This is the worst interface I’ve ever seen

Our water heater broke sometime Monday, and we found out the analog way: Only cold water came out of the tap.

A visit to the basement revealed that the heater had already been reporting a problem in the least intuitive way possible. A single green LED on an assembly near its base was blinking out a pattern–eight flashes in a row, followed by a pause of a few seconds and then two more flashes.

That sequence, a small sticker explained, was the heater’s way of saying “Temperature sensor fault detected.” This same sticker listed 17 other sequences of flashes and pauses that could report anything from “No faults” to “Flammable vapor sensor fault detected.”

(The temperature sensor had indeed gone bad, although it took multiple visits by techs to confirm that and then return with a working replacement. This has left me with a renewed appreciation for household modern conveniences.)

That’s an awful user interface. It’s also what happens when you supply a single, single-color LED to display the status of a fairly complex home appliance. Bradford White, the manufacturer, could have put in a light that changed color–seeing a once-green indicator turn to red is usually your tip that something’s changed for the worse–or put in two or more LEDs.

Or that firm could have splurged on a digital readout capable of showing numeric error codes, bringing the discoverability of this interface up to that of the “DSKY” control of the Apollo Guidance Computer that NASA astronauts sometimes struggled to decipher on their way to the Moon.

Instead, sticking with that sole green LED and offloading the work of discovering its Morse-code-esque interface to customers may have saved Bradford White a dime per heater. On the upside, I’m now pretty sure I’ve seen the worst possible UI. I mean, not even Lotus Notes got this bad.

Advertisements

Samsung’s Android versus stock Android: how six common tasks compare

I didn’t get around to reviewing Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge after their introductions at Mobile World Congress this February, but a couple of months ago Verizon Wireless PR offered to loan me one anyway. The device had a useful cameo role in a story about mobile payments, I did my customary battery-life tests, and then I had one last chore: taking notes on the differences between Samsung’s “TouchWiz” version of Android and the stock-condition software I have on my Nexus 5X.

Galaxy S7 and Nexus 5XThese interface gaps aren’t as jarring as they used to be, thanks mainly to Samsung having an attack of sanity and no longer putting a menu button where Android’s standard recent-apps button should be. Instead, a back button occupies that space, with recent-apps’ overlapping rectangles moved to the bottom-left corner.

But some differences remain, and I should keep them in mind the next time I’m writing up a cheat sheet about how to tackle certain Android chores. Consider this post a little FYI to myself…

Enable airplane mode:
• Samsung: Swipe down from the top of the screen to show the Quick Settings bar, swipe left to reveal the “Airplane mode” button, tap that. You may see a confirmation dialog if you haven’t told the phone not to nag you about this again.
• Stock: Swipe down twice (or swipe once with two fingers) and tap “Airplane mode.”

Check data usage:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Data usage” in the Settings app you just opened. Or, less obviously, swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap and and hold the “Mobile data” icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap the signal-strength icon.

View app permissions:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Privacy and emergency” in the Settings app you just opened, tap “App permissions.”
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, select “Apps” in the Settings app, tap the top-right gear icon, tap “App permissions.”

Pair with a Bluetooth device:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap and hold the Bluetooth icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the menu below the Bluetooth icon.

Check per-app battery consumption:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Battery” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the battery icon.

See how much storage space is left:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage & USB” in the Settings app.

Overall, I don’t see Samsung’s interface saving any time compared to Google’s. Which makes me wonder yet again why it bothers to craft such a different front end for this operating system.

What posting a Facebook Offer taught me about Facebook’s privacy rules

Some months ago, a PR person for Gogo handed me a few freebies I probably couldn’t use: three free passes for that company’s inflight WiFi service. (Ethics aside, almost all of my transcon flights are on planes that don’t employ its connectivity, while on shorter flights Gogo’s unintentional free access to Google apps suffices.) Many weeks later, I finally remembered that I could try giving the passes to readers with the Offers function on my Facebook page.

