Consider two examples of deficient user instructions (and businesses not thinking well):

1. Early in the advent of CD-ROM drives for personal computers I purchased one to install in my computer. With a brand name like KISS I expected the task to be easy for someone with significant experience assembling and fixing computers. Wrong.
Despite trying both the manual instructions and the installation diskette the new drive would not work.

After several phone calls I was finally able to talk to a harried technician, who advised me of an error in the installation diskette's simple routine and a different error in the printed instructions that should have been usable instead of the diskette. He advised me staff were quitting because of the overload of work resulting from the errors.
The technican gave me a new value to put in a specific line in the manual instructions. Now my drive worked. (I didn't have the knowledge to see that error myself - IIRC it was a new interrupt value, but for a function that is less likely to need specifying for installation.)

(How could the company have done better, aside from not making so many errors in the first place, and kept staff? Simple:
Instruct the receptionist to determine if the caller's problem was with the particular product. If so, the receptionist would offer to send the caller new instructions and diskette. (And read the manual corrections to the caller so they or a helper could fix it sooner.) An economical way to achieve the desired end result: get the customer's drive working.

That approach would not cost any more of the receptionist's time, as the repeat calls needed to catch a technician who was not already on the phone would be eliminated. The cost of making and mailing the new instructions and diskette would be less than 15 minutes of the technician's time needed to talk to the customer (heck, even courier delivery of the new instructions and diskette wouldn't be more costly than the impact of delays).)
And the saving from keeping technicans and satisfying customers? Priceless. (Because it might save a small company from financial failure.)

2. Instructions with a nice indoor-outdoor thermometer correctly advised to place the wired outdoor sensor out of sunlight, but then advised to stick the sensor on the outside of a window pane. But how much error would result from heat loss through the window? (The double-sided tape would insulate a bit, but the air would still be warmer near the window - why not provide a tack and clip to attach it to a wall which loses much less heat? Because the tape was cheaper and "good enough"? More likely simply not thinking the technology through enough.)


1. By potential customers?
"Every vehicle that has an Internet connection but lacks an emotionally compelling design is an unsold vehicle with an Internet connection. I'd like to know who decided it was a good thing to have overly complex multi-function displays that require a multi-step operation to activate something that normally is a twist of a knob or a flick of switch."
- GM Corp. vice-chairman Bob Lutz, quoted by Jeremy Cato in his automotive column run in the Victoria Times-Colonist of July 19, 2002 and Vancouver Sun of August 2, 2002. As a fighter pilot Lutz has shown he could handle complexity, but thinks that complex controls do not belong in mainstream vehicles.

But progress is slow.
- Ford suffered from poor consumer ratings because it did not design its MyFord Touch user interface well. Ironic for a company run by a person with long experience in airplane design, where the human interface is crucial.
- "Customers are bringing the cars back to the dealers because they don't know how to work this stuff." says Richard Cooper of J. D. Power and Associates, who conduct surveys of automotive customers, in a CanWest News Service article on the complexity of recent luxury car designs. (Victoria Times Colonist, May 18, 2007 - five years later)

My comment: Perhaps those cars such as BMWs sold because they had an emotionally compelling name and brochure and styling, but they are costing dealer staff time to explain to customers who come back for explanations, and customers are not satisfied - which will affect future business. (Why pay a premium for a Mercedes if it doesn't work? My maxim is that if the user cannot understand it, it does not work thus utility is lacking thus value is lowered (I include the entertainment expectation in "utility" with "tool" features such as e-mail is for a busy person.)
My broader comment: This is an example of a widespread deficiency in product design and business - not recognizing reality of the customer interface. For advice on that, call me.

2. In a hurry, reliably?
The Casio model RT-10 compact alarm-radio has a volume control that is upside-down to normal practice. The gap in its arc of travel (about 270 degrees, labelled MIN and MAX at the ends) is at the top - so you have to turn the knob clockwise to reduce volume). Not a significant problem with use of this clock radio as - I presume - you'd have it on when adjusting volume so notice the confusion. (I did not look inside to see if the designer was motivated by tight packaging (the control is usually a potentiometer which has a bulge where circuit connections are made - the lid-closed sensing switch is near the control). The frequency tuning dial above it has normal rotation - clockwise to higher frequency. My guess is that the case stylist wanted symmetry not uniformity.)

Or the nice looking Zelco Lumifier 22104, an illuminated magnifying glass. If you can get it open. Holding it in one hand, expecting it might open up somehow, you try a slide switch which not surprisingly turns on the light. Then you push a round thing that looks like a button, but nothing happens.
Problem is that its well-faired magnifier flips out from the left side. Or it would if you did not have your left hand wrapped around it to hold it while your right hand pushed buttons. (The spring that pushes it out is not strong enough for you to feel it against the palm of your hand.)
(On occasion there is an advantage to being left-handed? ;-)

But in a more critical environment, with other factors working against the humans involved, it could prevent catching a serious error. For example, in the 1986 close-call of a Boeing 737 flight crew going into Prince George BC one secondary factor was that the volume of one of the radios was turned down thus less information was received by the crew - information that might have helped them catch their error (the Ground Proximity Warning System caught the error by detecting that the airplane was flying into a hill because it was following the wrong radio navigation signal).

