It is often told that things are not what they were long time ago. That’s obviously true. And that they are getting worse – every generation says that. Things, young, relationships, you name it. But it is also often told that at the same time many things are getting better. Now, where is the truth, eh?
Planned obsolescence is actually pretty old concept but while previously it was just a nasty economic model, nowadays it’s plain short-sighted when we realize the sheer global scale of human activity and its impact on our planet. Especially the “things”, that is anything producing waste, should be built to last a bit longer that is usual today. Mobile phone for a year? Are we nuts?
I’m not going to talk about distribution of wealth which on its own is a big topic, but in overall the whole system is not sustainable. While each of us can do something about it, individuals – even many individuals – are still just part of the system. Too many powerful people still don’t care about anything else than more power and profit, however short-sighted that is. It’s not for them, not in this life anyway.
Let’s just talk about quality of current technology – and sadly, mostly about software quality.
Home laser printer case: Xerox Phaser 3020Bi
We bought this lovely little and cheap printer for couple of reasons. We don’t print much – in two years we printed perhaps 200 pages? We didn’t want to print on our old inkjet anymore as it was really expensive for us (single set of inks costs more than this Xerox laser printer). But we still want to print home now and then.
Product required some initial setup but then it worked nicely as a shared network printer via wifi, which is very convenient. It printed fast, started quick enough, it simply worked for us just fine. Maybe one thing we dislike is that when it stopped the job for missing paper it didn’t continue after adding the paper into tray. But still, as with any other family member, we could tolerate some quirks.
But then, probably after a year, it started to have problems taking the paper in. Very often it reported paper jam problems that were not real. It was kept clean, we always covered it and it was never dusty, really. Even when it reported paper-jam it printed report when demanded directly from the printer. It simply got quirky too much.
The problem is likely just with some sensor, but it may be partially software based too. Feeding problem seems to be mainly mechanical, which is strange after using it only with office paper and only after about 200 pages. I checked Xerox pages and internet, but couldn’t find any easy fix.
With a printer for 50€ you don’t really know whether it’s economical to repair it. Our current plan is to finish the current toner and then try another printer, perhaps another brand. That may be after next 3-5 years, but still – it will be waste.
So this is the story of low reliability.
Voice/chat software case: Microsoft Skype
Now let’s go to software world – we will not talk about waste but about innovation. Wannabe innovation, that is.
For months Microsoft was pushing its newer version and for months we resisted (this included virtually everyone I knew). Eventually Microsoft forced the new version upon us and it was exactly what I expected. Terrible downgrade in the name of progress. Every single message has a smiling icon at its end – now this is misleading at least, but at least it gives every message kinda happier feeling about it. Yes, I know what this icon is for, but when you get some really sad or horrible message the placement of this emoji button seems really absurd.
I wish this was the biggest problem with new Skype. The problem however is, that while previously I could see who is online and who is not (except my mum that likes to be hidden and then complains I’m not calling) with new Skype all my contacts are effectively hidden. But nobody seems to like it. I’d like to see the Skype traffic before and after the change, because at least in case of my friends it’s close to zero now.
Skype is a typical case of innovation for its own sake. I don’t care about material design. Yes, I’m using PC mostly, just to clarify it. I understand that sometimes things get a bit worse in order to get better. But Skype got much worse and Microsoft seems to be OK with it. It keeps telling us how better Skype is – so much for their self-reflection.
Sure, there is another explanation for it all. Perhaps they want to kill the product. But why would they do it in this manner? No, no, I really believe Microsoft is somehow convinced they are creating a better product. But none of my contacts agrees. And we don’t talk about it anymore. Not on Skype anyhow.
So this is the story of unwanted pseudo-innovation.
Business communicator case: Microsoft Skype for Business (AKA Lync)
Now this would be quite a useful product. Sure it has its own bugs, but it provides video conferences, it records meetings, it just works… kinda. But for whatever reason Microsoft decided that we should have no in-application control over the microphone levels, while the application can lower it anytime – even to zero.
The result is that when my colleagues complain they can’t hear me I have to go to Windows audio settings and reset the microphone level to something normal. It’s strange that even on zero it still is not absolutely muted and recently I started to use +30dB boost instead and just leave it on zero when Skype for Business insists.
Does Skype really do it? Sure it does, I tested it. Does other application do it too? Depends. Audacity for instance does not. It respects my setting and records the sound as expected. Slack does it to a degree, not sure what its settings are, but it never set the level all the way to zero.
The trouble with Skype for Business is that the level does not go up when necessary, only down.
So this is the story of little control given to us – users.
