BUI: Bad User Interface

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What do cars, supermarkets, the weather and software engineers have in common? Poor design.

In the light of Startups this is how design works it’s quite eye opening to realise how many user interfaces are simply not fit for purpose.

Take my car for instance. Currently a Peugeot, for my sins. The company have been at this car making business for a long time so they should be pretty good at it by now, right? Wrong.

The windscreen wipers have five settings on the stalk:

  • Pull it down on a spring-return system to give one manual sweep
  • 0 = off
  • Auto = use the rain sensor
  • 1 = on
  • 2 = downpour

When it’s not raining hard enough for setting 1 — which is quite often — Auto should be the tool of choice. Except the sensor is awful and it’ll either sweep constantly, scraping rubber against a 95% dry window or if it’s fine drizzle, will hardly sweep at all. If it’s a cold morning and there’s condensation on the window it’ll also sweep continuously even though there’s not a drop on the windscreen.

For those times when it needs help because it wipes too infrequently to see through the rain, having the option to manually sweep every once in a while would be great, and a logical design choice. Instead, I have to pull the lever down through 0 to the manual once-over, then ratchet back up to Auto. Or just ditch Auto and wipe manually.

From an interface perspective, pulling it towards me makes a lot of sense for a single sweep override because then the current setting of the stalk in the vertical plane is retained. But in the Peugeot pulling it forward activates the water spray and then it gives four sweeps, regardless of whether it needs them all or not. And it’s uninterruptable; another bad design decision because in dry conditions when trying to get rid of windscreen mong, the fourth sweep usually smears the window, thus requiring more spray.

For all its crappy faults, rusty chassis and damage to my street cred, my old Metro had this aspect spot on. Lowest position for Off, the next two positions were On and Fast respectively. Pull it forward for a single manual sweep, push it back one notch to switch the rear wiper on, push it back a bit further on the sprung mechanism to squirt the rear, or hit the button on the end of the stalk to squirt the front windscreen. Nothing assumed; nothing enforced; everything that is needed for perfect control over any weather system without the computer or designers deciding on my behalf under what conditions I can drive my car. It’s logical, it’s clean, it’s predictable, and second nature.

It seems that the Peugeot engineers were so excited when the invention of the rain sensor came along that they forgot about design and instead put all their trust in this (flawed) technology, delivering a second rate driving experience in the process.

When you shut off the engine too, it doesn’t retain the wiper setting despite its physical position. If it’s on Auto, I’d expect it to honour that regardless of whether I’ve started or stopped the engine. If it starts chucking it down I have to do the lever-down to 0, lever back up to Auto dance. Who thought that up?

Il neige

Wipers aren’t the only poor design choice. Take the multi-function display thingy on the dash that shows the date, time, temperature, radio station, CD track number, settings, etc. When nothing else is in use, it shows the date on the left and time on the right. When the CD player or radio is in use it shows the track or station info on the left, and time on the right. When you interact with the car in some way, the current task takes over the whole display while you are using it and when you’ve finished goes back to the previous setting. All perfectly reasonable and fairly good design.

But when it’s cold, the designers deemed this information more important than my choice over what I want to see on the display. Today, for example, it’s raining and a bit cold. 3°C the dash reports on the right of the display. Fair enough, thanks for that. So I press the button to clear it down. I see the time on the right, then the temperature comes back, flashing 3°C at me.

I think it’s supposed to be some kind of ice alert to warn me that I might crash any moment. But if it took a moment to let me be the judge of that fact instead of blinking incessantly at me, I might take more notice. It’s distracting at first, then I just ignore it. So if it drops suddenly from three to zero — a situation that might well be worth knowing about — I don’t find out unless I consciously look at the display. And if I ever need to know the time, I have to stretch out to press the fiddly button recessed under the moulded plastic overhang to display the information I want. Then it goes back to flashing the temperature at me, like I’ve forgotten in the last three seconds.

It’s stupid design. Fair enough, warn me. But if I choose to acknowledge that information, have the common decency to respect my decision until something changes enough for me to care about.

Tech is not God

Here are a few examples of other places where designers have tried to throw technology at an inherently human problem in the vain hope that it’ll improve things:

  • Blind spot sensors: if you indicate to overtake and there’s something nearby, potentially in your blind spot, an audible alarm goes off in the car. Great, until you get used to it, and it either (inevitably) malfunctions one day or you climb into a car without it and stave into someone because you don’t look over your shoulder first, as you should do.
  • Reversing cameras: put the car in reverse and a live feed comes up on the dash showing what’s behind you. Spot the obvious design error: the picture is in front of you. So, facing forward and looking at the console, you start to reverse out of your driveway and something sideswipes you from the road. Ridiculous design. The display should be behind you so, as you turn around during the manoeuvre, you can see what’s below your field of vision as well as being able to see all around you through the windows. I notice in some later models the lawyers have plastered a warning over the screen saying “don’t forget to look around you before reversing”. And if it needs a warning sign, it’s badly designed in the first place.
  • Supermarket self-service checkouts: awful interfaces; confusing messages; slots and gauges where there shouldn’t be slots and gauges. It’s like interacting with a Terminator in an ill-fitting bunny suit. The fact the area needs to be constantly manned by staff to explain things and help people out when the stubborn machines start having a virtual tantrum is testament to the fact the software and hardware is not fit for purpose.

I could go on, but I’d be labouring the point. Bad design is everywhere and getting worse as technology marches onward without regard for how it is used. As it says in that article, good design is transparent, functional, logical, and predictable, among other things. If it’s designed well you don’t even need to think about it.

Designing great things is not a skill I possess, but I know who to ask for help. Over time, that then allows me to deliver tech that is truly fit for purpose and gives me a warm glow when other people use and like it.

Everyone needs a designer friend. And if you’re a designer, you need an engineer friend too. Both professions take heed: the world desperately needs you to work together.

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