Design: It’s All About Alarm Clocks

Business writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin throws out product ideas like other people throw out orange juice cartons:

For twenty cents or so, alarm clock manufacturers can add a chip that not only knows the time (via a radio signal) but knows what day it is too. Which means that they can add a switch that says “weekends.” Which means that the 98% of the population that doesn’t want to wake up on the same time on weekends as they do on weekdays will be happier (and better rested.)

But he’s not touting a new alarm clock, he’s making a point: “So why doesn’t every alarm clock have this feature?” he asks. “Because most people in that business are busy doing their jobs (distribution, promotion, pricing, etc.), not busy making products that people actually want to buy–and talk about.”

Indeed, companies are always far too busy doing what they’re doing to think about what they’re doing and wonder whether they can do it better. And, as Seth points out, this is because companies are compartmentalized into responsibilities, and brave is the person who tries to straddle departments.

The weekend alarm clock won’t be made by a big alarm clock company, it’ll be designed by someone like Gauri Nanda, who I mentioned a few weeks back as the inventor of Clocky, the alarm clock that goes walkabout. Gauri, needless to say, was working on her own.

Actually what I suspect happens in companies is that they just ignore the user entirely. This is partly because technical products are built (and much of them designed) by programmers and engineers. I hate to generalize, but these people thrive on complexity, not on usability. For them creating and mastering the opaque is an achievement, not a symptom of failure.

What usually happens is that there are two sides to product development: the people in the company who think it’s a good idea and the people who have to build it. But in my limited experience there’s no one in between who speaks both languages, and, most importantly, can see what the customer might expect and want.

This is the hardest bit: it’s called usability and it seems to be the last thing people think about. If you’ve ever grappled with an alarm clock, to continue Seth’s example, you’ll know what I mean.

My favorite is the alarm clock that makes a beep every time you press a button: not so useful if you’re trying to quietly set the alarm but not wake your loved one. One clock I have, despite being sophisticated enough to tell me the temperature, the time in Lima and how many thous in a furlong, even makes a beep when I hit the backlight button. And no, it can’t be switched off without a PhD in molecular biophysics.

I wish I could say that this is confined to alarm clocks, but it’s not. Nearly every device or program is dumb in its own way. But there are bright spots. One of the things I love about Web 2.0 is that the people designing the tools really seem to understand usability.

Of course, given the fact that Web 2.0 is one big feedback loop, where new versions pop up like mushroom after rain, it’s inevitable. But the result is websites that are easy to navigate and to figure out.

Apple, of course, figured this out long ago, But everyone else seems to be having problems understanding it. I tried out a website the other day which was supposed to help me find the best form of transportation between two places. The search engine was not smart enough to know a building’s earlier name, or even to recommend alternatives if I got the name slightly wrong.

The internal calculator was not smart enough to get the distances right (one walk I was asked to make between bus-stops would have taken me into the sea and halfway to the next country); neither was it smart enough to realize that was an error. All should have been spotted by any usability tests. All undermine the whole point of the website, which is to make it easy to figure out a way to get from A to B.

I won’t bore you with more examples: You are users, and you come across this stuff all the time. What worries me more is that we’re not listened to, at least in a way in that makes sense.

I was sitting in a seminar the other day listening to an employee of a global cellphone operator talking about she and her colleagues have been canvassing opinions about how consumers use cellphones. This is good, and what should be done, but I was surprised by how she went about it: Getting users together and asking them to make collages about how they use technology.

Frankly, I don’t think making collages is the right way to go about things. We need to get out on the streets, into the offices, bars and clubs, into the villages and factories, and observe how people actually use technology. Don’t expect people to fill in forms or do collages for you: Follow them around. Spy on them. I do.

One of the side-effects of the cellphone revolution is that it’s taken technology out of the usual places (office, den) and into every other room in the house (texting in the bath, watching mobile TV in bed) and beyond, into the bus stops, the subways, the village gazebo. Technology is now a seamless part of our lives. Researchers need to get out more.

The sad truth is that we’ve moved on and the geeks need to catch up. Because, lame as the alarm clock that beeps all the time and doesn’t know it’s the weekend is, nearly all our devices are no better: They’re too smart in the sense of feature density and too stupid in the interface that lets us use those features.

So, companies: Hire a usability consultant to tell you about your products and how they might be better. Or just try your own products: sleep in on a weekend or let your spouse try to find the alarm light button in the middle of the night and see how you like being woken up.

Then rub your eyes, get out of bed and head for the design table.

Seth’s Blog: Alarm clocks

Gadgets That Are Stupid, #1

I thought I would start a fresh series of Gadgets That Are Stupid: gizmos that seem to do things right but suffer a design flaw that renders them hazardous to one’s health, or peace of mind, or that of one’s partner. Here’s the first entry: An alarm clock.

On the surface an excellent purchase: It even tells you the temperature. But get this: To turn on the backlight you have to press the alarm sleep button, which beeps when you press it. So you wake up in the middle of the night, want to see what the time is, slide carefully across the bed so as not to wake your beloved, press the alarm sleep button, only to set off a (relatively) deafening beep. How dumb is that?

I’ve looked hard in the manual and on the back to see whether the beep can be disabled. As far as I can see, it can’t. So I have a very sophisticated piece of gadgetry on my bedside table, that can tell me the temperature, the time in Lima and how to build a nuclear power plant out of old USB cables, but which I have to carry off to the bathroom so I can read the display without marital disharmony. Winner of this week’s Dumb Gadget Award.

More submissions gratefully received.