Setting the time on a Timex 1440 sports watch: the worst UX ever?

tl:dr: Press and hold the “set” button until you see the seconds count blinking at the top right of the face, then press the “mode” button to switch to hours and then minutes, press the “start/stop” button to advance either. You’re welcome.

Some time ago, my wife bought a Timex 1440 sports watch from an Amazon reseller to wear while playing tennis. Not a bad idea, except she happened to purchase a device with one of the more irritatingly cryptic user experiences around.

Timex 1440 watchI only discovered this recently, when she mentioned that it was off by a few minutes and she had not been able to figure out how to change it. Mind you, my wife has an electrical-engineering degree and works in IT, so I already figured the solution was non-obvious. I just didn’t know how non-obvious it could be–and the Web was not its usual helpful self.

This timepiece features four buttons–“set,” “mode,” “start/stop,” “indiglo”–labeled in vanishingly small type at the very edge of the face. If I’d just monkeyed with them, I might have found the answer sooner. Instead, I searched online for what I thought was the watch’s name and found an entire third-party site with a domain matching that moniker that purported to explain this watch’s workings–a sure sign that a product’s UX sucks. But its instructions did not pan out.

One reason why: The “WR50M” that appears prominently on the face below “TIMEX” is not the name of the watch, but a reference to it being water-resistant down to 50 meters. It’s apparently a “1440” watch, or “143-T5G891″ if you want to the exact model number.

Timex’s own site showed a different watch when I searched for “1440,” while a query for the model number yielded nothing. (I suppose I can’t rule out this being somebody else’s knock-off product?) A post at Answers.com lived up to that site’s reputation for unreliability by offering an incorrect answer. After further fruitless searching online, I found the correct instructions in the second post on a thread on a site where people trade links for user manuals–a sure sign that the UX of the vendors responsible sucks.

Here’s how: Press and hold the “set” button at the top left for about three seconds–as in, two seconds after it beeps for some other reason–until the tiny seconds count on the top right of the face starts to blink, then press the “mode” button at the bottom left so that the hour and then the minutes shown on the bulk of the face blink, then press the “start/stop” button at the top right to advance either digit. When you’re done, press “mode” until you return to a non-blinking time.

You’re welcome. Timex, where’s my check for documenting the workings of your product?

Conference badge design best practices

I spend an unhealthy amount of my time walking around strange places with a piece of paper suspended from my neck by a lanyard, courtesy of all of the conferences on my schedule. A partial selection from the last 12 months: CES, CTIADemoGoogle I/O, IFA, Mobile World Congress, ONASXSW, Tech Policy Summit and TechCrunch Disrupt.

Conference badges

This experience bothers me more than it should, because almost everybody screws up the basic job of designing a conference badge. And it shouldn’t be that hard–these things only have to perform three functions:

  • Tell other people who we are.
  • Store relevant information we’d need to know throughout the event.
  • Give us a place to stash business cards.

And yet. At most conferences, you’ll immediately see people whose badges have anonymized their wearers by flipping around to show the reverse side. You can fix this by printing the same information on both sides of the badge (see, for instance, SXSW), but it’s easier to have the lanyard attach to both sides of the badge instead of leaving it dangling from the center (something Macworld badges got right).

The design of the front of the badge should also be easy to solve, but many events botch that job too: first name in large type, last name in smaller type, organizational affiliation. Adding your city and Twitter handle helps but isn’t always essential.

What about the back? Too many badges just leave this valuable real estate blank. At a minimum, it should list the event’s WiFi network and, if necessary, password. And if the schedule is compact enough to fit on one page, why not add that as well? But if that requires turning the badge into a booklet–like at last year’s I/O–you should think about just posting the schedule in a lot of places around the venue.

Some badges now embed NFC tags. At this year’s I/O, for instance, tapping mine with my Android phone opened up a link in the Play Store to Google’s I/O attendee app; when event staff did the same, their phones would bring up my registration information. That’s not a bad feature to have, but don’t make it mandatory to participate in some parts of the event.

Finally, what contains the badge? The multiple-pocket, wallet-esque badge holders some events provide are overkill–too big, too many spots to misplace a card or a receipt–and usually eliminate the informational utility of the reverse side. A simple clear vinyl holder should provide sufficient room to hold a bunch of business cards to hand out to other people.

Thank you for your attention to this, event planners of the world.

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How a Samsung phone and an iPad mini don’t mix

After accidentally invoking Siri on my iPad mini for the fifth time this morning, it hit me: The proprietary layout of buttons on the Samsung Galaxy Note II that I just reviewed is making me stupider at using Apple’s mobile devices.

ImageSamsung veers from the lineup of Android system buttons that Google established with last year’s Ice Cream Sandwich release: Instead of back, home and recent apps, arranged left to right, Samsung’s Android phones offer menu, home and back buttons. (LG also departs from the Android standard, but its back-home-menu array keeps the back button in the expected place.) To see your open apps, you have to press and hold the home button.

On my iPad mini, that same gesture opens Siri, while I have to tap the home button twice to see open apps.

