I was just shopping, and used a Home Depot electronic cashier. The people who shepherd the customers through the registers obviously got sick of the inevitable by-products of the bad design of the register software.

Pin Pad Scribble

I burst out laughing when I saw this, and I had to take a picture with my phone. It is an expression of frustration. However, the end result is that the cashier looks less professional. It’s not a good idea to look unprofessional when you are dealing with someone’s money.

Can you see what happened? These electronic cashiers are arranged in a group of four, with a (usually bored teenage) cashier (“associate”) attending them. The instructions on the screen refer you to the “PIN Pad,” but most people know these as either “card readers,” or as “keypads.” The attendant obviously got sick of people asking “Where’s the PIN Pad?”, and wrote this up.

In this case, the bad design was in the terminology. The electronic cashier I wrote about earlier had the same problem.

Suggested Solution:

Rename the prompts to say “Card Reader” or even “Keypad” instead of “PIN Pad.”

Move the Card Reader to a more obvious area, as this is a “required face plant” that isn’t working properly.

Label the Card Reader more neatly and professionally.

User Experiences

Off the Hook

I wanted to have phones throughout the house that could be used as an intercom, as well as a way to deploy phones into places where there was no wiring for phones. I checked around, and found that the 2.4 GHz system from GE seemed to have all the right buzzwords.

Normal Phones

The phones do everything they are supposed to do. I don’t especially regret getting them, but that is only because they were substantially cheaper than the other phone systems with the same features. Price was one of my principal factors. If I had paid more, I would have expected better design.

Their look is OK. The handsets fit into cradles for recharging. Many phones with recharging cradles make it easy to insert the phone so that the charging contacts don’t quite meet, yet the phone appears to be seated correctly. These phones don’t have that problem. You just plonk the handset down into its cradle, and the charging light comes up. I think that the keypad is too complex and badly designed, but that is par for the course for all of these types of phones nowadays.

The audio is clear and static-free. The range is fine for everywhere inside (and outside) my teensy little house. The intercom works fairly well, and I have the full complement of handsets (4). Each handset has a unique name that appears when using the intercom.

I have three complaints:

  1. When using the intercom feature, a loud, obnoxious beeping comes from the speaker on the other side of the earpiece. This beep is probably of a level high enough to cause hearing damage if listened to continuously.
  2. When an intercom is over, only one person should hang up. If both hang up, the second one to hang up actually takes their handset off the hook.
  3. The “Talk” button acts as both a “Talk” button and an “End” button.

These are all incredibly bad design mistakes, and result in severe face plants. I had no idea that the phones would have these failings, and they probably would have affected my purchase decision.

First, let’s address the beeping:

In order for an intercom to be effective, you need to have some way of getting attention. Usually, this is done via a ringer. Intercom-only devices tend to use the speaker, but people don’t usually hold those to their ears. These phones use the headset speaker (as I said, directly on the other side of the earpiece) to send out a loud beeping at maximum volume.

To add insult to injury, both headsets beep while paging. This has an interesting effect. You (the person initiating the page) can’t easily figure out when the person you are paging answers the phone, unless you hold your (loudly beeping) headset to your ear. When the other person picks up the page, the beeping stops. However, if you are not holding the headset to your ear (I recommend against holding the beeping headset against your ear for medical reasons.), then you won’t hear exactly when the other person picks up. You need to wait a half second or so for the beeping to stop, and then spend a second or so bringing the headset to your ear. This results in an awkward pause at the beginning of each intercom session.

Next, the annoying problem of hangups (and pickups):

We’ll start with Gripe #3: the fact that the “Talk” button is both pickup and hangup. This will segue into Gripe #2, and help to frame the issue more clearly.

