Of human bondage

A poorly designed human-machine interface can leave even the technically adept stammering.

Th 0512vsd Andywilson

A poorly designed human-machine interface can leave even the technically adept stammering.

Last month, my company decided that, since I travel so much, I needed a really sophisticated way of communicating with others who work for the magazine. And so, PennWell arranged for me to get the latest Motorola V551 GSM portable telephone on which I could be contacted in most countries around the world, 24 hours a day. And, our telecom people in Tulsa, OK, shipped me the phone FedEx, ready to go, all bills paid. What a benefit! I can even call my friends free of charge on the weekends due to the company’s telecom plan!

Being an underpaid journalist, I was overjoyed. What could be better? On the first day, I took the telephone home, eager to learn about the new features and how the product would benefit me and the company. When it powered up, I was asked a lot of questions, such as time, date, and the year. Even without a manual, I needed no C-programming expertise to understand this product. And the time and date and my new screensaver were duly represented when I repowered the telephone.

I decided to listen to the latest Coldplay album and celebrate. Unfortunately, my celebration was accompanied by Track 4, “Fix You,” when I tried to program the telephone with all my favorite numbers. Being a bit of an engineer, I decided that I would program my own phone number into the device. At this point I had to resort to the manual. And I managed to program my three numbers into the telephone (my mobile, home, and office numbers).

But what I really wanted was one entry with all the numbers. Since it wasn’t intuitive, I consulted the manual. There, in the manual, was a way to enter numbers into the telephone. But I had already done this. So I delved further into the documentation that Motorola had published in a 26-page-long booklet, printed (rather surprisingly) on recycled paper somewhere in the United States. But it wasn’t in those pages that I found the answer.

I did find out, however, that the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) network, if being used, will activate a small icon on the telephone. I don’t know what the GPRS is, how it works, or even why Motorola would put this in an end-user manual. In fact, the fact that Motorola says that “the GPRS allows faster data-transfer speeds” is completely irrelevant to the end user.

Human-machine interfaces

What I do know is that the human-machine interfaces are of prime importance, not just in mobile communications systems but in machine-vision systems. And that’s why Microsoft’s Windows is the most popular operating system in the world-over the years people have become used to the same look-and-feel of an interface that uses a number of different programs. And that’s why machine-vision-system designers have adopted PC tools and development platforms with which to develop user-friendly GUIs.

But, imagine as a system integrator you took the Motorola approach. Rather than understand the needs of the end user, you present the operator of a bottling line with functions such as “would you like to perform a histogram equalization of the image” or “is the contrast of the image what you expect?” In the industrial automation business, where integrated, customized, easy-to-use systems are expected, this is unacceptable. And your system-integration business would suffer immensely.

Easy interfaces needed

Luckily, vendors of machine-vision systems are developing systems using Microsoft’s Visual C++, which presents the user with easy interfaces that do not require more than 30 minutes of training. In addition to discussing the benefits of using machine vision, professional system integrators discuss with their clients what and how the operator of such devices must learn before developing systems. And they usually develop them with user interfaces such as Microsoft Windows, which the end user already feels familiar with.

It’s a lesson the folks at Motorola should have learned years ago.

Th 0512vsd Andywilson
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Andy Wilson
Editor
andyw@pennwell.com

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