And this is the story of consumerism in its best – or worst, if you will. I’ve actually got just my third smartphone since 2010, although I used also couple of company smartphones before I bought my own dual-sim device. I’ve used only Android devices but it never was the same Android. Buttons change meaning all the time, back button is once on the right then on the left, and this all is combined with touch-based UI that is generally more limited than mouse-based ones. One example is no hover functionality like a tooltip. While mobile/touch based UIs try to compensate with other techniques, these are hardly well understood by most application writers. And there are simply too many “standards” used now, all at once. I often recall the book The Design of Everyday Things that showcases many overly smart designs – bad designs actually.
Sure I’m not a teenager effortlessly switching from one phone to another or from one application to a newer one. But I’m also not from “old generation” that can’t handle the smartphone at all. But when I see a new app, I try to utilize what I know already – not mechanically, that’s not even possible nowadays. I try long-touch, try to find some hamburger button, try the same thing in list and detail, etc. But very often things are rather random.
And then there are hardware/sensor compromises to make the phone cheaper. Missing indication led shocked me on my second phone. On the third one it’s missing proximity sensor – so after the call it takes ages until the display lights up so I can hang up. Using display itself as “proximity sensor” results in many calls hung up accidentally. Sure I’m not buying 500+€ phones, but the ways how to omit quite important details – resulting in much worse usability – still surprise me.
In The Design of Everyday Things the author says (interpreted as I remember it) that sometimes we can’t clearly decide what is better design and in many cases we should just standardize. The thing is when people already know something it’s just as intuitive as something that can be grasped without learning.
Perhaps traditional menu based UI is not the best one although we still use menus anyway, at least contextual ones. But there are couple of trends that bother me.
First is how quickly things change. Often we can hardly assess the usefulness of the new UI because every style needs some time to get used to. I’m sure they measure things with various test, but again – often what is useful in the long term may not be obvious immediately. A/B testing can be cool when you want to maximize impressions or when you test specific custom web experience but these are all local optimizations. How does it help across applications when we don’t get to the same conclusion?
And that is the second problem – with menu based systems things converged a bit. Here and there some application tried to be bold and it was fresh. But they were still just exceptions. Nowadays everything is an exception. Everything wants to be special. Things diverge. New UIs appear often and many. We probably need to experiment more, but everybody experiments. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, you name it. So we have to learn and relearn more often.
I’m not against learning at all – I have to do it all the time in the line of my work. But perhaps we overdo it a bit, don’t we? After some level it becomes inefficient. Should you skip this or that wave of technology? What is essential and what is just a hype?
No wonder we have to suffer UI designs with possibly good ideas, but low quality overall. With such a tempo of development it’s difficult to built the UI without bugs. While the widgets are often provided by the environment it’s difficult to build applications to various devices – applications that last. And if they don’t last… should I even start using it in the first place?
Buying major appliances is still somehow safe – from my experience they last at least 8 years even if not maintained properly. (Rarely a washing machine or a dishwasher actually is.) But consumer electronics is another story – the smaller the more extreme it is.
There is more and more software in it and more and more of it is less and less stable. Security is a big concern nowadays, but how can it be built-in when often even the basic functions are half-baked? TV manufacturers say we don’t want smart TV. I disagree – I want smart TV! It doesn’t have to be super-smart – just working, really. And when I use YouTube app, I want to be able to use external keyboard to search videos instead of on screen one with remote. How hard is that? Probably harder than saying “customers are not interested”.
So here we are. We can indulge in buying more and more electronics. It is more and more powerful – that’s for sure. But it does not satisfy us long enough. And it is not for everyone either. There are people who are plain scared of anything new – mostly because they have to relearn everything to do exactly the same thing like before, for instance making calls. It seriously is a problem and you’re lucky if your (grand)parents have no problems with it at all. This problem will not go away in years, it will be decades – and who knows what problems our or younger generation will have with next waves of devices.
I’m not saying technology has to slow down. But user experience should not evolve this quickly. We can’t forget habits every two years or so. Often in order to create more natural and seamless controls we create controls that are not obvious (well, seamless, right?). We innovate way to fast on the surface, on the interfaces.
And because everybody thinks they know how to innovate, things diverge. We have to relearn things often. And we have no idea what bugs and security issues are under the cover. And – as I said at the beginning – it’s the part of our system and very difficult to change. Buying a new smartphones often is now part of our culture.
I’m not without my share of “sin” here. But I’m really waiting for culture of less. Less waste, less plastics, less toys for my kids, less sweets for Christmas – less sweets all year, really. More of all these things must displace other important “things” from our life.
But enough! It’s just after Christmas, early morning here, just listening to Bing Crosby & David Bowie – “The Little Drummer Boy (Peace On Earth)”… so late Merry Christmas and all good for the next year. More love, joy, fun and less of those less important things.