Robert Chianese Ph. D.
Avoid anything that features endless options and requires manual-study to use.
Modern appliances, cars, computers, were originally sold as time saving, empowering conveniences. They started off that way. Food blenders of yesterday still serve as a model of today’s, with a simple glass jar and a few buttons to rev the motor from slow to fast, about all you need. Nice and intuitive. Do we need more than Off/On/Fast/ controls?
But cars are a different story. While much improved in terms of comfort, power, safety and environmental impacts, they present learning challenges few can grasp in just driving off the lot. In 1950, the Ford Fordor Sedan cost $1472, or 45% of the median household income of $3300, while today’s Ford’s 2020 Fusion sedan costs $24,000 or 32% of today’s $76,000 median income. An improved deal, but, except for stick shift, the 50’s Ford was a cinch to drive, not so the 2020. Why? Start with this: the 2020 Owner’s Manual may have over one hundred different sections, from Airbags to Vehicle Hotspot with 7 steps for the Bluetooth Connection Instructions alone. There’s the rub.
Most of the electronics either get ignored, abandoned or don’t work, and yet electronics continue to sell new models, as if they rate as more important than increased mpg or crash worthiness, certainly welcomed improvements. I do love some new car devices, like backup and overhead cameras, but the alarms for lane drifting and getting too close to objects and lines when parking, not so much when they “ding ding ding,” prompting shutting it off (is there a sensitivity adjustment?).
I have gone back to my dealer for my fancy new plug-in hybrid, and each time I meet an eager helper who shows me again how to work something. I’ve been there more than once, for any clue to some darkly obscure feature. The vaunted “seminar” for owners never gets scheduled. I now take notes on things like my charging paddles, since I have the option of replenishing the battery at five different levels of regeneration as I drive. But it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes the meter says I’m getting a few extra e-miles, but I can be speeding along the freeway even uphill and I’m adding many e-miles to my drive. How? The helpful tutor doesn’t know either. Every fancy option is a puzzle and a potential headache.
My wife has had her new SUV for over three years and is still perplexed by features she has never accessed. Something new shows up on banners in the main display. My car does this too. She must have dialed or punched in some new configuration. Will she come upon that magic combo again, will I? Do we need it? Who knows?
Battery tools boldly shout “5-year warranty!” My new string trimmer got jammed, the auto take-up feed blocked by a piece of string stuck in the head. How to take the head off? I tried, but it was tough. I might break it. I got on the website, registered, added a password, and waited a half hour there and then a half hour on the phone, but I did get a call back the next day. The informed agent told me how to do it. Had I bought the additional store warranty, I could have returned it. I will do that in the future, though it can cost as much as 25% of the purchase price. The painful point is all these items take time to learn, fix and wait for online help. Time is really what they cost.
Computers are worse offenders. Let me just say, better find a support group, a nerdy pal, or pay for help and be ready for frustrating adventures. We may master word processing, photo editing, but not website design. It’ll cost you a lot and you will be discouraged and consider yourself a failure at just about every step of the way. Pay for help.
What’s the moral here? Ease of use is no longer a recommendation for a product; the harder to master the better, since you’ll buy the next model touting its new options and “amazing” simplicity.
Innovators in technology should now concentrate on ease of use. The Interaction Design Foundation does just that: it aims “to optimize ease of use while offering maximum functionality and respecting business limitations.” (https://www.interaction-design.org/) You can take its online User Experience (UX) courses and add design skills to your employment resume. This ought to get big.
In the meantime don’t buy new is the wisdom point. Old appliances last longer than new ones–planned obsolescence, you know. Used cars are a great deal. And electronics, once you learn to use the ones you have, are ongoing miracles. And buy those store warranties. Nothing is more refreshing than bringing the disaster to the store and hearing, “we can replace it or refund your money.” (How much do manufacturers benefit from folks who just won’t return defective things?)
This however is an environmental catastrophe. We had an icemaker on a fancy refrigerator that kept breaking and the store would bring a whole new one–the old ones sent to the toxic appliance graveyard. It broke again, we paid for a repair and when it failed again the wisdom-infused guy said, don’t repair it, keep the refrigerator and buy bags of ice. Happy solution, something I should have thought of.
Simple, non-tech solution: make do with what you have, if it’s somewhat working. The learning curve for the new one is aimed right at your throbbing little head and will cost you hours and days you’d be better off pursuing essential wisdom.