do. Strikes me as an easier way out.

  75. misterfricative said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

    engineers could just keep designing things as dangerously as possible

    Aha! Perhaps that explains why car horn buttons keep getting smaller and harder to find. In an emergency, I need a big, central, obvious, can't-miss button that I can hit first time without looking or thinking, not some specially designated area in an awkward, obscure, movable location that it takes a treasure map and an expedition to find.

  76. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 6:41 am

    Perhaps surprisingly for LL, no one has mentioned explicitly that GUIs have evolved a grammar. This is what Stephen Jones was referring to when he wrote With buttons the matter is simple; depressed means on and not depressed means off. Perhaps many of the UI horrors contributors have described stem from violations of that grammar.

    I can't resist relating my experience today while filling in a UK online tax form (deadline: 31 Jan). I answered the question "Date your books or accounts are made up to" with the date "05/04/08" [that's April, natch] — only to be confronted with this error message:

    The date entered for 'Date your books or accounts are made up to' must be on or after 01-01-1851. Please amend.

    Well, yes, I suppose the year 8 AD is rather a long time ago … I wonder (but didn't quite dare try it out) what would happen if I had entered "05/04/1852".

  77. Stephen Jones said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    Perhaps that explains why car horn buttons keep getting smaller and harder to find.

    Clearly either British, American or Scandinavian, and thus a prime candidate for Darwinian evolution to cull.

    The rest of the world places its finger on the horn button as soon as they get in the car, and only takes it off to adjust the rear mirror when in motion so they can comb their hair or moustache whilst holding the mobile phone to the ear with the other hand.

  78. designoutloud said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    Look at all the stories of bad design!!! As an interaction designer, I couldn’t agree more and, coincidentally, on the same day, posted a blast about the immorality of persistent bad design.

    Another good read in this area is the first half of Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton. The second half is good, too, but more oriented towards the doing of design. You can also visit to read more about our encounters with products and services.

    @Harry – Design happens. Always. The question is whether it’s purposeful and good or otherwise.

    @Mark Liberman – I agree. The real problems are that companies treat their engineering as the sole important deliverable – thinking that if the product “works” it can be sold – and more features are better.

    @JAK – Patent protection might, in a few cases, be the problem. Surely it does not account for the vast proliferation of bad design. Besides, like songwriting, it’s relatively easy to get very close to copying without legally doing so.

    @Per Jørgensen – Thanks for writing other things I would as well.

  79. Ken Grabach said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    A quick Google search, with result in Wikipedia.en, on the concept of User Interfaces, reveals one potential problem. The article discusses only certain categories of User Interfaces, omitting a number of others. Primarily the discussion devotes attention to user interfaces in computers. Not to consumer electronics apart from computers. Not to consumer mechanical devices, or consumer electrical devices (that is, using electricity to power a motor). If the field of study is dealing with computers, good. I wish them well, but they obviously haven't agreed on anything in that realm. I found an extensive gallery of GUIs for various computer platforms, which says much for this endeavor so far (Macintosh and older Apple is as well represented as Windows and Linux). But if the article is an accurate snapshot of the discipline, then many user interfaces outside the computer realm are being ignored. If that is so, well, civilization is going to go down the tubes while we try to figure out how to turn on things that we want to turn on, and to turn off the things that we want to turn off. Or what it is we are trying to turn on or off.

  80. Ann said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

    Stephen Jones thinks that writing error messages in "proper" English is a bad idea because it makes the messages longer, but usability studies at my software company suggest that comprehension and "tone" are more important than length. Most people don't like receiving messages that sound robotic, and ungrammatical English can be very difficult to translate (foreign versions of our products are crucial to our success).

    Of course, we're working with software for the PC, not for handheld devices. Length isn't as important a factor for us.

  81. Nathan Myers said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

    Engineers build what they are paid to build. Managers pay for what the market demands. Right now the market demands bad user interfaces.

