March 2003
Equipment design

Equipment design:

A recent California study that put operating a radio in an automobile a close second to a cell phone as a distraction (See RNW Feb 25), turned our thoughts to the question of equipment design - and the fact that we're writing this in an office where the PC is all-black and in a dark place under a desk re-enforces our feeling that many designers have gone off the rails as far as designing equipment to be functional is concerned.

In the days of crystal sets, that might have been unavoidable but in many cases nowadays the problem is not that the features can't be designed so as to make use convenient but that many designers seem oblivious to the idea of functionality in the kind of areas where equipment may be used.

Maybe the individuals concerned use equipment for display in a manner more suited to jewellery than for its inherent purpose but we would posit that their customers may well have a different view.

We are particularly concerned lest new digital equipment be put on the market that is too complicated for many would-be users to the detriment of the potential benefit of the technology and would argue that good design always puts ease of use high up its priority list.

Essentials first.

Any radio receiver, analogue or digital, to us has two primary functions - the ability to "tune" in and the ability to adjust audio output in various ways. These functions, in our view, should be made as convenient to control as possible as the first stage in any design; the fancy bits can come later.

Older analogue sets were pretty simple and eventually fairly well designed for this: they had some form of knob for controlling volume, another for tuning, possibly a switch between bands - AM, FM, and Shortwave - and possible another for adjustment of bass and treble, with the addition, when stereo came in of another control for adjusting the stereo balance between speakers.

The tuning in particular was fairly simple in that, as you tuned, the stations came in and out of tune; pre-sets later made this more sophisticated in that you could "lock-in" a number of channels to make it easier to jump between them. You could therefore tune-in "with your eyes closed."

Nowadays we have a nightmare of digital equipment with a mobile phone style menu system involving around half a dozen jumps up and down to alter the simple things.

Lack of thought.

The very suggestion of features like menus making it complicated to do the oft-performed tasks is because the idea of form over function has now become widely accepted, often due to marketing that stresses appearance - with the drawbacks only coming apparent later when the equipment is in regular use.
We can understand it to a degree in the consumer market where some people are impressed most by appearance or fancy feature lists but it does seem to spread into professional equipment of all kinds as well; often, we suggest, the features "grow like Topsy" as one nice idea after another is piled up to give a massive range of choices, most of which be used infrequently or maybe never at all by most users (Think of almost any major computer programme in this light!).

Discipline in design.

On the plus side, with technological developments comes the ability to provide extra features that can enhance a system's output and ease of use - to often far too little thought is given to the way people actually use equipment and what most people want to d most frequently.

Thus in many cases we got displays that really were more for effect than use and recently we have came across a digital receiver currently available in the UK set where you did not hear channels as you tuned, an idea that is anathema to us. Because it has a digital display, the designers presumably thought there was no need to allow a listener to hear the stations change as they tuned: just dial in the numbers and you'll get what is shown - unless of course you are blind in which case this particular set, which requires another button to be pressed to get the audio after the frequency has been selected, becomes much less useable.

Such factors, to us, should be part of a pre-manufacturing design process: We are not suggesting seriously that the designers' eyes should be put out but maybe it would be an idea that they should try and operate their equipment wearing a blindfold, in low light, with thick glasses on to replicate the sight problems that some listeners have, and so on.

Another example: some quite elegant radio headphones we have made by a reputable, indeed famous, manufacturer. They look quite elegant but the tuning and volume controls are small black wheel-knobs in black plastic - quite awkward to turn and also with no markings to indicate which is which: it really wouldn't have been that difficult, nor made them inelegant, had the wheels been less recessed so as to make using the controls much easier and have there also been some raised markings cast into the plastic to indicate which control does what by touch alone.

Automobile and home use: An ease of use rating.

In the case of equipment used in a home, features that make equipment awkward to use are merely an inconvenience for most people but we don't see why a manufacturer should ever find it sensible to build in inconvenience.

As a result the idea appeals of some form of "ease of use" rating system: It may not prove practicable; it certainly couldn't fit all circumstances. But maybe the very fact of devising such a system would put functionality much higher on manufacturers' agendas and improve future design.

In the case of automobile use, attention diverted to operating equipment means less attention to driving well: We really do think here that there would be a good case, not for banning such equipment, but certainly for creating some kind of "ease of use" rating system; with luck equipment shown up as hard to use would become less desirable with an eventual improvement all round.

There seems no good reason why the sameidea, if put into practice, should not be devised for home use - with an additional grading system for operation with impaired vision, in low light, and by touch.

Some factors maybe subjective but then again so is a speaker sound to a degree, although technical specifications concerning the power and frequencies a speaker can handle are science-based. The idea, however, does seem to us to be worth examining if not formally at least rather more than is currently done in equipment reviews by many magazines and consumer organisations.

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