Keeping Up to Date

Keeping Up to Date (Whether You Like It or Not)

By Jeff LeBlanc

June is usually one of my favorite months.  Summer is starting, the bugs are clearing out and vacations are upon us; it’s a generally nice time of year.  This year however, apparently several of my electronic devices are in collusion to change that.

In the software industry, you get used to the idea of new product releases.  Version 4.5 fixes bugs in 4.4 and maybe adds new features that someone felt would be useful.  Of course, as anyone in the business knows, with new versions also come new bugs that weren’t there before.  It’s the nature of the beast and we’ve gotten used to it. Nevertheless, who decided that it would be a good idea to have my appliances get in on the act?

Last weekend I went to watch a DVD. Simple enough, pop a disc in and hit play, right?  Usually, but not this week.  Since the DVD player is on the Internet, Sony decided they could update my firmware, whether I like it or not.  Instead of playing a movie, I got a message saying there was a network update available and I should go to some screen in Setup to get it, “Press select to continue”.  Ok fine, I’ll do it later, just let me play my movie.  Nope, sorry.  I got about 2 minutes in and the whole player locked up, to the point where I had to unplug it.  Then, once power was restored, I had to reboot the player, get past the network message, fast forward past where I was and try again.  Another lockup.  Fine, you win; I’ll update the damn firmware.

I go to Setup and… wait, what screen again?  One of Shneiderman’s Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design is to reduce short-term memory load, meaning it would have been nice if that message took me right to the update screen instead of making me hunt for it.  I eventually find the right menu item and start the update, which sternly tells me not to turn off the power to the device during the update or undefined bad things will happen, presumably making my DVD player as functional as a brick.  Nothing like a little fear to spice up the process, right?   The update progresses, giving me some useful status (“Update 4 of 9 in progress”) for a while, following Shneiderman’s rule of informative feedback.  Then, the screen goes blue; so much for feedback.  Now I’m stuck between the stern warning not to touch the power and the non-working device.  After 10 minutes and much cursing, I decide to go for it and hit the power button.  Luck was with me and the device still worked. The whole process was not only unsettling, it was also downright annoying.

The same week, my cell phone provider decided to update my voice mail system requiring me to setup my mailbox from scratch.  At the time, I was traveling through a bad reception area and trying to access voice mail. I knew it was a missed call from my boss, so the extra 10 minutes of delay wasn’t appreciated.  On top of that, I won’t even begin to go into the sheer number of Windows updates I had to deal with when I needed to shut my laptop down one morning.

What’s the common thread in this rant? It’s about who is in charge of my digital life and having the ability to do  things on my schedule.  If I want to update my DVD after I watch my movie, I should be able to.  If I want to update my voicemail after I get my important message that should be acceptable. The locus of control, another of Shneiderman’s rules, should be with me and not with the devices.   Both designers and developers need to remember to keep the user in control of things at all times, always giving them enough information to make informed choices as desired. This reduces both anxiety and frustration, which with any luck, means people will keep using your products.  Really, let’s face it, the alternative is a slippery slope to the robot apocalypse.