Usability: Your Mom Loves It, or, I Friggin’ Hate My Car Stereo

I friggin’ hate my car stereo.

I installed it about two months ago and have just been hoping that it will get better/easier/I will magically figure it out, but no.  It makes me angry almost every day.

What’s that you say?  Read the manual?  Hell no.

I hate you.

I read through some parts, things that I needed to know immediately, but I don’t want to read it.  Most people don’t want to read it.  How many of you read the manual for each new product that you get/new software that you use?  Do you read a 60-page manual, or do you poke around with something until you’ve figured out how to use it?  Well, guess what.  Your users probably do that too.

If you’re anything like me, you poke around and swear and complain until you’ve figured it out, and then triumphantly give the bird to the technology that you have made your bitch.  I have given the bird to my car stereo several times already, but never triumphantly.  Here are some reasons why:

1) It scrolls a title across so you can read the full thing.  Well, that’s great, but it can fit probably 16 or 17 characters on the display, and it scrolls every name.  So when the song Milk by Kings of Leon comes on, it will scroll that title.  Four characters.  (note: This was the first time I noticed this particular annoyance, and what a prime example.  FOUR CHARACTERS.  Are you kidding me?!)  This is an easy piece of acceptance criteria that was missed.

As a Pioneer car stereo owner I need text to scroll when a song comes on so that I can see the full body of text.

– If text is <n characters do not scroll.

Ta-da.  That was hard.

With just a little more attention to detail and developer thought this would not annoy me EVERY DAY.  Developers should be thinking about multiple scenarios and general usability as they build new software.  This was simply an oversight and a lack of thought.

2) You can only control the iPod through the stereo itself, not through the iPod.  Well, you can if you have any models except X and Y (I have Y…I don’t remember exactly what it is, whatever generation video yadda).  A) Why make it compatible with every iPod and iPhone except the one that I use (and one other one)? B) I have 4800 songs on my iPod.  In order to use the stereo to find the track I want I have to go through EVERY ARTIST.  And the scroll wheel on the stereo?  Not so fast.  It is easier to unplug the iPod and find the item on there and play it, then hook it up.

I shouldn’t have to figure out alternate solutions to play my music.  I shouldn’t have to unplug my iPod every time.  The solution should present itself.

3) There is a way to shuffle the artist but you have to, like, uncover a staff and put it in just the right spot and the light has to pass through the glass and indicate where the buttons are to make that functionality happen.  I don’t know how to do it.  The times I have made it happen have been purely serendipitous.  I do know that every time I try to do it, I shuffle all 4800 songs and sometimes it sets my iPod itself to “shuffle artist” so the next time I try to listen to an album it plays it in random order.  Changing settings on my iPod without my permission?  That’s a paddlin’.  The functionality should be limited to the stereo itself.  Now, when I listen to my iPod on my sounddock or with headphones later, I will have to go into my Settings and change it, even though I never elected for the change to happen in the first place.  Poor.  Usability.

So, let me get to the point (finally).

I am a fairly typical user of this system.  Maybe I have a leg up because I have a pretty good handle on technology, but in general I am someone who listens to music in my car and can press buttons.  This shouldn’t be so hard.  Especially for someone (fairly) adept at using electronic devices.

Usability is a really key part of good software.  The book “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman is one of the greatest books you can read as someone interested in making quality software.  One of my favorite points that it makes is that users should not notice design.  If a user notices design, it’s generally because they have been given cause to because they can’t figure out how to do something.  Your design should be very intuitive and friendly to users; they should be able to just breeze through it without thinking.  If you have to put a lot of labels or instructions on something, you’re probably doing it wrong.  Don’t get me wrong, often some type of directive is necessary (working in medical software, it’s hard to get around sometimes).  However your system/site/app should be pretty damned user-friendly.

The keys to good usability really boil down to just a few things:

1) Developers need to put thought into the use cases of the software and multiple scenarios for which it will be used.  Think about the value that you are providing to a user and how you can make that even better.  Kaizen that shit.  Put a lot of thought into what you are making so your users don’t have to put any thought into using it.

2) Attention to detail is critical.  Think about anything you buy.  Handmade things in particular.  You want the one that looks the best, don’t you?  Well, maybe you want the quirkiest because you’re the hippest hipster of the bunch, but you get the idea.  Quality is absolutely necessary if you want to sell a product and attention to detail is a cornerstone of quality.  Yes, of course it’s important to hit the big points and get the big features, but something with a lot of great features that misses a lot of small things and is wholly unusable is not a product that people want to buy.  I consider any lack of attention to detail to be a bug, whether it is an actual defect or not.  Ignorance is a defect.

3) Make it intuitive.  If you’re developing iteratively (which you should be), demo it to your users.  Can they figure it out?  How many questions have they asked you about what something does?  Go from there.  When I design things I like to try to think about my mom using them.  She doesn’t know what the internet is, so it’s really an extreme example, but in general I try to think about people who don’t have a lot of technical prowess.  A lot of our software is designed for doctor’s offices, and an awful lot of people in these offices are averse to new technology and in general using computers/software.  What I need to do is design something that will be so easy to use that it a) won’t completely change their workflow/add time to their daily tasks b) will be enjoyable to use.  That is how you should make all of your software.

There are a million things to say about usability so this is likely the first in a series of posts (mostly this one is just a rant about that damned stereo), but I welcome any input or questions for future posts in the comments.

1 comment so far

  1. Dorian on

    I really feel you man, I have the same situation with every cellphone I’ve ever owned. The hardware design has all been amazing and very well-tested, you can tell. And some douche designed the software in a bubble, obviously being told over and over again not to think too much about it and just get all the features in there super fast, because we already blew the budget figuring out whether the buttons were too small or whether the colour would appeal to the critical 13 – 17-year-old female market etc.

    So many $300 phones that are useless. That’s why people are into the iPhone: because Apple found people who’d never used the product and asked them to try and put on some music, and didn’t interpret people’s confusion as an insult.


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