VSJ – Feb 2004 – Sounding Board

Robin Jones has some thoughts on usability he’d like to share.

The Dell sales rep asked, ‘Do you want a modem installed in your notebook?’ ‘No’, I said, listening to the siren voices in my head murmuring, ‘You don’t really need it and you can save some money.’

That was four years ago. Now, of course, I do need one. Not a problem, I thought. I’ll get a USB modem and then it’s available as a lash-up when necessary (an event that occurs at two-day intervals on current experience).

I read the ‘manual’, a poorly printed A3 sheet of paper with instructions in seven languages, none of them English. Unless you count ‘Don’t reboot the computer system when the USB modem is correctly by plug into your USB Port of Computer.’ as English, that is.

Not that I was particularly concerned about that; I was simply looking for the folder at which to point the ‘Add New Hardware’ wizard for the driver files. I found it, gave the wizard the information and went away to do other chores. When I returned 20 minutes later, Windows was aimlessly thrashing around the CDROM. So I ferreted about looking for likely candidates. After a couple of abortive attempts, I found the right directory and the modem installed itself without further hassle.

Two days later, I added a USB hub. Windows noticed and dealt with it fine. Then it denied all knowledge of the modem and insisted I re-install it. No problem this time, of course. Except that the modem is suddenly much less stable and disconnects itself randomly. Removing the hub makes no difference.

When I have time, I’ll uninstall everything and start from scratch. But I shouldn’t have to. I’ve spent – wasted – several hours installing a piece of hardware whose selling point is that it’s Plug-and -Play. That’s at least £100 worth of anybody’s time – three times the cost of the modem! For the non-technical user (at whom, if memory serves, USB was primarily aimed) such experiences just confirm that IT is a black art and that computers and all their works are simply not fit for purpose. If this sort of thing happened when Joe Public bought a new pair of headphones for his Walkman he would simply return them and say he wanted a pair that worked. Now that is Plug-and-Play.

Like it or not, computers are now consumer items. And Microsoft, at least, apparently likes it or it wouldn’t have developed Windows XP Media Centre Edition. So it is time manufacturers and retailers took the same responsibilities they would accept without question for televisions, refrigerators, phones and all the other goods that are displayed not ten yards from the latest computing kit. And if that means higher prices because staff would need more and better training, well, I could live with that. Could you?

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

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