Almost every phone on Earth has a separate button for “Talk” and “Hang Up.” There’s a reason for that: People think of them as two different operations, not as two different faces of the same operation. When I first got the phone, I suffered a MAJOR face plant as I tested the phone. I clicked on “Talk,” and got the expected dial tone. I then clicked on the button that, in every other phone I have, including cell phones, is the “Hang Up” button (usually called “End,” and clicking this button when the line is on the hook results in the phone hanging up. If it is pressed when the phone is already hung up, it either does nothing, or restores the phone to some default state). In the case of this phone, I was quite surprised to suddenly hear the dial tone blaring out of the speaker on the back of the phone. I looked at the keypad, and saw that the right-hand button was labeled “SPKR.” Silly me, I accidentally activated the speaker instead of hanging up. I guess you need to click on the “Talk” button to hang up.

Okay, so I click on “Talk.” The speaker shuts up. However, I still can hear a dial tone. What’s happening? The phone is now in normal “Talk” mode. Clicking on “Talk” simply kept the phone off the hook, and switched the audio to normal headset mode. Oh, darn! I’d better hit “SPKR” to hang up! I click on that button, and I am, once again, graced with an extra-loud dial tone, coming from the speaker. I hit “SPKR” again, and the phone finally hangs up. Through trial and error, I learned that you need to press the button that corresponds to the mode in which the phone is currently operating to hang up. It makes sense, technically, but is completely unintuitive. This is a “poster child” for the concept of a “face plant.”

This was a conscious decision. I guess that they decided that the speakerphone capability was one of the “core features” of the handset, and gave up one of the “prime real estate” buttons for it. I don’t think it was a particularly correct decision. A lot of bad came about as a result of this one decision.

Now, to Gripe #2. When you intercom someone, they pick up their handset, and press their “Talk” button. Their handset stops beeping. They then put the handset to their ear, and hear…nothing. This is because of that awkward pause I mentioned. After you realize they have picked up, you talk with them, and then, it comes time to hang up.

There lies the rub.

Whomever hangs up first actually hangs up their handset, and ends the intercom session. Remember how they do that? That’s right. They press the “Talk” button.

Say the person on the other end hangs up first. You then hang up, because that’s only natural. Remember how you do that? That’s right. You press the “Talk” button.

Remember Gripe #3? That’s where I complain that the “Talk” button is used to do both picking up and hanging up.

Now, you are hanging up. Except that the person on the other end already hung up, so your phone is hung up. You press the “Talk” button. Guess what? You just took the phone off the hook. If, as I do, you keep the handset in a pocket, or on the table near you, instead of returning it to the charging cradle, you will put the phone down, with the line off the hook. You’ll figure it out as soon as the “off the hook” alarm goes of in a minute or so.

This has resulted in an impromptu protocol. When we intercom, we end the conversation by agreeing who hangs up.

Now, that is lame.

Face Plant:

The one single design decision to make the “Talk” button act as both a “pick up” and “hang up” button, caused the worst face plant I’ve experienced in a long time. That whole “trying to hang up the %$#@!!! phone” ordeal. This also has forced our family to develop an annoying “protocol” to what is supposed to be a simple conversation.

The fact that the initiating handset beeps during an intercom call causes a real bit of awkwardness in a simple intercom.

Suggested Solutions:

Have the “SPKR” button moved to a less prominent place, and replace that button with an “End” button.

True, if you wanted to promote the speakerphone as a “core feature,” this would scrag that, but I think it would be well worth it.

Have the recipient of an intercom call beep loudly, and have the initiator beep softly, or flash the display backlight.

This would make the phone’s intercom feature (one of the principal reasons I purchased the system) far more usable.


The Spigot

The Label
The Spigot in Profile
Pulling Down the Spigot

Sometimes, you can look at something, and see a story. That is certainly the case with this spigot on a bathtub tap.

This is the story of a design mistake. That label says “We came up with this neato-wow design, and nobody ever figured out how to use it. Our customer support lines melted down, our resellers blacklisted us, we fired the designer, and stuck these labels onto our product as a mickey-mouse band-aid to the situation.”