Gogo WiFi passesIt seemed simple enough: You create a special post on your page with the image and brief description of your choice, you set an expiration date and limit how many people can claim the deal, and you watch the audience love roll in.

But I didn’t realize, by virtue of not reading the documentation before, that readers would have to take an extra step to collect this freebie. The lucky winners got an e-mail with this instruction: “To use the offer, visit Rob Pegoraro and show this email.”

As the page owner, meanwhile, I only got a notification that the offer had been claimed–without a hint of who had won it. As Facebook’s help explains: “To protect the privacy of the individuals who claimed your offer, you will not be able to see any of their personal information.” They’d have to get back to me somehow.

I wasn’t planning on any face-to-face interaction, but I didn’t get much of the digital sort either. One longtime reader left a comment saying he’d redeemed the offer–I took him at his word and e-mailed one of the three Gogo alphanumeric codes–and nobody else responded, even after I posted comments imploring them to e-mail me.

That’s bad in the sense that I have some readers wondering why they never received the free inflight WiFi they sought. But it’s good in the sense that Facebook seems to have defaulted to privacy at the expense of marketing convenience.

That, in turn, matches up with such Page limits as my not being able to send messages to fans unless they’ve sent me one first. So if you were holding off on Liking my page because you didn’t want your name in lights–go ahead, since even I probably won’t know unless I spend a lot of time scrolling through Graph Search results for “people who like Rob Pegoraro.”

(Whoever can see your profile will, however, see your new Like. If they already mock you for your taste in tech news, you might want to hold off on the appreciation.)

In the meantime, I have two Gogo passes left. Let’s do this instead: E-mail me about how you’ll make great use of them, and the first two people to send a persuasive story will have the codes in their inboxes soon after.

Mac settings changes you might miss going from Snow Leopard to Yosemite

One of the major Christmas presents at my in-laws was a shiny new 13-inch MacBook Air that replaced a 2010-vintage MacBook–which meant that one of my major presents was getting apps, data and settings transferred from the old Mac to the new one, then completing the rest of the setup.

Old MacBook and new MacBookThe first hiccups came in OS X’s Migration Assistant: It estimated the data transfusion would take five-plus hours over the home WiFi. But neither machine saw the other over a faster Ethernet link (using a USB-to-Ethernet adapter on the Air), and an ad hoc, computer-to-computer WiFi network didn’t work until I resorted to the un-Mac-like workaround of turning on Internet sharing on the source laptop.

Then I realized the work Migration Assistant had left for me: configuring parts of OS X Mavericks (preloaded on the new MacBook) and Yosemite (promptly installed as a free update) that had no equivalent in the old MacBook’s Snow Leopard, then changing OS X settings that would confuse anybody used to that five-year-old operating system.

Atop the first category: the social-media integration Apple began adding to OS X in 2012’s Mountain Lion release. My in-laws aren’t on Twitter and don’t spend much time in Facebook–but that integration’s ability to share a photo to Facebook from the Finder does address a pain point I’d heard from them.

An Apple ID is far more important in Yosemite than in Snow Leopard, courtesy of so many updates running through the Mac App Store. So I had to verify that hitherto-dusty account worked and had current billing info, without which we couldn’t download the free Yosemite update.

Migration Assistant had siphoned over a few long-ignored PowerPC applications that OS X hasn’t been able to run since 2011’s disappointing Lion, so I had to delete those myself.

OS X Yosemite General system prefsI thought I was done at that point, and then I heard my father-in-law complaining about not being able to scroll. He had bumped into Apple’s foolish decision to make scroll bars invisible until you mouse over them or use a two-finger gesture to move up or down the page. I hadn’t thought to fix that setting (open System Preferences and click “General”) because I’d fixed it on my own Mac after maybe two hours with Lion. Oops.

The last round of settings to change were in the minds of Yosemite users who had been used to Snow Leopard. From that perspective, the Notifications icon at the top-right corner of the screen means nothing (and requires tweaking to avoid info pollution), while Launchpad’s rocketship Dock icon doesn’t exactly shout that you no longer need click around the Finder to run apps that aren’t already in the Dock.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time walking my wife’s folks through those angles, but I suspect I’ll be getting questions about the new computer for months to come. See also: “the gift that keeps on giving.”

