A recent radio news broadcast in the USA announced that most American men wanted a giant, high-definition television with appropriate accoutrements as a year-end holiday gift. I decided it was time to increase my expertise in the area of home consumer electronics and explore in detail the user experience issues of home-media systems. I wanted to examine the purchase, out-of-box, set-up, and maintenance experience for the home consumer. I tried to become as typical a consumer of video and audio media as possible under the circumstances, in order to understand better what consumers were experiencing, and to look especially at the user-interface and information-visualization issues. I got more, and less, than I paid for and expected.
First, I researched equipment on the Web, in print, and at local electronics stores. Wired magazine published an excellent review of some 250 products ("The Ultimate Buyer's Guide to the Best Products," November 2004). Based primarily on Wired's recommendations and viewing large-screen displays in-store, I decided on a Samsung 51" (diagonal) high-definition display. I decided that space did not require a flat, wall-mounted or standing plasma display or liquid-crystal display (LCD). I could get a larger screen for less money using a digital light-processor (DLP) rear-projection device. Trying to cross-compare the attributes of devices and to examine detailed technical specifications was mind numbing, and exceedingly frustrating. Detailed specs of key attributes, like brightness contrast-ratios of screens, spatial resolution, and price were not often in the same place at manufacturers' Web sites and were not often included in publications' recommendations. Also, key attributes were missing from cross-comparison lists. The consumer is left cross-referencing. There is, to my knowledge, no stand-out winner of comparison Web sites or other tools.
At another retail outlet, I was persuaded by a knowledgeable sales person to abandon my previous choice and select a behemoth Mitsubishi 62" device. One of the unique benefits seemed to be an all-purpose master remote-control unit, to which all other devices could be connected. Even Wired admitted this was a powerful feature, although complex. I held my breath and entered the unknown abyss of high-definition home media equipment.
Delivering the television itself required two people. A world had come to an end for me: the lifelong expectation that, if I needed to move a television from one location to another, I could do it myself. Now I would have to hire a moving crew. This monarch with its attendant princes and princesses is itself larger in front-face square footage than my refrigerator and weighs about as much.
Now came the out-of-box and set-up experience which included connecting the following: The "big kahuna:" 62" Mitsubishi DLP rear-projection high-definition television; The supporting characters: Samsung DVD player; Mitsubishi high-definition VHS recorder with built-in NTSC tuner; DirecTV satellite signal decoder plus TiVo with 250 gig drive; Two additional satellite signal decoders for two other rooms; Terq elliptical satellite dish on the roof; The system already had: Sony Surround-sound analogue AM/FM receiver and AV hub; Sony VHS recorder with built in NTSC tuner; Sony CD-ROM player with six-CD changer; Sony Audio tape player with two decks for copying; 27" Sony TV now being used in master bedroom with satellite decoder; 19" Philips TV being used in a home-office with satellite decoder
Amazingly, the sales representative had to make three four-hour visits to connect and set up all of this equipment, which was included in the purchase price. I had not realized that when one buys these giant systems, one actually inherits two new family members: the television, and the sales/set-up person.
The sales representative had to help not only with wiring, but went through all of the set-up screens of all of the devices. I did appreciate that the 20 or so set-up screens for the Mitsubishi Net Command master control featured clear English text to guide the user in every step. Nevertheless, the terminology of inputs and outputs, of acronyms, of unexplained technical terms, and the overall daunting complexity made me marvel that the average user is supposed to cope with this massive amount of new information, which I found challenging. Unfortunately, the expert salesperson had little time or incentive to guide me through all of these screens. I was left to look back through them at another time. I estimate it would have taken me at least twice as long to accomplish what he did in 12 hours. Clearly, a user experience innovation was needed.