As you can see, it is an interesting design. There is a “lip” on the business end of the spigot (you can see it in the second photo.) This has a shape that affords pulling. The user is supposed to pull this down to enable the shower head. It is clever. It probably has very few moving parts, and costs very little to manufacture. Pulling down on the spigot probably moves a baffle into place that blocks water flow through the tap, and forces the water to go up to the shower head.

Too bad they probably blew all their profit on damage control. Customer service is a very real, and often overlooked cost. Good designs require less customer support. Companies need to quantify the cost of support, and then factor that into their design priorities. In this case, they probably saved fifty cents per spigot, and spent a dollar per call. Not everyone who brought one of these would call, but most customers would chalk up the manufacturer as less-than-desireable, and would probably not get any products from that company again. They may also complain to the plumber that installed the system. The plumber might be a bulk customer of the taps, and the company may lose a thousand units as a result.

This is a common problem when designers live in their own world. In the world of bathroom plumbing fixture designers, this was probably an elegant and intuitive solution. I’ll bet that one of the biggest issues with bathroom fixtures is all the various knobs and gizmos. There is always a concerted effort to design “one turn” taps and fixtures. These have varying degrees of success. I have gotten into hotel showers that have frozen me half to death because I couldn’t figure out how to make the water hot, and I have used taps in sinks that force you to drip water all over the countertop because of their placement.

Suggested Solution:

There is no real solution for this without a complete redesign, which is certainly why that sticker is on the spigot.

User Experiences

Electronic Cashier

I shop at a supermarket that has the new electronic cashiers. I’m actually fairly bemused at their efforts. At least 30% of the times I’ve used it, the darn thing has had to be babysat by a human cashier. However, even when it does work, it has a really awkward design that I consider absolutely unforgivable.

First, let me show you what it looks like:

The Two-Headed Monster

The unit on the right is the main touchscreen panel. You use this for all your interaction. The unit on the left is a small, standard-issue supermarket card reader with a swipe and a small touchscreen. It is identical to the ones they use at the normal cash registers.

The problem is pretty basic: You use the big color screen for almost everything, until it comes time to pay.

Fair enough. Use the card reader for swiping the debit card and entering the code. It’s slightly more secure that way, and it probably requires simpler (i.e. less buggy and more secure) code to turn it over to the small keypad.

However, the system doesn’t delegate the entire payment process to the card reader. You start with the display you see in the photo. Remember that you have been using the big color monitor for the last five minutes to scan all your groceries. You are standing in front of it and getting all your queues from that display.

When it comes time to pay, the big display asks you for a payment method. I usually use a debit, so I click on the “Debit” button. I am then presented with the display that you see in the photo, where it says to use the keypad. At this point, I experience a slight “face plant” (face plant number one). This is where I go “huh?” and look for the keypad. Note that the big display refers to it as a “PIN Pad.” This is face plant number two. Different manufacturers and stores use different equipment. Most of the modern ones have the card swipe and keypad in the same unit, but older ones would have separate units. It’s quite possible that the instructions would be in a display separate from the PIN entry keypad. I think the terminology is awkward. They should display a photo or drawing of the unit.

Now, I’m pretty sure that these cashier systems were designed to mesh with a number of different keypad systems, and that is one of the reasons for the awkward terminology. Nevertheless, there has got to be a gigantic amount of work in installing and customizing each unit. Part of that customization should be the selection of a module that displays the appropriate image.

In any case, that’s water under the bridge. I’ve found the “PIN Pad,” and I’m reading the little display (The big display says I should follow the instructions on the little display.) I swipe the card, type in my PIN, and wait. The PIN Pad display says something like “Processing…”

What I don’t know, is that now the large display is displaying a cash back prompt, and showing a number of buttons. I’m standing in front of the PIN Pad, like a idiot, waiting for the display to change. This is completely different from the standard routine at a normal cashier. In those cases, the little display has the same message, but the cashier then asks you for the cash back amount. Your attention never leaves the display.

