The rusty nail of UI

c: | f: /

Yet another case of bad user interface design was brought to my attention this evening. How is it possible to design a land line handset wrong? Easy if you’re BT.

My neighbour popped round this evening clutching her ageing BT cordless handset and the manual, at her wits’ end trying to delete a number from the phone’s memory. She’d followed the instructions a few times, but the number kept reappearing.

Up-front, I admit it’s fairly old tech. It doesn’t have names and numbers, just numbers, but that doesn’t excuse a) crappy design, and b) terrible documentation. Here’s what the instructions say under “How to delete a phonebook entry”:

1) Press store to access the phonebook.
2) Press and hold store to edit the phone book.
3) The display shows n ---------. Choose a suitable location.
4) Scroll to the entry you wish to delete.
5) Press the number corresponding to the memory location you wish to delete.
6) Delete the digits you want from the number using the clear button.
7) Press call end to return to the main menu at any time.

Firstly, my neighbour was confused because she’d reached step (3) and the display didn’t show what it said in the manual: it showed a number 5 followed by ten dashes. So right out of the gate, we have geeks versus real people. I know that what they meant was that ‘n’ could represent ‘any number’ but does everyone think like that? Not necessarily those over the age of 50, I’d bet.

Next it says ‘choose a suitable location’ which I presume was a cut ‘n paste error from the “How to add a phonebook entry” part of the manual, because it doesn’t make sense given step (4). My neighbour wanted to delete the first number, so I used the up/down key to get to the first number. Yet again, we have nerd mentality shining through because the first number is in slot 0.

As a programmer, that makes perfect sense because arrays are zero-based and it means you can get one more number in the machine for free. But to a real person it’s hardly intuitive, and highlights the underlying implementation instead of presenting a clean user experience.

Anyway, the phone number in slot 0 displayed like this:

0 1158234567

You can see where the misconception arose. Not only that, all UK phone numbers start with a 0 when dialled nationally. I suspect the source of her confusion about typing the number in wrongly was that she probably thought the ‘0’ was the first digit of the area code that she’d already typed, or the system had helpfully entered for her because it claimed it was user friendly.

Incidentally, she also thought she’d got all the other number wrong because in slots 1-4 “there was a digit missing” off the end of all the numbers. Of course, this was another poor design decision because the off-the-shelf 10-digit display didn’t have enough digits to display 10-digit phone numbers and the useless slot number which the designers thought was more important than, you know, the actual phone number a person wanted to dial.

That aside, we’re now at the entry we wish to delete. And we have to take the redundant step of typing the slot number of the phonebook entry we’re looking at via the keypad. The blinking cursor then jumps to the first (left-most) digit of the phone number. Hitting clear removes that digit and shortens the number by one. I kept deleting until they were all gone. Then what? The instructions just said you can leave the menu using the call end key but that doesn’t confirm the delete action.

So, back at the main screen, I press and hold store. It bleeps at me and starts to edit the date/time. Because, obviously, pressing store changes the date and time in a BT engineer’s mind. Grumbling and exiting that mode, pressing store once, and then pressing and holding store again gets me into the phonebook edit mode. I hit 0 to jump straight to the first slot, clear the digits out and wonder what to do. Maybe hitting clear again will confirm the action? No. It tells me off with a beep and dumps me back on the main menu again.

So back I go again. store, hold store, hit 0, hit clear ten times, then on a whim, finally getting inside the mind of the retarded engineer, I hit store again to ‘store’ nothing in that slot. A different, non-committal bleep is emitted that could be success or could be failure, I’m not entirely sure. Going back into the phonebook shows that slot 0 is now history at last. Success! But what a pantomime.

The gulf between what is “intuitive” for an engineer designing a phone interface and what a common user of the device deems intuitive is colossal. Coupled with the lack of attention to detail in the documentation, written by people studying the spec instead of actually using the device, poor design, poor display, poor labelling, and poor multi-function button choices, the phone is a contender for possibly the worst user interface I’ve ever encountered this side of the Ericsson T-28 World mobile phone. And using that (company phone) was like asking Paul Daniels to drive rusty nails into your face on a daily basis.

I get that companies have to cut corners and make design compromises to reduce costs, but when it’s at the expense of the end user who has the purchasing power to buy again and recommend a product (or not), one has to ask: is it worth it?

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