If the cockpit of a Boeing 747 were as badly designed as some kitchen appliances, most of us would never make it to Denver alive. Imagine a jet pilot having to fumble around for the landing gear lever because it looks just like all the other controls.
I’ve owned (or inherited) far too many domestic appliances with just such inane shortcomings and more, and it’s gotten me to wondering: Don’t the engineers and stylists who design these products at least try them out at home for the weekend? If they had, many of them would never have made it onto the market.
Since we already know a great deal about ergonomics — the science concerning the design of objects for human use — and are always finding out more, you’d presume that products would become easier and easier to use. Not so; in fact, with the bane of “feature creep” — the compulsion of marketers to add more and more gratuitous gimmicks to their products — many devices have actually gotten harder to use.
Remember the first-generation microwave oven, which had a big round dial for setting the time, and a huge rectangular button labeled “START”? As primitive as it was, it still beats the supposedly state-of-the-art microwave my mother recently had installed. I won’t embarrass the manufacturer by naming the brand — oh, alright then, it’s Bosch — since it richly deserves an award for its atrocious ergonomics. The control panel is a mind-numbing matrix of look-alike keypads, 36 in all, all of the same color and having the same kind of lettering. The most frequently used functions, such as the number pads and the START and STOP keys, are haphazardly buried in this grid without being distinguished by color, shape, position, labeling or anything else. Lacking any kind of visual cues for guidance, the hapless user is condemned to sift through the whole dreadful phalanx of pads again and again, essentially having to relearn the controls with every single use.
While this Bosch product might be accorded special wonder for its supremely lame design, it’s certainly not alone in being hard to use. A Krups coffee maker I finally had the pleasure of throwing out (it broke, to my relief) was another such example of witless engineering. Its filter basket came out along with the carafe rather than remaining in the unit, ensuring a trail of coffee drips every time you removed it for pouring. It also featured a slippery, jellybean-like power switch mounted on a trendily curved front surface, an arrangement so slithery it required both hands to operate.
Nor is this kind of dunderheaded design confined to kitchen products. The infamous Ford car radios with their clutter of matchhead-sized buttons spring quickly to mind. Then there’s my all-time personal unfavorite — the vast array of Hewlett-Packard products seemingly designed by and for propellerheads only, and necessarily furnished with user manuals as thick as a San Jose, Calif., phone book.
Thankfully, truly savvy designers are finally returning to basic ergonomic principles — simple, comprehensible and intuitive controls that can be distinguished by position, shape, color or touch. Now, if only Bosch would hire one of them.
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