Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bad Design Is Immoral

Persistent bad design is immoral.

(For those of you into relativism, I encourage a contemplative tour of This is Broken in regards to design.)

Those companies and people who produce designs that continually cause difficulty, stress, frustration, tension, anger, delay, waste (esp. time), confusion, harm, etc. and do nothing about it when faced with its effects are committing absolute crimes against their fellow people.

Persistent bad design is immoral. It is life-sucking.

My first exhibit is personal. Summer '08 I "upgraded" from a 3 year old Treo 600 to a Verizon XV6800, i.e. an HTC running Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.0. I did this vaguely aware of the bad rep WM had, but I figured it was no worse than the desktop/laptop OS. I now know the depth of my ignorance. Suffice to say that the review I linked to feels effusively, and two-headed calf wrongly, positive.

Some of you might ask, "why give up the Treo?" or "Why not an iPhone, design phreak?" Well, the Treo was outdated, the camera sucked, etc. and I am a fairly happy and committed Verizon family plan customer. And I wanted a touchscreen, so a CrackBerry wouldn't work. So, after much cajoling from a colleague, I took the plunge. I'm still gasping for air.

How has this $400 device plagued me? Let me post the ways:
1 frequent lock-ups, often requiring battery removal
2 vibration starts and won't stop until a reboot
3 screen update latency often leading to repeated numbers during dialing
4 constant task interruption telling me it has sent a text (why do I even need to be notified of that? I am only interested in failure. I assume success.)
5 inability (until recently) to modify basic system functions of notification and sounds
6 The voice activation button is exactly where a thumb goes for regular holding of the phone
7 The volume won't go above moderately loud and so fades badly in noisy environments
8 MS ActiveSync has no setting for "don't sync until I tell you to"
9 When charging, there was no way to tell how charged it was
10 The camera, which takes decent pics, requires psychic or omniscient powers to use it. The buttons are baffling and there is no help on the device

Now, those aren't my top ten, because what I can't even write coherently and succinctly is how amazingly bad it is at handling phone calls when something else happens, like an incoming text. Or how confusing it can be to use the call history. Or how many steps are required to modify a contact. In fact, the only thing I can really say is easy is to move files onto and off the device from my laptop. And while that is handy, it is not a daily/hourly vital task like some of these others.

Which leads me to the highlight of the story. WM 6.1 was released in the fall and I heard promise of "major" improvements. I'm thinking I don't want improvements, I want do-overs. So I put it off until yesterday. And imagine my glee when I realize that there are TWO updates now. Since updates WIPE the phone, it's as if Suckrosoft figured they'd repay all those who complained the first time around.

So here's what happened. At the end of the day, I download the update files and transfer them to the phone. Then I open the readme docs, which, I find out, are helpful screenshots of the install program I am about to start. But onward. I begin. The dire warnings come that I am erasing ALL data on the device (Thanks, I know). Thirty minutes later, it finishes. Let me stop here for a moment to say that I am a "I'll figure it out"-geek, meaning that I can get through, but I'm not hacking core software, and I can easily imagine that a non-technical person might never have gotten through this alone. But all appears okay. I even download and install a couple of decent UI customizers to make me feel better on the surface.

I feel good about this and go to bed.

I awake this morning to hear my phone ring. For half a second. I get up and go to it. It rings again, barely long enough to see that it's my friend Chuck. No way to answer. Then one more time. He and I are supposed to talk later in the morning, but I need coffee first. I make it, then call. Or, rather, try to call. "We're sorry, but Verizon Wireless does not recognize your phone as an authorized device". Hmm. Upgrade? Erase all data? Crap.

So I call the activation number, which I happen to have memorized for reasons you can guess. "Programming successful!" Phew. Calling Chuck. "We're sorry, but Verizon Wireless does not recognize your phone as an authorized device". AAAHHHHHAHHAAAHHAHAHHHHH!!!!!!

All that work for FAIL?!?! Calm down. 1..2..3... They mention a number. I call it. The "Account Authorization" department will help me as soon as a representative is available. One comes on. I give my number. She finds my account. She fixes the issue. Great, I say. "Anything else I can help you with?" Yes, say I, did the upgrade cause this? "Yes, that's what I fixed. When the update is done, we have to go in and fix the account." AAAHHHHHAHHAAAHHAHAHHHHH!!!!!!

COULDN'T SOMEONE PUT THAT IN THE INSTRUCTIONS?!!?!!?!?

Persistent bad design is immoral.

And here I am. And here we are. I have been thinking about this subject, the immorality of bad design, for a while now and this story is good to kick a series of posts off with. In addition to the time I spent working on this post (about 2.5 hours), I have spent far more painful times dealing with the phone while actually trying to get things done. A tool, a device, especially an expensive one, that is bought to help with life should HELP!!!! This phone has interrupted important business calls, caused incorrect information to be sent, prevented timely wake-ups, etc. with all the attending difficulty, stress, frustration, tension, anger, delay, waste (esp. time), confusion, harm, etc.

It's wrong. It should change. We should demand it. We should make it better.

As I said earlier:

"Be bold in identifying bad design.

We simply must change the role of design from creating specifications to improving life."

-pnl