Thursday, June 24, 2010

Stymied by horrible interface design, not for the last time

I had an experience last night that was a textbook example of how not to design a user interface for a consumer product. (I've been told this post is too long: I think the anecdote is revealing, but skip to the last paragraph if you just want to read the moral.)

I was trying to connect a new DVD player to a high-definition flatscreen TV. The DVD player box said that it did automatic upconversion of DVDs (which normally, of course, are not high-def) to the highest-quality HD protocol, 1080p, so I was hopeful that the HDMI connection would provide excellent video quality.

I expected to be able to just connect the HDMI cable to both devices, set the TV to accept an input from the HDMI port, tweak a few setup parameters, and be off and running. Of course it didn't work that way. No picture. The DVD player had a series of LEDs on the front indicating what type of signal was being sent over the cable at that moment, and a button labeled "HDMI", duplicated on the remote, to select one. I tried pressing that button repeatedly. Still nothing. HDMI is a handshaking (i.e., two-way) protocol which should gracefully degrade if necessary down from 1080p down to 720i (DVD quality), with stops in between if the hardware is capable of it, and I expected at some point the DVD player and TV player would find a protocol on which they could agree; but apparently they didn't. I say "apparently" because neither device offered any kind of error indication other than a black screen!

I looked in the manual, and found that I was supposed to manually select HDMI output in a setup menu. In order to see the menu, I hooked up the player to the composite video/left-right audio jacks on the TV, and was able to get a (relatively low-quality) picture. I changed the output setting to HDMI, and changed the TV input back to match. Still no picture. I pressed the "HDMI" button on the front of the DVD player a few times, and watched the LEDs cycle through the available HDMI video options, but with no change (the TV displayed nothing but "HDMI Input," which apparently meant "I'm waiting for HDMI input" rather than "I detect it").

I went back to the composite connection on the TV and looked at the output setting in the DVD player setup menu again. "Composite" was selected—"HDMI" was still available, but was not selected as I had left it before. I made sure I was pressing the right button to save the settings when I left the setup menu, rather than exiting without actually making changes. I was. I tried the same routine a few more times, but the "HDMI" setting for DVD output just wouldn't take.

So here are a few tough questions:

  • Why couldn't the DVD player designers have included a single LED, maybe a red/green indicator of whether HDMI handshaking was successful or not?
  • Why an HDMI button on the machine (and the remote!) at all? The player ought to automatically output the highest quality signal that it can, at all times.
  • Similarly, why an output selection menu on the DVD player? Why can't all outputs on the player be active at all times?
  • Finally, why couldn't the TV, with much more real estate for messages, display something like "No compatible HDMI signal found" to assist with troubleshooting?
As it was, I made an educated guess, based on the limited evidence available, that the DVD player was faulty right out of the box and unable to actually generate an HDMI signal (not at all far-fetched given the general cheapness of consumer electronics these days): perhaps a poorly soldered connection to the output jack on the circuit board inside. But the frustrating hour spent arriving at that educated guess was worthy of user-interface guru Donald Norman, whose discussions of confusing electronics in cars, door handles shaped so that you don't know whether to push or pull them, and much more, are still 100% relevant twenty years after he began publishing them (and should be required reading for anyone involved in the design of end-user software or consumer products).

Why did I tell this long story on a blog primarily about software design for financial analysis? Bottom line: design affects productivity. The way things work affects what the user can get out of them, and that's always going to be true, whether you're producing an iPhone app, a spreadsheet, a rich web application, or whatever the Next Big Thing in tech is.

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