Remember that all my attention is now on the little display. This is a very bad face plant (face plant number three). I have used the same system many times over, and yet I constantly go through the same thing. I am no dummy. Some other customer may have the routine down pat, but I don’t.

Face Plant:

The control flow is suddenly shifted away from the small keypad.

This is especially bad, as you have to move your entire body, and redirect your attention. It completely slaps you out of your “mode.”

Suggested Solution:

Have the main display ask for the cash back amount before turning you over to the PIN Pad.

User Experiences

Egg Timer

The Egg Timer

When I first laid eyes upon this baby in a Radio Shack store, it was love. I thought that I had found the perfect amalgam of technology and usability. Now that I have had a chance to [mis]use the thing for a while, I think differently.

It’s an egg-shaped kitchen timer. It’s precise to the second. It counts up. It counts down, and you set it by turning the base. Much like my old-fashioned analog tomato timer.

The really kewl thing about it is that it’s digital, and digital, as all us geeks know, is better.

So why did I give it away, and why do I continue to use my old analog tomato timer?

Because the damn thing is difficult to use. The neat, turn-the-base setting function is non-intuitive, the display is remarkably hard to read from a distance, and the very precision that first attracted me now gets in the way.

Let me explain. The way you set the time is to turn the base, while holding the top. If you turn the base slowly, the time increments/decrements by ten seconds. If you turn it faster, the time changes by minutes. The actual position of the base doesn’t mean anything. It is the act of turning it that sets the time. To start the countdown, you set it to a time, and hit the silver button on the top. To count up, you leave the unit at zero, and hit the button. When the countdown is over, the egg beeps continuously until you press the button. On the bottom of the unit is a “Reset to zero” button. More on that in a bit.

Let me introduce you to my old tomato analog timer:

What a Tomato

It is very simple: zero to sixty in one turn. You turn it to the desired number, and put it down. When it is done, it dings a bell for about a second. If you want to time less than fifteen minutes, you need to turn it past fifteen minutes, then turn it back. This “primes” the bell. If you don’t do this, the bell won’t ring as loudly. They have increased the number of visible tick marks between zero and fifteen minutes, to one tick per minute, as they figure you’ll need a bit more precision. Above fifteen minutes, they just give one tick mark every five minutes.

Operating the Tomato

It takes me two seconds, and one turn of the wrist to set the tomato to 33 minutes.

Operating the Egg Timer

It can easily take me ten seconds to set the egg to 33 minutes.

Why is this? It is because the time is on the dial for the tomato, and there is no digital readout. You turn the dial to the point that you want. It may not be exact, but cooking is not an exact science. 30 minutes can easily become 35 minutes if your oven is a little cool, or you are using a glass dish instead of a metal one. The digital readout actually hurts in this case, because it encourages you to get to exactly 30:00 minutes. Not 30:07 or 29:40. In a real life kitchen (I cook a lot, so I can speak with authority in this area.), you don’t lose any sleep over a few seconds, or even a few minutes (except when you’re making Hollandaise Sauce, and then you don’t use a timer.)

On the other hand, with the egg, you have to make several complete turns. There is a non-inuitive threshold at which the turning of the base causes the time to increment by a minute, as opposed to ten seconds. I used the egg a lot, and I never really figured out exactly how fast you needed to turn it. This often meant that I had to turn the thing twenty full rotations before reaching my time. When I would get close to it, I’d slow down, and then slowly turn the dial until I reached my desired time. This resulted in a long, drawn-out process.

Okay, in review: One quick twist, compared to twenty-five turns of a dial and ten seconds or more. Which would you prefer?

I gave away the egg.

The egg has one more fatal flaw. On the bottom, there is a reset button. Pressing this when the timer is stopped, will reset the time to 00:00.

The Dreaded Reset Button

However, if the timer is going, holding the reset button will prevent the silver Stop/Start button from operating. It will also prevent it from operating if the timer is off, so the timer will not start when the Reset button is pressed.

