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Put the human back into engineering

The product user interface of today can madden the seniors of tomorrow.  I am looking at the console of a Volvo right now. Mulling over the SOURCE/Push Scan knob -- turn it to switch from FM to AM, PUSH it to SCAN the channels, PUSH again to stop scanning.  This is an eight-year-old car, and it took most of the first few years of perusing the owner’s manual to figure out how to use the radio (PTY, TP, NEWS buttons I’ve left untouched). But brand new cars have achieved a new level. Just starting up a newer car -- never mind the radio -- requires a long training session, watching the sales rep, taking notes. For one car expert I know, it was not clear how to get a brand new, automatic transmission BMW out of PARK -- without instruction. 

Why must we study the manual? Stoves, uh, cooktops, have modes, not dials. Radios with dials are retro; wall-mounted dial thermostats, just a memory. It’s almost a pleasure to see a deliberate choice of the alarm clock in Starwood’s Aloft hotel – set by turning a knob on a large bedside clock with…real numbers on it. Wanna bet they chose this because people complained about digital clock radios that turned on at 4 am? 

See the user interface decisions made by smartphone engineers. Just go to a phone store and watch customers having their phones ‘configured’ for use. Don’t get me wrong – I love my ever-so-smart phone for its information access, anywhere, anytime. Ask any question, there’s an answer. Many of them are location-based, making it a tracking device, both for me to find what I am looking for and as needed, for someone to find me. But enabling/disabling features and software is a time sink just to make Gmail sync -- the return on investment in the current phone turns into dependency and worse -- fear of change.

Feature creep damages self-confidence – and independence. Eventually cars wear out, the cell phone is dropped into a lake and needs to be replaced, you move to a new place with ‘smart’ appliances, your existing appliances are burnt to a crisp by lightening – and there you are. Standing in a store staring. Hacksawing at clamshell packaging; opening prescription bottles with a pair of pliers; replacing a printer cartridge and having to find the password-protected web page embedded in the printer that enables it to restart. We must experiment to switch from bake to broil, struggle with a new TV (Good luck!) that has multiple modes and inexplicable buttons, kind of like that PTY/NEWS/TP button in the car. These buttons, like in the Volvo, scream ‘Don’t Touch’ -- without the manual.

At some point in our lives, ‘independent’ won’t feel much like living. The next big opportunity in senior housing will be marketed as the easy-to-use home, where each of the daily battles with products, devices, and upgrades will be carefully considered to create a pleasant, analog and radial dial life. Maybe senior housing companies that figure this out will hire a simplification consultant, selling services to the nearby community, helping aging homeowners.This simplification consultant will help us keep our sanity within lives of impenetrable and inhumanely engineered design. The consultant will study our stuff and recommend a device or appliance or car with a simpler user interface, one that is intuitive and pared down to its essentials.  Maybe retro will be synonymous with easy-to-explain…without the manual.  Here's hoping.

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Laurie, you nailed one of my favorite complaints about modern life! I've never figured out my alarm clock completely, let alone my microwave or my car. Everything I buy has so many features I don't have time to learn. I use about 1/100th of my iPhone's capacity, because I haven't taken time to learn the rest.

If it's a problem for people in my age group with still-normal cognitive ability, what it's like for folks a half-generation older with some cognitive losses? A lot of our products are aimed at helping this group remain independent in their own homes, but they're simply too difficult and time-consuming to learn and use. We thought about that a lot when we designed Memo (a memory assistant) and did a lot of field testing. What we learned from the families who piloted it is that we had to simplify, simplify, simplify - not only for the end user, but for the busy family caregivers who enter information.

Thanks for writing about the product complexity problem in your inimitable voice!

Although a bit of a caricature, I remember humor from many years ago where "seniors" were shown to be dotty and out of touch with the new contraptions of the day. Example, the old farmer with the horse and wagon looking askance at the "horseless carriage" riding down the lane.

Granted some user interfaces are crap; no one can figure them out. But, I think there are many things that can be figured out by everyone by just working at it a bit. The problem is often NOT the technology, but the attitude of users. If you take the mindset that this is another "newfangled" whatever, you have an attitude that will not help you solve the situation.

I recall a neighbor of mine about 15 years ago who was a 90+ year old gentleman living alone. I would often meet him in the laundry room and we would chat a bit. One day he was studying a technical manual for a vintage 1980's "computer." When we talked about it he revealed he didn't have the computer, just the manual, but he thought it was important to learn something new every day. I think that attitude helped him to live a long life.

There's a new word in English: "retronym". It refers to a term that enters the language to refer to something that formerly had a name that now means something else. Examples of retronyms are analog watch, film camera, dumb phone, mechanical slot machine. Soon to be added to these are new retronym like gas car, printed book, and paper ballot. Retronyms are needed partly because when old appliances become digital, they become much more functionally complex and harder to use. As Alan Cooper lamented in his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum: "when you combine a coffeemaker with a computer, you get a computer". Unfortunately.

Brain researcher Robert Sapolsky has conducted research that indicates that as people get older, their willingness to learn new things and adopt new behaviors decreases. He and his colleagues have found this with food, music, and a variety of other phenomena. The implication is that someday, we will all get stuck at a certain level of technology. For those who grew up without email, the Internet, and mobile phones, adopting those technologies is difficult. For those who grew up with those things, they may be comfortable with those technologies (and pooh-pooh others who are not), but they will get stuck there, and fail to fully adopt newer things that come along, e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, etc.

Therefore, it is incorrect to assume that it is only a matter of time before all the old pre-technology folks die off and everyone is up to speed. Technology changes constantly, and people are constantly getting stuck at a certain time-period. Designers of technology need to be aware of this if they want to have the broadest possible market for their products and services.

For information and resources on how to design technology for a wide variety of users, including seniors, visit WiserUsability.com.