After he left, I sat and contemplated the18 or more remotes that are now going to be active in the house to run all TVs, radios, DVD players, VCR players, etc. Many of these frequently are upside down in my hand as I try in vain to switch channels in the dark. I realize that almost all of them, even TiVos, are hard to recognize in the hand merely by the shape of the general object, its surface treatment, or button clusters. DirecTV is accessed through two different kinds of remotes because of two different business partners involved (TiVo and RCA) with two completely different physical button arrangements. This applies to two different on-screen menus as well, which relate to two different user manuals. None of the supplied remotes uses alphabetic entries on its numerical keypads, as mobile phones do, to enable direct text entry of channels like HBO, instead of searching through guides or remembering numbers.
Even before the DirectTV satellite dish and decoder installer scheduled still another, separate visit, I examined the user interfaces that now confronted me:
- seven new remote controls, one of which claims to be able to take over most of the others
- at least four new on-screen menu systems, all different in content, style, navigation, and terminology
- over 200 buttons on these controlsmany of them redundant, some of them unique, most in different physical locations, and some with different shapes and labels, even coming from the same manufacturer
- 300 pages of new user manuals, in addition to the previous ones, including just one "User Guide" document from DirectTV that is 176 pages in length. Are home consumers reading these manuals? I would guess not.
The sales representative spent many hours programming the Mitsubishi universal control, which claims to take over most of the control of many other systems. At times, the procedure required painstaking double entries into the system for each button of each remote not registered with the master system in order for it to "learn" the "foreign" remote. Having done this once for all of the other devices, the master Mitsubishi system failed to register the DVD player because it was an "Other" system (Samsung). Confronted with going through this ritual a second time, the sales representative urged me to replace the Samsung DVD player with a less expensive but equally capable Mitsubishi DVD player "in the family," which registers automatically. In the end, I decided to keep the Samsung device, and he had to go through the process a second time.
Despite all of this effort, several weeks later, the master remote seems to have failed to "catch on." Other devices turn off and on at the wrong times with the television. Consequently, I must have at least four remotes in front of me to ensure that all systems operate properly. For example, a tape recorder set to record an off-air video must be in a power-off state. If it is accidentally left on, the desired programs will not be recorded. It is very easy not to notice that the universal remote has failed to turn off that device when various devices are put to sleep as the system powers down.
Much time has been spent just to get to this point in systems set-up and operation. I estimate that I have spent approximately 30 hours purchasing, installing, and reading about this new system.
I was impressed by some of the high-definition channels that I received via my regular roof antenna even before the 120 DirectTV channels were installed. A local channel might broadcast multiple digital channels with different content. I now had to choose from about 25 channels. Even to view the regular channels now requires me to view the "air" channel listing (displayed by the Mitsubishi television) that lists what all the recognized channels are and what they are showing. Unfortunately, "scrolling" quickly through this list is not like a computer experience; it is slow and cumbersome for line-by-line scrolling and page-by-page shifting. The list itself does not actually scroll but page-shifts, as do many such lists, making it sometimes confusing to pick the right stations. Ascending channels are listed downward and cannot be reversed. Generally, in my experience the navigation techniques familiar to most PC users are clumsily adapted to home-consumer use, if at all.
Also confusing are all the formats available for viewing high and standard definition images, both analogue and digital, including 480-line interlaced images and varieties of high-definition displays. The Mitsubishi manual shows a page with 16 different video display formats that may be encountered. Is the average consumer expected to distinguish, account for, maintain, and decide among these frequently? I am also startled by the distorted wide-screen expansions of some TV formats that take the outer left and right edges of the video image and artificially expand them to fill the space, causing people to balloon in size to twice the normal width. What were they thinking?
When the satellite dish installer arrived, he spent 13 hours getting the dish aligned properly and connecting the three decoders in three different locations in the building. Almost three weeks into this process, as I write this, the two secondary televisions still do not get the proper satellite signals, and future visits must be scheduled. Most disconcerting is the fact that the local installers are subcontracted to a nationwide manager which is contracted to the dealer for installation. Thus, I had to call at least four different companies to complain about poor service or to ask technical questions.
