Thursday, July 15, 2010

Stop Over Protecting Me

I'm tired of products that over-protect me and, because of that, they make me significantly less productive than I could otherwise be. It's as if I'm being managed like a child and am not trusted to make my own safe decisions. Here are some examples:

Left Turn Stoplight Arrows Waste Time and Gas

You drive up to an intersection where you need to turn left.  You get into the left turn lane and you encounter a left turn arrow that is red and says that you can only turn left on a green arrow.  You wait for the light to change.  There is no oncoming traffic and thus it would be safe to turn left, but you aren't allowed to go because you have a red arrow.

Instead, you have to just sit there and wait for the entire rest of the stoplight cycle.  Finally, the light turns red your direction, the traffic the other direction gets their left turn arrow and they go.  Then, the straight through traffic the other direction crosses in front of you.  Then, finally you get your green arrow and you can turn left.

What's wrong with this picture?  I wasted several minutes of time.  I wasted some amount of gasoline while my car was just idling.  I made the other cars waiting for their green light wait longer than they needed to.  In the worst case, you get someone in front of you in the left turn lane that isn't paying attention to the green arrow and they don't keep up so the sensors for the green arrow think nobody is there and they turn yellow, then red before you even get a chance to go through the light and you have to wait an entire additional cycle (this happened to me today) wasting even more time and gas.

I have nothing against left turn arrows in general.  On a very busy intersection that never gets a decent gap in oncoming traffic left turn arrows are needed and are very useful.  But, I do object to left turn arrows that don't allow you to proceed with your left turn when the general light is green and there is no oncoming traffic.  In these cases, they give you a left turn green arrow, but not a red or yellow arrow.  At times other than the green arrow, you must yield safely to oncoming traffic as if there was no arrow at all.  In my opinion, this is the best of both worlds.  If traffic is busy, you can wait for the green arrow.  If traffic is not busy, you can proceed during the normal green light cycle when safe and everybody waits less and burns less gas waiting.

The only reason I can figure that the lights are configured with red arrows is that they don't trust you to turn left safely on your own.  Even though most traffic signals don't even have left turn arrows (thus they are trusting you to make those decisions on most traffic signals), some signals are configured not to trust you to make a left turn decision on your own.  This lack of trust costs time and gas and is unnecessary in most intersections.  You may note that this seems to be a regional issue.  Some regions have a lot of left turn arrows that only allow you to proceed on a green arrow.  Other regions have a lot of left turn arrows that let you turn left any time the through light is green and it's safe to make a left turn.  Unfortunately for me, the part of California I live in has a lot of the time waster, gas waster red arrows.

Car Navigation System that Won't Let Me Use It While Driving

I own a 2008 Lexus sedan.  One of the nice options it came with was a built-in navigation system.  My previous car has also had a navigation system so I was well used to the benefits.  A mere hour or so after taking my new car off the car lot, I discover that the new navigation system will not let me set a destination while I'm driving.   Woahhh, how unproductive is that?  If I want to use my nav system, I have to either program it before I start driving or I have to find a place to pull over so I can set it or occasionally you can race to try to get it programmed in the duration of a red light.  In any case, once you pull out of the driveway, you can no longer set your navigation system.  To make matters worse,

At first, I figured that this was just some new law that the car manufacturers all had to adhere to.  Nope, as it turns out, some cars let you program the nav system while driving and some do not.  My particular car maker has decided that I can't be trusted to safely enter a destination in the nav system while other car makers still allow that.  Furthermore, even a passenger isn't allowed to operate the nav system which is absolutely silly.  And, of course, if you own an add-on Garmin nav system or some other similar brand, those can all be used while in motion too.

In full disclosure, my nav system does allow me to use voice commands to set a destination while driving.  I read about how to do it in the manual and I tried to use it.  It is simply a horrible experience.  It is quicker to pull over and use the on screen keyboard to enter your destination.  Furthermore, it doesn't support important features like setting an intersection as the destination when you don't have a precise street address.  As best I can tell, voice commands for the nav system is one of those absolutely useless features that someone spent a lot of engineering dollars on.

Car makers and Lexus in particular - stop protecting me from myself.   I have safely used my previous nav system while driving for many years and believe that I can continue to do so.  FYI Lexus, the next time my wife shops for a car (and probably me too), one of her requirements is that the nav system can be used while driving.  I guess she won't be buying a Lexus.  Her brother's new Acura MDX does allow the nav system to be used while driving.

