Interfaces, their buttons and the village idiot

I stared at my friend’s washing machine. It has a million buttons, a big wheel, a digital display and a pile of little red and orange lights, with the odd green thrown in. I consider myself not a complete idiot, but have little patience with domestic appliances. They are here to make our lives simpler.

So I started thinking: over the years, how many different washing machines have I used? How many laundromats? Hundreds, easily. I have moved a lot. And yet, every time I use one, I must take some time to figure out how it works.

How many different washing programmes have I used in my life? Probably three. Or attempted to use. Often, I am not hundred percent sure of what combination of temperature, prewash or not, spin cycle etc. the infernal thing will actually go through. Or what I actually “need”. What is the difference between “economy” and “quick”? When would I choose a ten degree difference in temperature? 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 or 90 degrees Celsius? And what real difference does the alternative spin cycles make? “Baby clothes”? “Clinical rinse”? “Outdoors”? “Normal”? “Economy”? “Bio”? Do I need “prewash”? “Large”? “Intensive”? “Fine”? When and why would I pick one over the other? What does it actually mean, and what is the bloody thing doing anyway

Read The Fucking Manual, I hear you say. Seriously. I think not.

In Ireland, I was confronted with washing machines that let you adjust all manner of things, but would only use cold water, regardless of temperature chosen.

Washing clothes in our cleanliness-obsessed world is not difficult. They slosh around in some water with some soap and possibly some fabric softener. We probably wash clothes far more often than necessary; no tar, oil, sap or heavy duty filth. And yet, I am given a million options.

Granted, I am not a very domesticated animal, but the endless options are way beyond the call of duty for a pretty simple appliance.

A friend of mine have a cooker, and if the power goes off for a split second, the watch starts blinking the familiar 00:00. The interesting thing is that the cooker does not work until the clock is set. How does that happen, what mad set of circumstances made him figure that out? And the guy who made the thing; what was he thinking?

This is interface design. Process and product.

I am, in a way not a fan of user testing left, right and centre. I suspect a lot of pointless user harassing are being done out there, but maybe we need to employ the village idiot to ask “why is this button here?”

Someone to break what we make, so that we can fix it.

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