Thursday, 16 September, 2004

User Interface Matters

I bought a Casio multi-function digital watch for $35.00 in 1983 to replace a watch that I'd lost or broken.  The Casio had some cool features that were relatively rare at the time in low-cost watches:  an alarm, a stopwatch, a countdown timer, and an hour beep.  I'm not sure what good a beep every hour on the hour is, but the other features were quite useful.  It was quite easy to use, too.  Just 10 minutes with the instruction book and I knew how to set the timer and the alarm, and how to use the stopwatch.  I never looked at the instruction book again for the 17 years that I owned the watch.  Heck, I used to operate the buttons in the dark and then use the backlight to verify that I did it correctly.

I lost that watch in Jamaica and replaced it with a $45.00 Timex Expedition.  Had I been near a Wal-Mart or Target or even a sporting goods store I wouldn't have picked up the Timex, but pickings were slim on Jamaica and I can't stand to be without a watch.  The Timex looks okay and has the timer, stopwatch, and alarm that I use, but it also has some "features" that made me dislike it more as time went by.  First, it ticks.  Loudly.  I like the analog face, but that ticking second hand is very annoying.  Of course, I didn't notice the ticking until we'd left Jamaica.

The Timex has two other flaws that are very annoying.  The user interface to the multiple functions, like most of such watches, consists of four buttons on the side of the watch.  But unlike the Casio that I was able to internalize after a few minutes with the manual, I could never get the hang of programming that darned Timex.  Overloaded buttons and double button pushes do not make for a good user interface.  And the buttons themselves were placed such that if I bent my wrist backward I would depress the buttons and start setting the alarm or the timer, or reset the stopwatch.  All too often I'd be timing myself on the bike only to find out that I had inadvertently stopped the clock.  The Timex has a horrible user interface.  Features don't mean squat if I can't get to them.

About 10 days ago I obtained a Nike Oregon Digital watch ($80.00), which immediately replaced the Timex.  This watch is about the same diameter as the Timex, but a little thicker.  It also has a very readable digital display, dual time zones, four alarms, stop watch, and interval timers.  Best of all, the user interface (four buttons again--five if you count the backlight) is simple.  10 minutes with the instruction manual and I know exactly how to use the thing.  Plus, the few extra millimeters of thickness and the button placement make it impossible for me to hit the buttons when I bend my wrist back.  My only complaint is that the hydration alarm isn't loud enough to be heard when I'm riding on a busy road.  Other than that I'm delighted with the watch.  I can even operate it in the dark like I did the Casio.

Granted, the Timex costs about half what the other two watches cost (figure inflation-adjusted dollars).  But the cost difference isn't in the user interface.  It's pretty obvious to me that the Casio and the Nike watches were designed by people who actually understood their customers.  The Timex appears to have been designed to fill out a feature set without any attempt at making those features usable.

User interface matters.

Anybody want a slightly used Timex Expedition wristwatch?