Brain dead technology

In today’s Guardian Media supplement, there was a familiar range of complaints about the new DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting, or something like that) radio system, among them the fact that the radio units are expensive and that reception in the writer’s area is poor (in this particular case, the area is ten miles from Portsmouth on the south coast). I recently acquired a digital radio to replace my ageing (1980s) clock radio which occasionally failed to go off, leaving me late for work, and did not pick up my favourite station, BBC London, very well. The new radio certainly does the latter very well. However, setting the alarm proved a nightmare, and has prompted a long-suppressed rant about badly-designed technology.

Back of home hub.JPGI like technology, but I often find the glaring faults it comes with really puzzling and frustrating - how do some products get out of the design room? For example, did nobody at Mercedes-Benz figure out that, when you have a car on cruise control, the driver needs somewhere for his foot, which has nowhere comfortable to go except the brake and the gas pedal? Complaints can sometimes cause offence, however, because they may well be about a gift, or at least something provided by someone else. A typical example is the BT Home Hub provided by the broadband package to which we (or, rather, my parents) subscribe. It works pretty well as a modem and LAN/wireless hub, but all wires have to go into a recess at the back, with Ethernet wires turned upwards. The hub is a light, upright unit with a stand which supports it only on one side, and the weight and inflexibility of the Ethernet cables can easily unbalance the hub. However, it is not the fault of the consumer if they buy a unit with design faults they only find out about after they start using it. It’s the company’s fault, and the designers’. The faults often are not in the specifications or the pulbicity pictures.

For my clock radio, however, I have only myself to blame. It wasn’t a case of “my mum went to the Comet store on Purley Way and all I got was this lousy clock radio”; I went to the Comet myself and bought it.

What’s wrong with it, then?

When assessing the ease-of-use of anything technological, the “Granny test” is commonly used. If your grandma can use it fairly easily, it should be easy to use for pretty much anyone. Of course, it only really works nowadays if you’re about my age and your nan is in her 80s and was on the verge of retiring when home computers were hardly known of. If you’re about 12 and your nan is in her 50s, she probably knows more about it than you.

There is, however, another test: the Indigo Jo test. The Indigo Jo test involves putting something to a 31-year-old of above average intelligence who can familiarise himself with technology fairly easily. If he cannot do a relatively simple thing like setting the alarm on a clock radio, it raises serious questions about the product’s design.

Introducing the Roberts CRD51 Digital Clock Radio

The radio I bought was this one, and the decision was not that difficult because it was the cheapest digital and FM clock radio on offer. Apart from the advantage of it easily finding my favourite station, it also set the clock automatically. However, it quickly revealed one important design flaw: the “large easy to read LCD display for time and radio station” by default only displays the radio station when you have a digital station on. To get it to display the time, you have to press one of those little buttons in a line (third from the end, I think) about five times, because showing the time is one of about eight “display modes” and by no means the most important one. Press the button once, and you get the information scroll about what show is on and what the day’s most important news is; I forget what happens when you press it the second or third time.

Look, Roberts (and other clock radio manufacturers out there): a clock radio is for putting by your bedside. You want it to display the time, so that you know when to get up. Telling you what station you’re listening to, when you know (because you picked it) is not more important than that! When you select the station, it should revert to telling the time after a few seconds (and by the way, I do not see why you could not have added an extra display for the radio details - after all, old clock radios had a clock next to the radio spectrum).

The other day, I first had to set my alarm, which turned out to be a really involved process, more akin to programming one of those old video recorders than just setting an alarm clock. You can press the Alarm button, but you can’t just use the tuning or volume buttons to move the clock forwards or back - no, it’s a process of about twelve steps (first, admit you have a problem …) involving the select and tuning buttons. The device does offer two alarm times, the choice of radio or bleep alarm, and the choice of setting the alarm for once only, a given date, weekdays or weekends, but there is one other problem: if you don’t press a button after five seconds when setting the alarm, it will just revert to radio play and you have to go back to the beginning of the process all over again. And you can’t do this without turning the radio on. Pressing the alarm button when it’s off - and functioning just as a clock (yep, you can’t set the alarm from the clock!) - has no effect.

Some might say I should just read the manual. However, I have long expected not to have to read the manual, but to be able to figure such a simple thing as setting an alarm by myself. It should not be anything like this complicated, particularly when any inactivity (such as when you’re reading the manual) wipes out what you’ve done.

All in all, a really poorly-designed, impenetrable user interface. Not only did I have to use the manual, but I still haven’t learned how to do it. I will probably have to read the manual yet again next time I want to set the alarm, or to turn it off. It fails the Indigo Jo test miserably.

My old red clock radio.jpgI will finish off by comparing the Roberts CRD51 to my old Sony clock radio, which my parents bought for me as a present back in the 1980s. It has a function dial, three time- and alarm-setting buttons (one of them has to be held down to engage the time setting function, to protect against mistakenly altering it), a sleep button, an alarm reset button, a snooze button, volume and tuning dials, and a band selection switch. It had a “buzzer” (actually repetitive squeak) and radio alarm, which could be set just by turning the function dial and setting the clock. Sleep put the radio on for an hour (or less, if you held the sleep button down), and snooze turned it off or paused it. You press alarm reset when the alarm goes off and you want to shut it up until next time. You didn’t have to turn the radio on first to engage sleep, because sleep necessarily involves the use of the radio. Its clock display was not backlit; it was just the time, in red light, against darkness, while the display on the Roberts gives out much more light, which may be disturbing if you like a good dark room when you sleep. It had two flies in the ointment: one was that the clock setting function ran only forward, so if you missed your minute you had to run all the way through the cycle again. The second was that, at least as long as I can remember, it had no proper antenna. I do not know if that is why it could not pick up BBC London; it had no problem with other stations.

But all in all, it was solid; it worked, and well, for two decades. My new radio has so many frustrating flaws leading to pointless extra effort to do basic things that I do not know if I will still be using it in a quarter of that time.

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