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.