Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Designing, documenting, buying, using: the mind-boggling hob

I have complained before about how difficult some taps are to use. These should be simple interactive objects whose design requirements are well understood by now, and yet designers keep generating new designs that work less well than previous models. Why is there so much emphasis in unnecessary innovation, as if innovation is inherently a good thing?

Ursula Martin has just introduced me to the unusable hob:
"This bizarre thing requires you to select a ring with the rotating arrow before applying plus/minus.  Now here's a thing. Suppose you have switched on ring 1 (bottom right), and no others, set it to 4 (a red 4 appears due South of the Ring 1) and a few minutes later you decide you want to turn it down to 3. How do you do that? Press the minus sign, as that is the only ring that is on? Oh no, nothing happens if you do that. it appears that you HAVE TO CYCLE THROUGH ALL THE OTHER RINGS AND BACK TO 1, then red 4 will start to flash, and then the minus/plus signs will change it. Just imagine the hoopla of doing that when you have four rings going at once."

The instruction manual is full of information like:
"Each cooking zone is equipped with an auto-
matic warm-up function. When this is activa-
ted, then the given cooking zone is switched
on at full power for a time dpending on the heat
setting selected, and is then switched back to
the heat setting set.

Activate the automatic warm-up function by
setting the required heating power by touching
the (+) sensor (5) first. Then the heating level
„9” is displayed intermittently on the cooking
zone indicator (3) with the letter “A” for around
10 seconds."

And so on, for many pages (spelling mistakes an added bonus). This is a manual that opens with the (only slightly patronising):
The plate is exceptionally easy to use and extremely efficient. After reading the instruction manual, operating the cooker will be easy."

Ursula notes that: "The designer seems to have a mythical cook in mind who doesn’t want to change the temperature very often". Alternatively, maybe it's from the Dilbert school of design. All one can be sure about is that the design team apparently never use a hob, and that the technical authors who have written the 28-page manual on how to operate this hob were happy to write out inscrutable instructions without ever seriously considering their comprehensibility. And had apparently also never used a hob.

Finally, Ursula reported that "the flat owner is very embarrassed about it - he has just had the kitchen redone and I am the first tenant since, and he hadn’t used the thing himself". If you've ever bought a new appliance and tried to assess its usability before purchase you will probably sympathise with the landlord. It's usually impossible to test these things out before buying; to even read the manual; or to get any reliable information from the sales team about usability. In fact, ease of use, usability and fitness for purpose don't feature prominently in our discourse.

We really do need a cultural shift such that fitness for purpose trumps innovation. Don't we?

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