PS: An example of the economic impact:
"Before Best Buy bought the Geek Squad two years ago, Unsell said, it took returns on more than two-thirds of wireless routers it sold. Most times, they were simply too hard for buyers to set up."
- Paul Andrews in the Seattle Times of October 11, 2004, quoting Joe Unsell of a local computer assistance company that works for a major retailer of home computers.

And a subsequent comment from Best Buy is that they were taking returns on 20% of Bluetooth headsets until they paired them in the store for the customer.
Enter an entrepreneur, in the form of BlueAnt Wireless, whose V1 headset can be commanded by spoken English words including for pairing, and gives feedback. PETER SVENSSON of Associated Press reports performance and price the same as other good noise-cancelling headsets, plus good voice recognition functionality, compatible with his Blackberry Pearl, and comfortable.

(Yes, culprits include the confusing network setup pages in some versions of Microsoft Windows, software added at the behest of Internet Service Providers to connect to them, and traps like phone line filters that affect the higher frequencies that ADSL service uses to pass data over the phone line. (Some of those filters being in the surge protecting power bar, some in the supplied filter intended to keep the higher frequencies out of the phone but often connected in the wrong location.) But the retailer is on the front line of the interface with purchasers of equipment - they need to implement self-defense measures right away. (Even a "tips and traps" leaflet would help.)

Here's an example of one detail making a product effectively unuseable.
An automatic jar opener was produced under the Black & Decker brand name, called "Lids Off". The Rube Goldberg affair really worked well. If users could understand it. But it had a design flaw, shown by this photo of the latch holding the top in position. - you use the latch to raise the top part to insert a jar or lower the top onto a jar.
But often the latch caught on the handle, and the average user could not understand what was happening, in part because the appliance is a bit awkward to operate and new users get confused. (The photo shows how close they are - this latch has been rounded a bit on the offending corner.)
What went wrong? Disassembly of one did not reveal any assembly error - the latch and handle are positively held in position in the lid by two tabs into slots. It appears to be simply pooor design - too little room for stackup of clearances, or an error in making production molds. Then not caught in production testing, perhaps because testers tended to grasp the latch and handle in a certain way that pushes it sideways enough to clear (as there is some slop in the way the latch is retained in the lid - wide hands may have more success, considering users tend to grasp with the left hand and push the latch with their thumb). So tens of thousands of jar openers were sold and not used, many returned to the selling retailer, others thrown out by owners who told 19 other people to avoid the product.
The result? An innovative product, very useful to people with weak hands such as the many older people in our society, is useless.
(I don't know how many were made that way, of the more than 50,000. produced.)
What could the manufacturer do?
An immediate low-cost fix is to change the mold for the latch to round the corner generously.
(Then I'd review the whole design for refinement, using people and talking to users.)
The unanswered question is how do these things occur? Call Keith for answers. ;-)

(If you have one, and mechanical experience/smarts plus motivation to expend the effort and patience to do such work, you can fix it by carefully cutting the offending corner off the latch flange. You open it by raising the top, placing it on its side, removing the four screws at the sides of the vertical bars, taking the handle off, removing the latch retainer screw, modifying the latch corner closest the thicker part, reinstalling the latch (it is keyed - thicker part nearest handle pedestal), figuring out how to put the latch spring back in (it goes on top of the metal lever, hooked over it to push the lever clockwise), and getting it all back together somehow.)

Don't forget user instructions
Especially when your product is new and different. Two examples:
- The Keurig coffee maker uses a small sealed plastic cups of coffee. The trap is that users don't realize that they are to put the cup in the machine without opening the cup. So the motel that purchased one for each room had to label the coffeemakers and caution each customer at checkin, to prevent the mess that will likely result from opening the cup.
And, users have difficulty figuring out how to open the lid on top to pour the water in. The trick is that its slick mechanism pops the lid open after the user closes the coffee receptacle. (Maybe that's to ensure they close the receptacle, else a mess will occur anyway.)
Yes, the hotel model has instructions printed in small-size on a vertical panel beside the main mechanism.
- The ecoQuantum dual-flush water-saving toilet from Mansfield has what looks like a conventional single-flush lever. The trick is that you push the lever down for a small flush and up for a large flush.
Better make sure the labels instructing to do that are kept attached or molded in, else some users will overflow the toilet when they automatically push down and don't get the flush action needed to push big jobs through the s-duct in the bottom of the bowl thus water backs up in the bowl and over the top when the user tries again.
(That's a general problem with low flush toilets and strong toilet paper. Some new designs have a forceful action using full water pressure to charge an accumulator - the ecoQuantum does, claiming quiet operation.)

Some people do improve
The Respironics Remstar CPAP breathing machine circa 2005 had a bad user interface, especially for the humidifier heater. It was very difficult to see the heater setting and easy to inadvertently change it.
A redesign changed to a large knob clearly labelled.
(CPAP pressurizes breathing airways to prevent obstructive sleep apnea, commonly evidenced by snoring. The humidifier passes air over the surface of water to moisturize it by evaporation, and is usually heated to increase rate of evaporation.)

© Keith Sketchley, 2011.11.16 Please advise Keith if any links don't work or have become inappropriate - the Internet changes.

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