(Yes, when I first wrote about ICS, I was skeptical about removing the menu button and thought that requiring a long press of home to see open apps was good enough. I was wrong: I rarely miss the menu button, while I hit the recent-apps button all the time.)

It’s an exasperating situation, and if I were to get a Samsung Android phone and keep my iPad I’d have to waste brain cells on memorizing this unnecessary difference. You can’t remap the system buttons on a Samsung phone or change Apple’s home-button behavior;  if you disable Siri a long press of the home button will instead bump you over to iOS’s search.

If, on the other hand, I get a phone with the regular ICS buttons–many vendors alter Google’s interface in other ways but stick with that lineup–I face a lot less confusion. At worst, I’d find myself pressing the phone’s home button twice and having nothing happen, which beats launching an unwanted app and hearing Siri’s “ding-ding” prompt.

So that’s one thing that I know will govern my next phone purchase.

A Metro user-interface wish list

One side effect of being a user-interface critic is never being able to step away from the work–the world is full of bad UIs. And sadly enough, public transportation has been a tremendous contributor. Consider the transit system I know best and use all the time, Metro.

Don’t get me wrong here: Metro’s rail map is a model of clarity (yes, I own a copy of “Transit Maps of the World”) and I’ve grown so used to Metro’s signs counting down the minutes until the next train that the absence of equivalents in places like Boston baffles me (“I’m just going to have to wait at Government Center for an indeterminate period of time?!”). The leadership at WMATA greatly improved the system’s usability when they provided a schedule feed to third-party sites like Google Maps, as I documented in an article for ReadWriteWeb two weeks ago.

Yet in some ways, Metro’s user experience remains awkward enough to make you wonder about the motives of the people behind this “UX.”

  • Too many bus-stop signs are useless. The one pictured at right, across the street from the Clarendon Metro station, isn’t even the worst: Although it offers no map or schedule, it does name the end points of each route.
  • Bus-route monikers mean nothing. Take the 30s routes–please. Most 30s buses going west out of downtown head up Wisconsin Avenue, but the 38B goes across the river to Arlington. The 32, 32, 34 and 36 are local, but the 37 is express. Metro can’t even pick logical names for new routes, with no established constituency to confuse: When it added express service to BWI Airport, it named this route “B30″ instead of, you know, “BWI.”
  • The NextBus interface, on both the desktop and mobile, is clumsy and slow. It’s terrific that Metro lets you look up real-time arrival estimates for buses–when those estimates approach reality–but unless you’re standing in front of a sign with a NextBus stop number, you have to look up service by choosing a bus line, then a direction, then a stop. Metro’s sites desperately need a “service near my location” button like those on NJ Transit and BART’s mobile sites; fortunately, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel tweeted in June that Metro was working to add that. (The photo shows a related problem of incompatible next-arrival tools used by other systems; to see if Arlington Transit’s 42 bus will get there before the 38B, you’re asked to hit a separate site.) Update, 12/1, 12:02 p.m. Reader “t” commented that NextBus’s smartphone site – nextbus.com/webkit –  offers that geolocation option already. I tried it, and it almost instantly reported the next arrivals for the four Metro bus routes nearest my home, plus a D.C. Circulator stop about a mile away.
  • The downtown transfer stations need better exit signage. Get off at Metro Center, then try to find the westernmost exit. You can’t without a compass on your phone; at any given point, you can only see one or two signs pointing which escalator will take you towards one of its four exits. (There used to be a large map on the Red Line platform showing exactly where those exits put you on the street, but that disappeared at some point.) The situation is as bad at L’Enfant Plaza.
  • As a great many others have complained, station names are a form of grade inflation. In the city, endlessly-hyphenated names like “U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” suggest how much influence a particular councilmember holds; in the suburbs, exercises in wishful thinking like “Vienna/Fairfax-GMU” imply that locations five miles away are next door. I can only hope Metro’s board quashes Fairfax County’s delusional proposal to name seven of the eight future Silver Line stops in the county after either “Tysons” or “Reston.”
  • Poorly-connected suburban stations. Building a Metro stop is an expensive exercise, but some area jurisdictions must have forgotten that when designing Metro stops that impede access from adjacent neighborhoods. In Fairfax, the Dunn-Loring stop squats in the median of Interstate 66–but there’s no pedestrian bridge connecting it to the north side of the highway. Walking from the West Falls Church stop to a friend’s house in Pimmit Hills–about a mile by air–sends me on a two-mile trek along multiple highway on- and off-ramps. In Montgomery County, walking from the Forest Glen stop to the east side of Georgia Avenue requires a hazardous crossing of eight lanes of traffic.

You’ll note that I didn’t include a common Metro rant: its byzantine route structure, with off-peak, peak and “peak of the peak” fares that also vary by distance. That’s because Metro’s stored-value fare cards, and in particular its SmarTrip RFID cards, help to hide the cost of any given trip. (When I interviewed Metro CFO Peter Benjamin in 1999 for a piece explaining the then-new SmarTrip system, he said upfront that Metro wanted to make the price of any one ride as invisible as the cost of a single drive.) It’s funny how a good interface can make complexity vanish.