    The state of user interface design indicates a market failure. The market not only fails to reward good design, it punishes good design. Fix the market, and you will get excellent designs. The notion of fixing broken markets has been frowned upon for decades, for political/ideological reasons, but it might get some currency now that some other big market failures are prominent.

  82. Fabien said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

    I bought a cheap (<40 EUR) microwave oven. The front panel is great: there's a knob to choose the power (from "defrost" to "Max (900W)"), and a mechanical timer. The oven does exactly what I want (heat food for N minutes), and I can know all the parameters (power + time left) just by looking.

    I feel that's the key to this world: buy the cheapest appliance possible. The interface stays simple (for the lack of features), it does what it was meant to do and nothing else (a bit like the command-line tools on Unix), and since it's cheap, you're not afraid of breaking it.

  83. BlackWasp said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    I am one of those who likes to burn gas and keep the vegetables in cold water.

    The one that drives me nuts is the clock radio I have had for over five years. It has a standard digital clock, so when I hit the switch to set the alarm, something like the following starts to flash


    Now I can press the two buttons to change the time. Unfortunately, the designers decided, for a reason I still can't decipher, that the button above the hour would increase the minutes by one and the button above the minutes would increase the hours by one. The other cool design feature is that when you hold a button down, the numbers increase at a rate of one per second.

    Every other time I change the alarm time, I have to wait at lest 24 seconds while I reset the hour because I fancied an extra ten minutes in bed.

    Just to cap it all, when setting the time, the buttons work the other way around!

  84. Dey said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 4:49 am

    Well, your first example with "On", "Off" and "Pause" seems obvious enough to comprehend at a first glance because one button out of three (or is it two?) is standing out odd, hence it must be active.

  85. Peter said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    >Not just the hardware – manuals that helped would be nice. I once >had a printer the manual for which included a section on >'Boustrophedonic Printing'. Now, as a language lover that was fine with >me. But how many printer users would have a clue what >boustrophedonic means?

    It means it prints like an ox.



    There are two ways for farmers to plow (assuming that they want a furrow with dirt turned over on both sides). the first is to use a weak animal and a plow that flips over one side, and be resigned to doing each furrow twice. Or the farmer can use a strong animal (like an ox) which can pull a bigger plow that does both sides at once.

    This means that a farmer with donkey goes out and then back on the same furrow. The farmer with an ox goes out and then back on a new furrow.

    The printer is the same way. Printers with no print buffer print out a line and move the print head back (essentially going over the same line again). Printers with a small print buffer can print one line and then, with the next line already in memory, print the next line while moving backwards.

    (Assuming you have a printer with one print head)

  86. Paul Prescod said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    My DVR has buttons called "Menu", "CONTENT MENU", "QUICK MENU", "DVD > TOP MENU", "DVD > MENU" and "EDIT MENU". For some reason, the first button really does use mixed case where the rest use all-upper. The first three menus have many overlapping features — perhaps 80%. The other 20% you find by poking around each of the menus (through multiple levels of course). Oh yeah, and the button called "EASY NAV" seems totally useless (not easy and a poor way to navigate) except for the ONE FUNCTION that you can only find there.

    This is actually the least of its interface nightmares but its one that can be summarized in a few words.

    Actually I need to vent on one more "feature". When you are watching a DVD or recorded show and it wishes to record live television on another channel, it STOPS YOUR MOVIE to ask you if you REALLY want it to record the other show that you explicitly instructed it to tape. Of course, if you were not around it would just tape it, because that's what a PVR is for: automatically taping shows. But if you ARE watching, then it interrupts you — always at the climax of some action sequence or just as you are stepping into the shower after setting your kids up to watch a show.

    Also, you can't delete shows while taping shows. I can't imagine what kind of file system layout makes that problematic…or further what kind of incompetent software engineers could not figure out how to queue up the deletion action until the file system is in full read-write mode.


  87. Peter McAndrew said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

    I know I'm a bit late to the party, but another couple of good reads regarding design of consumer goods, in this case remote controls, written by a usability expert are:

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