Why is this a problem? Let me show you:


Face Plants:

The “simple” rotating dial actually doesn’t work the way you’d expect.

You need to “wake up” a bit, and spend higher-level brain function on keeping track of the displayed time.

The blasted thing won’t stop/start.

This is because the natural way to hold the egg timer is one finger on top, and your thumb on the bottom. This causes both the reset and the start/stop button to be pressed simultaneously, resulting in…nothing. I have watched smart people staring at the timer for over a minute, trying to figure out why it doesn’t work.

Suggested Solution:

Buy a tomato.

The problem here is that the designers tried to adapt a function to a form. BAD IDEA. This is a digital timer, and it needs a digital interface. They should have developed a form that matched the functionality.

Just for the record, here is a digital timer that actually works. It has a form that matches the function. Boring, but effective:

Setting The Digital Timer
User Experiences

Ethernet Socket

I got this great Sony Vaio sub-notebook computer. It is a really kewl little computer, and actually fits into my folder case. It is designed for the “wireless on-the-go executive.” However, there is one problem. When they designed the socket for a physical (wired) Ethernet connection, they made a decision that directly affects the usability of the computer.

basically, the socket cover opens in such a manner that you have to jam your finger in between the cover and the plug in order to squeeze the tab to release the plug. Observe:

The Socket Location
The Plug in the Socket
Both Cables Plugged In

If you have very big fingers, then it will be impossible to remove the cable with your fingers. You’ll need a tool.

I guarantee that many people just rip the cover off. The others just never plug in a cable. I need to plug cables in fairly frequently, as the wired network is a LOT faster than the wireless network.

I’m pretty sure I know why they designed it this way. It probably has to do with getting at the plug while the modem port (located right next to it) is open. If you have a plug in each, then it is very awkward indeed to get at them. However, the modem port is designed to be far more accessible than the Ethernet port. This is an understandable decision. They probably decided that, since this was a travel computer, people would be plugging modems in much more frequently than they would Ethernet cables.

I beg to differ.

I travel a lot, and just about every hotel in which I stay, I use an Ethernet-based connection for high-speed Internet. In some cases, I get a wireless connection. In only a very small number of cases do I have to use the modem port, so any design that favors the modem port is, in my case, a bad design.

Now, Sony is a company that is known for good user design (funny that my first two posts are on Sony products, though.), so I am sure that this was carefully thought through. Far be it for me to second-guess them; but I will anyway.

Suggested Solutions:

Turn the Ethernet plug around.

I’m pretty sure that the reason they didn’t do this already is because there is a real danger of giving youself the “bamboo-splint-under-the-fingernail” treament if there is a wire in each connector. Maybe the risks of being sued outweigh the usability gains. I dunno. No matter which direction the Ethernet plug faces, the modem port cover is very difficult to open when there is a plug in the Ethernet port. I have to remove the Ethernet cable in order to open the modem port.

Exchange the positions of the Modem and Ethernet plugs.

This is merely a reallocation of the priorities. In my case (and, I’ll bet, in a lot of other peoples’ cases), the Ethernet cable is more important than the modem cable.

User Experiences


I just got a new Sony DVD/VCR combo. It allowed me to remove two pieces of hardware (a VCR and a DVD player). I wanted a combo box, so that either a DVD or a video could be played eaqually easily. This is especially important nowadays, as video rental stores are starting to heavily favor DVDs. I needed the ability to get all of the regular features of a VCR, such as tape recording and cable TV tuning. I could care less about recording DVDs.

I like Sony. They have good quality, so I selected a VCR that fit my needs, at a reasonable price ($150 US), Despite having the features I need, it has a remote control that is akin to a space shuttle cockpit. I would have preferred a simpler remote.

