Recently, I wanted to purchase a new alarm. We have a perfectly functional alarm clock. One of the original Sony Dream Machine. A white cube with a fairly simple interface:
On the front:
– LED display for the time
– A slider bar to display the radio frequency
On the top:
– A slider switch to select the alarm type (off, radio, buzzer, radio & buzzer)
– A large Snooze button
– A small sleep button – turns on the radio for 1 hour
– a small alarm reset button to turn off the alarm
On the side:
– A knob to control the radio volume
– another knob to select the radio frequency
On the back:
– A slider switch for time adjustment (either alarm or clock)
– 2 push button switches: one for hour, one for minute

There are 9 controls on this thing, but notice how all the functions are segregated to a specific area: Information on the front, alarm on top, radio on the side and time adjustments on the back. Even with this simple design, I would sometime turn on the radio (press the sleep button), and somehow have a difficult time turning it off. Pressing the alarm reset button would not work – even though it works if the alarm function turns on the radio. I would have to slide the alarm switch to turn the blasted thing off. Maybe there is another way, but I couldn’t figure it out.

We (meaning I) needed a new alarm clock for a specific function: supporting 2 different alarm times. While at it, it would be nice if the alarm clock could also play a CD. Imagine my pleasure when I found the new Sony Dream Machine (ICF-CD843V). Ok, it is about 3 times the size of the original Dream Machine and kind of looks like Magneto’s Helmet, but hey! It plays CDs and has 3 alarm times!

It soon became apparent that all was not well in paradise. Let’s look at the interface:
On Front:
LED display, but with a much denser information content

On Top (8 buttons):
– 5 buttons for preset radio stations
– 1 large snooze button
– 1 sleep button
– 1 brightness control button
On Front (13 buttons):
– 1 Nap button (turn on radio after x minutes)
– 1 CD play mode button
– 1 clock button
– 1 daylight savings time button
– 1 CD play/pause button
– 1 Radio band button
– 1 Off button
– 2 Tuner/Time adjustment buttons (up/down)
– 3 Alarm set button (Radio, CD, Buzzer)
– 1 Alarm Mode button
On Side:
– Radio Volume Control knob

The upshot? While I can set the alarm wake up time (I entirely credit my engineering degree for this!), my wife won’t touch the infernal thing. If I want to silence the alarm, I repeatedly push the alarm mode button (buzzer -> buzzer + CD -> buzzer + radio -> buzzer + CD + radio -> merciful silence). I could of course press the Off button, but I would have to find it while still half asleep (and it’s on the smallish side). The alarm mode button is easier to find and has a distinctive shape.

As embedded designers, we don’t often give thought to our system’s human interface, the so called human-machine interface. The result of this state of affair is usually an overly complex box, full of buttons whose functions are rather nebulous. Your users might grumble, be intimidated, or simply not buy your gizmo. Love it or hate it, the iPod interface is simply brilliant.

Have you ever run into an overly complicated piece of consumer equipment?