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Surfin': Still Got User Interface?

07/10/2008

Two weeks ago, a contributor to this column (who wishes to remain anonymous) tackled the subject of ham radio software user interfaces.

I received a lot of e-mails in response to that column, more than I've received in a long time for a particular column. The e-mails were all over the map. Most agreed with our anonymous contributor, but some disagreed. Here is what they wrote (in no particular order):

Justin Farris, KE4PCX, wrote, "I think you hit the nail on the head with the comment 'the belief that anything and everything controlled by a mouse is, by default, the best and only way to go. I am dismayed by the complete disregard for simple technology that does exactly what it is supposed to do by modern society. So many seem to favor complex partially functioning 'high tech' solutions when the problem was solved decades ago with simple and elegant tools. Thank you for saying what I have been thinking for quite a while now."

Martin Ewing, AA6E, wrote, "We customers are getting what we ask for. If we value simple and logical interface design, we should buy or build products accordingly. In general, the market seems to respond to more lights and knobs and specs, but not usability. I don't think this has anything to do with SDR necessarily. There is a lot of variation between non-SDR rigs. The worst offenders are my VHF handheld and mobile rigs, where there are zillions of parameters that have to be changed through an inscrutable menu system. I often have to refer to my owner's manual to do simple things. On the other hand, nothing beats my trusty old Kenwood TS520-S for usability. The advantage of SDR is that the interface is mostly defined in software. If you don't like what you have, you can program it the way you want (at least, if it's open source software, like the SDR 1/5000). If you like knobs, buttons and lights, you can build a software-driven hardware front panel. If you're not a builder/programmer, you have fewer choices, but if there's enough demand, someone will provide it."

Charles Brain, G4GUO, wrote, "There is no pleasing everyone, as someone that writes software whatever I do, some will love it and others will hate it. If the author is complaining about commercial stuff, then don't buy it. The message will get through. If the complaint is about free stuff, then be kind; the person writing it is probably self-taught and is just trying to do their best."

G4GUO added in a subsequent e-mail, "My test for a good GUI is can I use it without looking at the manual! The term SDR is highly overused. It seems to apply to just about any radio that has a DSP in it. So it was a bit difficult for me to figure out what he was complaining about. If he wants a radio with knobs on it, buy a regular DSP radio. If he wants a totally screen based radio, buy a Flex radio. I think the Pegasus/Jupiter radio makes a good case example: They are basically the same radio inside. Ten-Tec gave up on the Pegasus obviously because most people want knobs. I suspect the real culprits are the marketing people rather than the designers; all these sub-menus add little to the cost as they are 'only' software, but they don't half look good in the promos. I suspect what he wants is a high performance radio that is simple to use and he has a point. With price come more controls, maybe it is because the manufacturers think people won't pay top dollar unless the radio has 100+ controls!"

Bob Nimmerfroh, KE6MDJ, wrote, "I really enjoyed this article. Loved the 'Know thy user, for it is not you.' Button; I wish I had had one. It is so true. I have spent more than 10 years as a technical writer and more than 15 years as a military communications systems test engineer (that includes radio, dedicated hardline circuits, and the so-called Internet). It never ceases to astound me that programmers are only interested in the 'art' of programming 'elegant' code and have no interest in the end-user -- same with program managers. They refuse to employ human-machine interface concepts until the very end of the program when it is far too late to redesign the engineering version of a user interface."

Chris Smith, NX0E, wrote, "The problem of user interfaces is not just SDR; nearly every new radio seems to have a menu-based user interface. Though some progress seems to have been made in standardizing the interface between different models of the same manufacturer, there is no standard interface. And the ergonomics, or touch and feel, of all the menu-based controls on the radios I've tried is poor indeed. Maybe ARRL can create a 'ham radio ergonomics lab' for the use of the industry."

Tim Ikeda, KA1OS, wrote, "In regard to the original article which seemed to have spawned the reply, please note that WebSDR is described as experimental. It's a very, very early work in progress created by volunteers. Furthermore, systems like the Flex-5000 can include interfaces with rotary dials and buttons. The nice thing about SDR radios with open-source software is that competent end-users can potentially tailor the interface to their own preferences. In any case, I doubt that manufactures would take offense to feedback about their user interfaces. Quite the opposite, I think, if the suggestions helped increased user acceptance."

Prescott Grey, W1PCG, wrote, "While not an SDR user, I intend to become one, because I think the future lies in computer-augmented rigs. But why, oh why, are not the user interfaces designed as a 'skin,' and made to look like an actual usable instrument?"

Ed Fitch, W0OHU, wrote, "I always enjoy reading your articles, but this month (sic) you really wrote a great one! Yes, you summed up and mentioned most of the important topics of interest to us >50 years old. Keep up the great work!"

Bill Goodwin, WB8BER, wrote, "I just read article on user interfaces. Developers should get a hold of several popular radios and see how their front panels are laid out. It could make a difference in their next project."

Rick Prather, K6LE, wrote, "I enjoyed the article and was taken with the quote, 'For those who believe, no proof is necessary; for those who don't believe, no proof is possible.'"

Chuck Oliveira, WA1RCH, wrote, "I know you are using SDR as an example. These mini-SDR kits give people like me -- DSP knowledgeable -- a way to access some of this technology without having to spend $10,000 for an ICOM-7800. In fact, SDR is what got me back in ham radio after being away for years. As a DSP expert, I can tell you the user interfaces (UI) are quite good for the experimenter. I can see for the contester and general rag chewer that the UI is unacceptable. SDR is going to be the future of radio, so we might as well get use to it. DSP is cheaper to manufacture than the older analog radios with more capability and flexibility. I do agree -- when I just want to tune up and down the band, my Kenwood TS-440 is the best ergonomic-designed rig I ever had (I'll even take my HQ-170 over an SDR UI any day). If the manufacturers could repackage an SDR into a TS-440 UI, I could have the best UI and the best signal quality all in one rig. For more than 100 years, the knob has been the basic interface to radio. I do not see the mouse taking over anytime soon."

Jim Hain, W2IMY, wrote, "The person you quote in your article on SDR is missing the boat. I think that the people that are working on the high performance software defined radio would not only welcome his input, perhaps even embrace it. Once the commercial interests see the direction of the development, they would not be far behind."

Tom Coates, N3IJ, wrote, "I recently had to write a software review for technical writing class and selected Digipan 2 as the topic. It was a strongly positive review. The better the UI, the fewer instructions are needed. Sometimes when designing something, I start by writing the instructions for use, revise to simplify and then build to fit the simplified user instructions. This is especially helpful with things that have to be assembled in the field for use."

Jacob Mogel, N0LZY, wrote, "I am a software tester for military systems, and all I can say is 'ditto ditto ditto ditto' to your article."

Until next time, keep on surfin'!

Editor's note: Stan Horzepa, WA1LOU, still 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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