Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Blinking 12:00

I'm pretty far from OCD, but there are a few things in this world that I get a bit obsessive about. I can't pass a CRT monitor set on 60 Hz refresh rate without either suggesting a settings change or simply doing it myself. I am very picky about pens, and try not to lend out my good ones (not necessarily the expensive ones) since they often come back not working as well. And back in the days of VCRs, I had a hard time leaving an unset clock blinking, regardless of where I was. 

These clocks were usually of a vein; either a multiple-button press or a multi-second press of a single button would enter you into the "clock set" mode. The select button would move you from field to field (day of the week, hour, tens of minutes, minutes, AM/PM), and the set button would change the value of the field. When done, you either had to press select until everything was finished blinking, or you repeated the entry sequence to get out of "clock set". It was similar to setting a basic digital watch, stopwatch, car clock, or countless other limited input digital devices of the era. Kinda like the Konami Code, once known it was used on everything as a first pass at solving the problem, and more often than not a variant of it worked.

This was not the case for the Broksonic 2-head VCR. My parents bought this as a component of our shadow entertainment system in the basement. It was cheap, it did its job, but it pissed me off to no end. And as silly as it sounds, its clock made me value good design for perhaps the first time in my life. 

I was, and still am, the geek of our family. Technology has always been more of a puzzle than an obstacle to me, and I typically enjoy sussing out the thought patterns that go into the design of an object. But this damnable VCR had me beat for days, well after the rest of my family had given up hope that its clock could ever be set. I spent literally hours trying to figure it out. And while at first I was relieved when I finally succeeded, I then grew angry, very angry.

Because I realized, perhaps for the first time, that there was an engineer with the responsibility to design this clock. He or she was tasked with making it functional, and then with making it useable. For mere mortals. This person had over a decade of working precedent to follow, and I doubt there were patent issues to concern them. They had the same buttons available that the other VCRs had, the same display capabilities, but they made this clock needlessly complicated. They simply didn't care.

And thus there was another object in this world that made people I care about feel inadequate. Which makes me sad. It's enough to feel beaten up by everything else in this world, but to suffer defeat at the virtual hands of a blinking clock is pathetic. That engineer, probably unknowingly, inflicted psychological pain on thousands of people through their lack of design thought. And I saw glimpses of that behavior practically every day in my previous job. 

A good design takes more than simply fulfilling the requirements set forth. It needs to understand its user, and accommodate for their abilities in a graceful manner. It needs to take into account what came before it, and embrace or discard that evolution of thought in a purposeful fashion. It needs to "grok" its place in the world and adjust accordingly. Anything less is just that.

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