If you want to learn about usability then spend some time teaching an elderly person to use a piece of modern technology.
Yesterday I got a phone call from an elderly relative who had bought a new TV and was having difficulty tuning in the channels. It quickly became apparent that I wasn't going to solve this over the phone so I hopped into my car and went around to her house.
"Everything worked yesterday" she told me. "The man who installed the TV tuned in all the channels and showed me how to use it but I accidentally pressed the wrong button this morning and now I can only get channel 1"
The TV was a brand new Philips LCD and a few minutes playing with it convinced me that there was nothing wrong. The installer had programmed in 15 channels including all the channels this lady wanted to watch.
"It's all working now", I said. "You must have gotten stuck in a menu somewhere. This is how you get back out of any menu".
"No No" she insisted. " I pressed the wrong channel and now it is stuck. I cannot get the other stations".
Ah, I thought. "Perhaps it would help if I wrote down which numbers correspond to which stations." I spent a few minutes going through all the stations writing down the channel names opposite the numbers. She didn't seem overly happy with the list. "It's all very confusing" she said. "If only I hadn't pressed the wrong button it would be OK"
"Don't worry" I confidently predicted "I will show you how to change channels and how to get back out of any menus you press by accident".
I sat down with her and showed her how to enter the number of any channel. She was clearly unhappy with the procedure. When I handed her the remote to try for herself she stabbed at the buttons, sometimes getting the right digit more often getting no number or getting multiple digits. "This is very confusing" she said again.
The Philips remote didn't help. The number buttons were small rubber keys with the numbers written in squinty text above them. Even I had to strain to make them out and this lady hadn't a hope.
"Ok, Ok" I said." Here is an easier way". In my experiments I had noticed a menu mode for changing channel. Pressing a button in the middle of the remote brings up a menu that fills the screen with 15 boxes. You then use an annular ring like a joypad to navigate to the channel you want and press OK. Perfect. I couldn't think of an easier way to pick a channel myself.
"Pressing that button and you get a menu" I explained. "Do you see those 15 big boxes on the screen? Each of those is a channel. Can you see the channel numbers"
"No" she said as she stared at the unfamiliar pattern on the screen " Let me get my glasses".
Eventually I managed to explain to her that one of the boxes was highlighted and that would be the channel that came up when she pressed OK. "All you have to do is navigate to the box you want using the arrow buttons around the ring."
To my gamer trained instincts navigating a menu using a joypad is second nature but this octogenarian had never used a gamepad in her life.
"It's all very confusing" she pleaded again. "The man set it up yesterday but I pressed the wrong button and now I can't use it"
"To hell with that" I thought. I'll show her how to use the channel up and channel down buttons. There are only 15 channels after all so it won't take her too long to go through them.
Unfortunately instead of discrete channel up and down buttons the remote had a second annular ring outside the previous one with channel + and channel - on the right and left sides of it. This lady's arthritic thumbs struggled to press the narrow annular ring without pressing something else at the same time. As often as not she would advance two channels or none at all.
We had a minor breakthrough when she realised that she found it easier to press the channel down button than channel up. She managed to switch down through all of the channels with only a few mis-hits until she got to channel 1. Then she pressed again and got to channel 15.
"How did I go from channel 1 to channel 15" she asked perplexed.
"The numbers loop around in a circle" I tried to explain.
She wasn't buying it. She looked at me and once more said "It's all very confusing. It worked yesterday after the man installed it but I pressed the wrong channel and now I can't get the programme I want".
When I tried to explain to her that there was nothing wrong with the setup of the telly it was as if I was talking a different language. She was sticking to her story that it worked yesterday after it had been installed but some button she pressed had broken it and now she wasn't able to change channels. This lady may be in her eighties but mentally she is all there so I was confused. Could it be possible that there is a magical mode that makes it easy to use for the elderly? I searched for one and couldn't find it. Maye she is just too proud to admit that she cannot use the remote but to be honest it is a usability nightmare. The buttons are too small, the text is not clear enough and the timings are too unforgiving for someone whose dexterity is not what it used to be.
I have abandoned my attempt at teaching her to use the Philips remote. I am now on the lookout for an alternative remote with big clear buttons but that won't necessarily solve the unforgiving timings. I also need to be careful not to hurt this lady's feelings.
For anyone who is interested you can download a copy of the manual for this TV here: Philips 3000 Series manual. There is a good picture of the offending remote on page 8.