Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The complexity of simple devices

This morning I am jumping on an airplane at 6AM. My wife needs to go somewhere this afternoon and does not know how to get there. We have a very nice talking GPS device (a Garmin Nuvi) that could help her to get there.

The question is, can she learn to use the device fast enough to make it useful to her today?

This is the question I was pondering this morning as I was leaving the Nuvi on the kitchen table. I was trying to write her a quick note on how to use it, and the note was getting longer and longer.

Here's what I needed to write down:

Step 1: Turn the thing on. You would think that this would be an easy step. However, the Nuvi has a buttonless design (the entire user interface uses the touch screen) and a case that appears to have no buttons on it. The on/off button is actually blended into the case and is nearly invisible. Then, once you find the on/off button, you have to hold it down for about 4 seconds to activate the device. If you don't know about the 4-second rule, it appears that the device doesn't work.

Step 2: Wait for the device to boot, which takes about 15 seconds. During this time it appears that the device is broken because it just sits there displaying a splash screen. There is no progress bar or anything to indicate what is happening. So you have to know to wait 15 seconds.

Step 3: Once the device boots, the first thing you see is a warning about how you could potentially die if you try to use the Nuvi while driving. That screen is not the most inviting thing to see as your first encounter with the device. You have to push an "Agree" button to clear this warning.

Step 4: Now the "main menu" shows up. You click the "Where to?" button to tell the GPS where you want to go.

Step 5: Now you click on the heart icon to say "show me a list of my favorites." I have pre-programmed the address for where she is going into the GPS, and it will show up in this area. But... the next screen has three things on it and I cannot remember which one you have to press to get to the list of pre-programmed destinations. She'll have to fifure it out.

Step 6: Find your destination in the list, click on it and then click the "Go!" button.

Step 7: Be sure to put up the antenna. This is a very non-intuitive step because the antenna is square and located on the back of the device. It folds completely into the case and is invisible if you do not know it is there. If you don't put up the antenna, the Nuvi can't see the GPS satellites, and therefore cannot tell where it is, but it never tells you this. So you have to know to raise the antenna.

Step 8: Now the Nuvi will do what you want it to do, which is tell you where to go. And it is fantastic at doing this one thing – the best step-by-step speaking navigation system I have ever seen. Except...

Step 9: You have to be very careful about touching the screen at this point. If you touch the screen, the device can go into any of five different modes (depending on where you touch it) that are very non-intuitive to the first-time user. If you get into any of these modes, click the "Back" button. Interesting side note - if you are a first-time user, you don't know what the "normal" screen looks like, so it is hard to know if you have accidentally touched the screen and gotten into one of these sub-modes.

There – that is a quick introduction to using the Nuvi for the first-time user. Imagine trying to write all that down in a quick note to your wife. And compare it to a television, where the instructions are : 1) Click the on-off button (intuitive). 2) Select the channel you want to watch (intuitive). The Nuvi is far more complex than that, and that probably severely limits its possible audience.

What will fix this? Garmin could probably make this a little easier, but not much using the current interface. It is likely we will have to wait for voice interfaces, where the device acts like a little person able to understand what you say and what you want to do in plain English. Maybe 10 years from now? 15 at the most.

I've got a Nuvi myself, and have given it to my not-very-tech-knowledgeable mother a couple of times. I'd agree that it's less than straightforward explaining how exactly to use it. While personally I much prefer the touchscreen controlling everything, I do think she'd be more at home with a "Take me..." button and a plain on/off switch.
Steps 1, 2, 3, 7, and 9 are "easy" to fix with good user interface engineering and empathy. Example: make the on button obvious. Another example: when you turn the unit on, have the antenna pop up automatically. Not too hard, eh?
A device-driven-demo would be useful. That would do a dry-run on the procedure, highlighting at every point what to do. Say, Device says..."Switch me on by holding the ON button for 4 secs" and a backlight for the ON button comes on and stays on for 4 secs...

Something like video-game tutorials.
Thanks for the how-to Blog on!
You left out one thing. Once you put up the antenna, it can sometimes take 3 to 5 minutes to find the satellites. During that time, the unit appears to be broken (does not talk).
Complicated devices are now a way of life for younger generations. I'd bet that today's American kids would have no problems at all with this GPS device...not because they are kids, but because they have grown up in an environment where complex devices are a way of life.
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