sunnuntaina, huhtikuuta 04, 2010

Usability of modern computers

Lately I have been helping elderly family members with their computers and other home electronics, so I have been offered some rare insights into the usability of modern-day gadgets.

Let me outline some use cases that seem to be common, at least to the elderly around me:

Printing photos

This is the most common use case. Digital cameras are cheap and lots of photos are taken in all the family occasions. The cameras are easy to use: Power on, point and shoot. It is the part that comes later that is problematic.

The user has shot the photos. The next step is to get them printed. The user has a color inkjet printer. The printer is connected to the computer. The computer also has a memory card reader.

The user needs to remove the memory card from the camera and insert it to the card reader. If the user is lucky, some software is automatically started that does something and takes the photos from the memory card and scurries them away somewhere in the bowels of the machine.

The user then removes the memory card from the reader and gets insulted by the machine that he has done something stupid.

Now the user has to find the correct icon to click, then find his photos somewhere in the windows on the screen and then find something to click to print the photos. Then the user also must remember to change the printer settings for printing on 10 x 15 photo paper, not A4 plain paper he printed yesterday's fish casserole recipe.

That was such a tiresome exercise! Why was it so difficult? What the user really wanted to do was to connect the camera to the printer and press a button titled "Print my photos"

When the photo is printed, the print is the end result. It can be enjoyed together with friends and family in the living room.

The user does not find any value in the digital versions of the photos stored somewhere in the computer. The user does not easily find his photos in the computer, they are difficult to view because they are so small and it is difficult to move from one picture to the next.

Luckily these days there are printers and cameras that can print photos without the troublesome computer making things difficult.

Watching camcorder videos

Camcorders are also cheap these days and what would be more fun than shooting moving video clips of grandchildren while they play and do many other nice things. These are also pretty easy to use: Power on, point and shoot normally works with these. Of course there are a lot of menus in strange languages but if one stubbornly ignores them, they will go away and stop bothering you.

Again, the trouble starts when these videos are to be presented on the big flat-screen TV in the living room.

The camcorder has a USB connector. The TV has a USB connecter in the back. How fortunate! The video is obviously going to be play on the screen as soon as a USB cable is connected between the camcorder and the TV.

Unfortunately it did not. It turns out the TV does not know how to play video. It can only show still photos from the camcorder's memory.

But it is possible to make a DVD disc from the videos. The downside is, it involves using the computer again and we already know from our past experience with printing photos how fun that was.

Sony has spotted a market in here and makes a product called DVDirect, a box you connect the camcorder to, insert a blank dvd and press a button. Simple and easy. Our user is going to get one of these so he does not have to deal with the troublesome computer.

Watching photos on the TV

From the previous exercise the user discovered it is possible to watch photos on the living room's big flat-screen TV if one can get the photos on a USB memory stick.

Obtaining USB sticks is easy. They are commonly sold at cash registers of convenience stores among candy, cigarettes and condoms.

Now the user needs to talk the computer into releasing some of the photos it is keeping hostage to the USB stick. The user has no idea how to go about it but the user knows how to call a young family member and get them to use remote screen sharing and export the photos on the USB stick.

Remove the USB stick from the computer. (Ignore the insulting message the operating system puts on the screen about doing something improper again.) Pull the power plug from the wall to quickly shut down the computer.

In the living room, the user inserts the USB stick into the slot on the TV. The TV complains about some pictures bring broken or unreadable. The user has to manually skip over broken photos with names like ".Trashes", ".Spotlight-V100" and a lot of them named "._IMGXXX.JPG"

After scrolling over dozens of broken photos there are finally some proper photos and the user can relax. But isn't modern technology difficult!

Photos on a digital picture frame

The user has a digital picture frame. It is a nice and modern way to enjoy the digital photos. Apparently it also requires photos on a USB stick. Lucky user, he already has a lot of photos on the USB stick from the previous day. (And there is always the "family IT guy" he can call.)

The user sticks the USB stick on the side of the frame and finally something works as it should! The frame begins showing the photos on a never-ending slideshow. And it was so easy to use.

After a while, however, the user begins to be irritated by the big blinking led at the top of the USB stick. It is kind of distracting.

A call to the "family IT guy." He tells the user he should manipulate some buttons on the frame and copy the photos from the stick to the frame's internal memory and then unplug the USB stick.

The user has no idea how to do that and because the family IT guy cannot connect remotely to the picture frame, he cannot help either. The user pulls the plug of the digital picture frame and throws it into the waste bin. He shoots some piccies on his digital camera, connects it to his printer, gets some nice color prints and hangs them on the wall.

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