As I have begun to explore the remote-control-based on-screen user interfaces of DirecTV, Mitsubishi, Philips, Samsung, Sony, TiVo , and others, I am struck by how unusable they are. Lists must be scrolled in tedious ways. Customization is complex, although possible in some situations. Terminology among the vendors differs. In some cases, when viewing lists of choices, the numerical buttons no longer work to simply pick stations, as one might wish to at any time. Multiple versions of local channels are not available through the satellite system, requiring me to use the off-air access: which in turn requires device switching, different screen guides, and different remotes. Off-air channel changes of the Mitsubishi are quite slow, seeming to take about a half-second to a second to switch from one channel to another. Gone are the days of rapidly twisting a dial to see what's on (although one can, I admit, sample-view nine different channels simultaneously in addition to one being viewed via a special picture-in-picture function, and view varieties of "guides" that list programs.
I am amazed that my mind, though numbed by this experience, out of sheer necessity, can remember key buttons that enable me to keep my sanity: channel, volume, jumping back to previous stations, etc. Most annoying is the fact that DirecTV itself does not provide alphabetical channel lists on one of its on-screen menus. Even its own Web site only lists stations in numerical order, making it almost impossible to keep track of favorite channels. Instead, the consumer is required to remember anonymous, ad-hoc numbers when looking for content.
Life has become exceedingly complex. Maybe it will seem less enervating after a month of use with all the connections in place and 120 channels safely categorized and scheduled. Already I notice my habits are changing. With 19 movies playing simultaneously, and the ability to record at will, I feel burdened by all of the options requiring further decision-making, but I also drop in and out of movies, leaving them in an instant if scenes, scripts, or actors become uninteresting. How different from the precious "movie-palace" of the last century, which offered an occasion for dressing up in fine clothes and marveling at the Egyptian-style décor of half-columns, hieroglyphics, and starry ceilings.
Now, I am drawn more and more to want to customize my viewing and look at varieties of simultaneous content lists to decide what to watch and when, what to record and when. Alas, many of the manufacturers do a modest job, at best, of information visualization, especially for the large quantity of media metadata that needs to be communicated. Given the large displays and the high definition, the space seems underused for typographic tabular display.
A vague feeling of helplessness and slight depression balances against the ocassional pleasure of viewing both fine visual detail and high-quality program content. I have to admit that, having lived a short while with high-definition, going backwards would seem like sensory deprivation. Maybe PC-based systems will help. Some reviewers of early entries are expressing their doubts.
There is a bright side: a tremendous opportunity for user-interface designers to improve the user experience of many/most of the manufacturers. With only a few outstanding success stories, like TiVo or Bose, there is ample room for improvement. We are witnessing a wild landscape of isolated, unintegrated systems. Although Jakob Nielsen has called the TiVo pause button the most beautiful pause button he has ever seen, the challenge is not designing small bits of beauty, but overall systems integration in an environment that is almost impossible to control. If manufacturers won't share key specification data, others won't be able to co-relate access, and users will be left with tedious work-arounds, including the painful manual entry of button codes for devices. The challenges to good user-interface development are considerable and daunting.
One head of the U.S. design office of a Japanese manufacturer recently commented to me that the head office people in Japan felt they knew their territory, were very busy, could not take time off for training, and did not feel they needed outside help.
Another major U.S. manufacturer labored intensively for a more than a year to develop a standardized user-interface guidelines document that, in the end, almost no one used. The document is now several years out of date. With extensive staff turnover, there are few people who actually know the heritage of design issues, design decisions, and corporate standards, but they may not be those who are tasked to come up with new concepts, new solutions.
We are entering a realm of massive change in home-media systems, and more evolution, even revolution, is coming, for example, the use of the Web and PCs in conjunction with media delivery. All of this change challenges user-interface designers and analysts to join the mix of stakeholders to defend and support users. We can thus better ensure that the customer's user experience is less frustrating than was mine.
About the Author:
Aaron Marcus is the founder and president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A). He has degrees from both Princeton University and Yale University, in physics and graphic design, respectively. Mr. Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years.
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