First, the good news:

They finally allow a recording to start when the VCR is still on! I have never been able to justify the fact that VCRs don’t execute a programmed recording unless the VCR is off at the time the program begins. I understand why they do it, from a technical and customer service point of view, but it has resulted in my not recording shows that I really wanted on tape. Sometimes I had accidentally left the VCR on (I’ll get to that in a minute), and sometimes I was watching something else at the time the recording was supposed to start.

In software development terms, this is a “data loss” situation. That means that something is lost through the error or planned behavior. In this case, what is lost is the show that I wanted to record, and that I spent so much time setting up. I would have much rather had the VCR suddenly switch away from the program I was watching, than I would have it miss the program I set. I was overjoyed to see this VCR do exactly that. Yeah, it’s a bit disconcerting, but worth it. This was an unexpected bonus. I had no idea that the VCR did this, as Sony chose not to make a big deal out of it.

Remote Control from Heck

Next, the bad news:

This VCR makes the same mistake as the last couple of VCRs I’ve owned: They don’t let you use the number keys to change channels while programming the VCR. You must use the up/down buttons.

This means, that if you are at Channel 80 when you start programming, the default channel is set to the one you are watching (80). very nice, but you want to record a show on Channel 2. No, you can’t enter “2” via the numbers. Nor can you enter “02,” or even “002.” No, you need to go up to the up/down buttons, and click on “Down” until your thumb falls off. In today’s world of 500-channel digital TV lineups, that is BAD. The solution that most people would probably hit upon is to get out of Program Mode, use the numbers to select the channel, then go back into Program Mode.


In my opinion, any consumer device that requires its users to develop any kind of workaround for one of its main core functions (remember what I considered a “Must Have” for purchasing the device in the first place), is an illustration of the poor emphasis on usability in today’s products.

More Whining:

This VCR is no different from others I’ve owned, in that it is very difficult to tell, from across the room, whether or not it is on. The display is faint, and displays the time in either case. The only difference is a couple of icons that show up around the time, and the display is slightly brighter when it is on.

I tend to turn the TV off, and leave the VCR on. In my previous VCR, this was a big problem, because it meant that programs I had entered would not be recorded. This VCR avoids that issue by starting a recording whether or not the VCR is on (yay!) However, if you are an energy-conscious person, or want to watch the TV by itself (the VCR causes interference when it is on, even when the TV is directly accessing the antenna), then you may be annoyed. True, these are merely small annoyances. It is a matter of squinting across the room at the little display, seeing a couple of extra characters, grunting “Darn!” and turning the VCR off. However, these small annoyances are cumulative. Each one is a strike against the product. The sad rule is that people tend not to notice it when you make their lives easier, but really notice it when you do something that annoys them. I doubt very much that any other bloggers are dancing around celebrating the fact that the VCR starts recording at any time, but they will go to great lengths to complain about the annoyances.

Here’s what I mean. Look at the VCR when it is off:

The VCR When Off

Now, look at the VCR when it is on:

The VCR When On

Big difference, huh? I deliberately made the pictures small, blurry and badly lit, just like my living room at night, when I’m watching TV.

Face Plant:

The buttons that you would naturally believe should work (the number buttons) don’t work.

Okay, you’ve had your routine interrupted by the number buttons not letting you change the channels. You have to cycle through all the channels with the up/down buttons.

Suggested Solutions:

I hate it when people complain without suggesting solutions. Here are my thoughts on how I would improve the product. One thing that you have to take into consideration when designing consumer products, is that small things can make a big difference in price. Margins on these devices are incredibly thin. Extra testing and adding extra components (even very cheap ones) can make a big difference. For this reason, these solutions might not work.

Allow the numeric keys to be used in selecting a channel while programming the VCR.

The costs incurred here would be extra testing. The software inside the unit would probably be fairly easily modified to support this. However, it would open up a whole bunch of new “trouble nodes” for testing.

Add a clearly visible light somewhere on the unit to indicate an “On” status.

The extra cost here would be the component (an LED), the extra step in the construction process to add it, and the test step.