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Surfin': Got User Interface?

07/03/2008

Days, I work as a technical writer, and over the years I have written countless user manuals for various flavors of software with user interfaces that seem to be designed by programmers who don't have a clue about user interface design.

As a result, my technical writing often involves devising ways to work around the user interface and make the software seem more user-friendly than it really is. If the user interface did its job, I would not have to come up with work-arounds (and I might be out of a job).

Anyway, last week's mention of WebSDR here caused a ham (who wishes to remain anonymous) to send me the following e-mail that touched on issues related to the user interface of SDR software and Amateur Radio software in general. These issues are near and dear to my heart and worth repeating here:

"I am as amazed as I am appalled at SDR for emergency, military, commercial, contest and general ham use. For some reason, the software has become the Holy Grail of the systems. High technology has completely over-shadowed the concept of appropriate technology. Two examples come to mind.

"First, there is the belief that anything and everything controlled by a mouse is, by default, the best and only way to go. Related to that is the notion that 'seconds count' in a contest where maximizing the number of contacts is paramount (we need not go into the inaccurate RST reporting system). Having said that, even a novice experimenter can see how it takes fewer actions, less time and fewer errors to have dedicated controls rather than going through a few menus, making the selection, hitting 'enter,' etc. And, of course this assumes that the computer never locks up. Have you ever seen or experienced what happens when a computer locks up during a heart catherization?!

"Second, there doesn't seem to be much informed effort that goes into defining the requirements for the user interface. If you examine the interface for some (all?) of the SDRs, you'll see that logically related functions are not necessarily grouped together on the screen like they are in a 'conventional' radio. Color coding is used for appearance not function. And, even at the individual control level, you'll often observe that there is not only a lack of consistency for similar functions, the selection for the displayed format is not necessarily the best one.

"Hence, while SDR has made some technological improvements, the designers seem to lack the education, experience and interest in the area of (operator) usability. Heuristics, best practices, military standards and such are all ignored because the 'software developer said it was easy to use'; the actual user population is ignored. And yes, I have talked about these topics with the vendors of SDR. The response is uniformly akin to a pig looking at a wristwatch. So while the software and hardware have made great improvements in their respective areas, the overall effectiveness of the system is limited by ignoring the user interface. Often, a poor interface is improved by merely adding more functions -- new yes, improved, not so sure. The software developers don't yet know what we already know. And at some time in the future, the software developers will 'discover' old things that will then be called 'new.' Add to that the fact that the software doesn't operate exactly like the user manual and you have increased the learning curve dramatically.

"Having been a ham operator for more than 45 years, I'm puzzled by some of the developments in the hobby like SDR, auto-tune rigs, broadband amplifiers, pre-made antennas and feedlines and auto-tune antenna couplers. Hams have for years wanted to get away from all the knob fiddling associated with 'dipping a final,' dealing with the antenna tuner and so forth. Then they turn around and spend countless hours dealing with Windows, SDR, and a host of other technologies that don't have to be as complex as they are merely because the user has been ignored when defining the system specifications and preparing the user manuals. The marketers have really missed the boat on this one. And what and who did they miss? Well, often the senior citizens who want something that is easy to use and who don't want to pay the price of complexity when all they want to buy is simplicity. And who is the ignored group that has the largest amount of disposable income? Yep, those over 50.

"And yes, I've given thought to writing an article about usability, ergonomics (yep, ask the vendors about that term for a good laugh) and human factors related to ham radio. But I get this strong feeling that it would offend the manufacturers and thus the advertising concerns would over shadow the technical concerns. For those who believe, no proof is necessary; for those who don't believe, no proof is possible.

"Whenever I go into a meeting with software developers I try to wear my favorite button in a predominant place. It reads, 'Know thy user, for it is not you.' Unfortunately, there isn't enough time left before I become a silent key to see the awakening of the software community to rediscover what we already know today with regard to usability. But I can dream, can't I?"

Until next time, keep on surfin'!

Editor's note: Stan Horzepa, WA1LOU, prefers gooey user interfaces. To communicate with Stan, send him e-mail or add comments to his blog. By the way, every installment of Surfin' is indexed here, so go look it up.

 

Stan Horzepa, WA1LOU
Contributing Editor



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