The fable of the one-handed phablet

For most of the last three years, I have been fighting a battle against “phablets” and losing it badly. Not only have people flocked to buy supersized phones after each negative review I hand down, the dimensions of these displays have steadily crept up.

Phone size inflationThe 5.3-inch screen of the first Samsung Galaxy Note, the one that I mocked at the time for its enormousness, now ranks as just a bit over medium-sized. And that 2012-vintage hardware seems positively compact next to the 5.5-in. LCD of the iPhone 6 Plus, the 5.7-in. screen of the Galaxy Note 4 and the 5.96-in. display on Google’s upcoming Nexus 6.

Minimum sizes have gone up too. The 4.7-in. touchscreen on my Nexus 4 once seemed quite the expanse of glass but is now approaching minimum-viable-product material.

All along, my core complaint against enormophones hasn’t changed: How do you use these things single-handed? Here are some common situations where it’s difficult or impossible to wield a phone with both hands:

  • Holding a shopping basket at a store
  • Pushing a stroller
  • Wheeling your luggage through an airport
  • Standing in a train or bus and holding on to a handrail or stanchion
  • Eating a slice of pizza or other no-utensils-needed food
  • Standing in a coffee shop, bar or restaurant with a beverage in one hand
  • Holding your child’s hand
  • Walking a pet

And no, wearing a smartwatch doesn’t help unless you’re willing to annoy everybody around you by issuing voice commands to your computer of a chronograph.

But with millions of people choosing to pay what’s often a non-trivial price premium for plus-sized phones, I have to allow for me being the person who doesn’t get it.

So I’ll ask this: If you have a phone with screen that exceeds five inches across, how do you work its touchscreen when you don’t have both hands free? Has the act of tilting the phone in your hand to let your thumb reach a corner become so natural that you no longer notice, do you put down or let go whatever has your other hand occupied, or is there some other trick I’ve been missing?

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?

Weekly output: tech exceptionalism, mobile UX, smarter wireless, wireless-phone portability

This was an unusual week: For a change, it was my wife out of town on business and me doing the solo-parent thing at home. If you were wondering why I seemed absent from Twitter in the evenings, there’s your answer.

11/18/2013: Tech Exceptionalism with a Dose of Reality, Disruptive Competition Project

This was the essay about the Techonomy conference that I mentioned in last week’s recap. I hope the repeated rewrites paid off, but you can be the judge of that. Also unclear: Whether my skeptical take will get me uninvited from the conference next year.

eMobileHub mobile-UX chat11/19/2013: How to Ensure Top-Notch Mobile User Experiences, Enterprise Mobile Hub

After a few weeks off, I rejoined IDG’s Twitter chat series. In this week’s installment, we talked about ways organizations can make their mobile apps less awful, which at one point led to me using the phrase “reeducation camp.”

11/22/2013: Promising Signs For Smarter Wireless: Better Cheap Phones, Smoother WiFi Substitution, Disruptive Competition Project

This post came to mind after noting the arrival of a couple of cheap-but-good unlocked phones, then spending a couple of weeks trying out Republic Wireless’s new version of the Moto X… and then failing to sell a review of the latter item to an outlet that I was sure would be interested in it. Sigh.

11/24/2013: How to bring your own phone to another carrier, USA Today

A reader query about bringing a paid-up, out-of-contract Sprint iPhone to a prepaid carrier gave me an excuse to talk about phone-unlocking policy issues–and possibly get one Sprint reseller in trouble.

On Sulia, I called out a phone-unfriendly invitation from Amazon, said that mobile-malware metrics mean little without breaking out how many bad programs make it into default app stores, questioned the value of smaller, discount-priced 4K TVs, scoffed at the idea of Comcast buying Time Warner Cable, and shared some disturbingly inconsistent results from a Verizon Wireless mobile-broadband hot spot.