What’s Next?

It was gratifying to see a user experience/interface horror that I had complained about in this space less than a month ago, solved in a highly elegant way by a completely new take on the problem. I’m referring, of course, to the Nest programmable thermostat developed by some ex-Apple Product Engineers. Twitter and the Blogosphere have been abuzz about this product, and rightly so. It offers a way out of the usability hell that dominates the programmable thermostat space, by operating in a new way, learning the rhythms of your household, developing a program suited to your unique needs based on what you “teach” it during a couple of weeks of training. There are other interesting things it can do by interacting with the Internet, but it’s that core functionality of making the existing opaque and unusable interfaces completely obsolete that is so exciting about this product. Just how bad are those interfaces? Really bad, according to figures cited by Fast Company. I find it astounding that a mere 6% of programmable thermostats are actually programmed by their owners, despite the significant energy savings of up to 30-40% available. Due to uniformly poor interfaces, the vast majority appear to be used as expensive replacements for the old-school dial on the wall, with the added disadvantage of being harder to use.

All of this leads me to speculate about the future of another UX/UI horror — the home theatre. The new Steve Jobs bio suggests that Steve felt that he had finally “cracked” the problem of making TVs not suck. If that’s true, I really hope he shared the secret with somebody else at Apple before he passed away. The current situation is to put it mildly, untenable. To quote The Dude, “This cannot stand, man.” Do you remember the days when you had a TV set? It wasn’t glamourous, just a box with a screen and one remote. It generally worked pretty well. After a while, you needed a cable box to get all those great channels that you couldn’t live without. A little later, a VCR and its remote, plus you had to put the TV on channel 03, and select “aux.” Program the VCR to record your shows? Uh, how do you set that damn clock? Then you added a DVD player, and another remote. Somewhere along the line, the cable box got replaced with another one that needed its own remote. What’s that now, 4 remotes?

Eventually all that antiquated stuff got left behind when you got a new flat-screen TV, and home theatre components. Everything would be different now, all shiny and new and really great. Let’s see, you need the TV monitor, Amplifier, Tuner, Cable box/PVR, Blu-Ray, Apple TV, TiVo, and whatever else you might have picked up at BestBuy. Each one has it’s own remote, needing its own working set of batteries. When I set up this scenario at my place a few years ago, we had a baffling stack of remotes that only I (sort of) understood. After I returned home after being out one evening, after she couldn’t get the TV to function, Bernadette laid down the law — “I just want to watch TV! I want ONE remote, that turns on the TV, changes the channels and turns the sound up or down. I don’t know what any of these things are for — I just want one remote!” OK, OK, I agreed, a reasonable request. I’ll get one of those Harmony remotes — one remote to rule them all, right? Wrong. I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that programming it is just a tad complex, as in, it’s easier to program a thermostat… in the dark. After many frustrating hours, I was able to get it to work for all functions… except when it doesn’t.

All this to say, I very much hope that the post-Steve Apple has the TV problem in their sights. If anybody can make sense of this usability mess, it’s them. It’s going to take a major disruption of the entrenched interests in the market, including cable and satellite content distributors, electronics manufacturers and the retailers like BestBuy that have profited from our bewilderment. This is a big problem that’s going to take a muscular player like Apple to bulldoze through. But what about smaller usability problems like the thermostat? Commentators like John Gruber are beginning to talk about the coming influence of the Apple design ethos on other product categories. It’s easy to see that the Nest thermostat is a great, early example of this influence spreading to a completely unrelated device. So now what’s next?

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