Bluetooth Car System That Won't Let Me Dial a Number While Driving

While we're on the subject of my 2008 Lexus, one of my favorite features in the car is the built-in bluetooth hands-free integration so I can answer calls without using my hands (and do so legally now that California has new laws about cell phones and driving).  And, if the number I'm trying to call has been previously entered into the address book in the car (which is different than the address book in my phone), then I can dial outgoing calls while driving by just selecting the desired person to call.

But, if I need to dial a number that isn't in the address book in the car (which happens regularly), my car won't let me do it through the car system without making me pull over to initiate the call.  What's so silly about this is that I can initiate a call from my phone itself (either by selecting an address book entry on the phone or by dialing the number on the phone) and then the bluetooth system handles the entire rest of the call.  And it would, in fact, be safer for me to initiate the call on the touchscreen in the car than by holding my phone since the touchscreen in the car is a way less complicated interaction than managing my touchscreen phone while driving.  So, they've blocked the most straightforward way to dial a call and pushed you in the direction of the less safe way.  This is just dumb.  If we're allowed to initiate calls while driving by law, we should be able to use the most straightforward way of doing so.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

No New Software to Install

It's a bit ironic that the first product I discuss here is an Apple product because Apple probably has more of a brand reputation than anyone else for products that "just work". In fact, one could say this reputation for elegance is the reason there are so many loyal Mac enthusiasts. One could also say that what launched the iPhone revolution in smartphones was the first phone browser and general smartphone UI that actually worked well enough for regular people to use on a regular basis.

That said, Apple doesn't get everything right. As any of you who have iTunes or QuickTime installed on your computer know (I own an iPod so I have iTunes), every one in a while, you get a pop-up on your computer saying that Apple has a new version of iTunes or QuickTime or both to install. No problem, if the download won't bother your usage at the time, you hit OK and let it go.

After giving your permission to proceed, it then downloads the new version and installs it. Then, here's where the wackiness shows itself. Right when it has finished installing the newly updated software, it again checks to see if there's new software to install, reports that there is no new software to install and sits there on screen with a prompt telling you so.

So, duh didn't you just find that new software was available, ask me to install it, receive my consent and then install the new software? Why in the world would you then check for new software availability again and make me respond to the result of that request which (on my computer) has never, ever found anything more to do.

The design just looks broken to me. Auto-installers like this should be designed to be minimally invasive in your computing life. You should be able to control them so they don't go doing things you don't want them to do, but once you send them off on a task, they should ask you any questions they need to ask up front and then after that, they should just go do it without bothering you any more.

So, once I say go, do the install, have some non-interrupting way of showing me when it's done (like a bubble out of the windows task bar), but don't make me respond to any more prompts and don't do any more work than required. Why check for new software after just updating me to the only new software that was available last time it checked?

If a Windows upgrade from Vista to Windows 7, went through all it steps to upgrade to Windows 7 and then when it finished, it proceeded to analyze your computer to see if it needs an upgrade to Windows 7, you'd think that installer was laughable. That's what is seems that the Apple upgrader is doing.

Is this issue a big deal? No. But, it would be really easy to make it "just work" the way you expect. Fix it Apple.

Things should "Just Work"

The general idea behind this blog is to share observations and ideas about products of all kinds that don't "just work" the way they should. In some cases, I'm actively involved in a community related to the products I write about and I'm also submitting my ideas to the manufacturer, but in many other cases, I am not involved in such a community or have any standing to allow my comments to rise about the noise so I choose to write about them here. If anything I write here contributes to better products in the world, I'll be pleased. Other than that hope, this blog is just an outlet for me to direct my thoughts and occasional frustration with how some products or individual features in a product just miss the mark.

In general, I think that things of all kinds should "just work" the way the user expects them to work. And, when things don't work for the user, they should tell the user clearly what went wrong and what their options are for changing/fixing things. I know from designing software myself for many years that making things "just work" for nearly any type of user is a ton of work to do it well. It's one thing to make a product work if a user follows a given set of steps in the appropriate sequence and never makes any mistakes. But making it just work for a user who has no idea how it's supposed to work or what sequence things should go in and makes lots of mistakes is perhaps 10x more work than the first way.

In many cases, I think things that "just work" are what distinguishes "great" products from "good" products. There are "good" products that succeed for other reasons (like Adobe Photoshop, for example), but even they could be so much more successful if they were great.

Anyway, the following posts will be comments on products that aren't as good as they could be and why.