State of the Art
by Gerard Rejskind
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It's thanks to the computer industry that the expression "human interface" has been added to the language. And it's ironic, because so many computer programs don't seem intended to "interface" with humans at all. Still, some software designers have made efforts to make their creations elegant, which is to say operable by anyone without the need for the instruction manual.
Frankly, the audio world could use some serious effort along the lines of perfecting the human interface.
The very worst products, of course, are the portable ones, specifically the ones that require batteries. First you have to find the battery compartment, which designers like to hide so that the exterior remains sleek. Then you need to figure out how it opens, and (in many cases) what tools you need to actually open it. At which point your problems have only just begun.
What batteries do you need? Just when we thought the variety available was shrinking (to 9 volts, AA and AAA, the latter two sounding like shoe sizes), we're getting inundated with new battery types, some of which look like the ones we know but are not interchangeable with them. Some batteries are available only at one kind of store, such as electronics stores, whereas others are carried only by photo shops. The battery compartment will have engravings in black on a black background, and may tell you to use "UM-2" batteries, a designation used only in Asia. You may figure out that the (usually unmarked) "negative" end goes against the spring, but I'm writing this on a Palm handheld, which actually violates this principle.
High-end audio could use interface rethinking too. Check a typical preamplifier or an integrated amp. Sure it looks stylish with its row of knobs all the same size and color, but from the human standpoint it's madness. Add legends which have almost no contrast with the panel color, so that you need to turn the lights up full to tell the volume knob from the input selector. And if you want to be fiendish, silkscreen the list of inputs on the panel, but put the knob's indicator on its front surface, so that it's 2 cm out from the input it is supposed to be pointing to. Make the owner get down on his knees!
Pushbuttons are a horror too, particularly if it selects one function when you push it and another when you push it again. This requires an elaborate little diagram which purports to show the "in" and "out" positions, but which is guaranteed to be virtually undecipherable. Some units, of course, have tiny pushbutton selectors, where the distance between buttons is a silly milimeters less than the width of the average finger.
And how many audiophiles, even experienced ones, have figured out the purpose of the "tape-source" button found on most amplifiers? Most people without tape decks (remember tape decks?) know it only as the button that makes the system stop working when you push it by accident while they're trying to distinguish it from the identically-shaped power switch. Remember those sappy songs about turning the lights down low and putting on soft music? They were all written before hi-fi.
Then there's the rear panel. On some units the left channel jacks are on top, and on others they're on the bottom. Just to make things more fun, the input jacks may be mounted one above the other while the output jacks will be next to one another Which one is the left channel? What you can't tell red from black when you're feeling around behind?
The fuse holder is back there, right? How do you get the fuse out? Fuse holders are designed to be handled by engineers, not people tired out after a day at the office looking forward to some relaxing music.
Need I mention VCR's, after all the jokes on technically challenged people whose VCR screens flash "12:00" perpetually? Programming one is difficult if you haven't read the manual, nearly impossible if you have. Their remote controls are designed by people who should be condemned to a lifetime of using them. I might add that precious few people have figured out the meaning of the cryptic button symbols: the triangle, the circle, the square and the parallel bars. DVD remotes are simpler only because there is (at the moment) no record button.
Memo to design engineers: the human interface is part of your job. Get with it!
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