Peter Cochrane's Blog: Press and wait

Have we forgotten about user-friendly design?

Compiled in Brighton UK and on the train to Paris. Despatched to from the wi-fi network of a Paris hotel where I could see six different wi-fi signals with and without WEP turned on.

Although I fully understand the reasons why, it bothers me that every button I now press needs to be held down for four seconds (or so it seems). All my audio and video equipment, and elements of my car, seem to require an inordinately loooong depression of keys and buttons in order to function correctly.

For those new to this world, four seconds may not seem strange but I can remember when pressing a button resulted in instant action. But, then again, during my life it is also been possible to lapse into double clicking elevator buttons too!

This four seconds thing is just a single manifestation of a wider problem. I now very often find the position, action and viewing angle of screens, displays and characters, plus tactile feedback of keys and buttons, less than satisfactory. This is especially the case in elevators, trains, cabs, kiosks, ATMs, telephone handsets, PDAs, laptops and PCs. In addition, the brightness and contrast ratios give me problems when trying to read even relatively large characters.

Way back in the 1960s to 1980s era there was a huge body of human-factors work completed on all these aspects to ensure that the 'man/machine interface' was as good as we could engineer, and that human operating errors would be minimised.

Have we forgotten all this wisdom or has it got lost? It appears to be a bit of both! Yes it is all on paper and available but it ain't available online. Moreover, a lot of the things I now buy are designed and produced in the Far East where the history of thorough human factors investigation is rather speckled. So 'if it ain't on line, then it don't exist' seems to be a very real credo after all!

Scanning the online research literature I am seeing what is claimed to be new and original work that is clearly not. To my knowledge much of it was original more than 20 years ago, before we had a computer on every desk and lap. Whilst this is a bit of a shame, a lot of the work should be repeated and reconfirmed given the swathe of new - and new variant - technologies that have emerged in the interim, including LCDs, plasma screens, card readers, capacitive keyboards and keypads.

So is this a pattern for a future where absolutely all past R&D is repeated because it isn't online? I hope not! Yes science depends on rigour and the trial and test of time, and it should always be challenged. Our knowledge and understanding should also be ready to be modified and updated - but not on the basis of apparent invisibility.

The sooner we get everything scanned-in and online the better. In the meantime I'll continue squinting and checking every character after I have pressed a key to make sure my action has been recorded correctly, and bending down in elevators to read the low mounted buttons.


Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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