Feb 21
2011   
Why my thermostat represents everything wrong with most consumer technology.
Using this thermostat, how would you decrease the temperature by one degree?
You press the down arrow twice to decrease the temperature by one degree. The first press merely lights up the display. Nothing else happens until you press another button.
It’s easy to imagine the “thinking” behind this:
Let’s add a backlight.
But wouldn’t it be annoying if it’s constantly on?
So we’ll make it button-activated.
But how will you know what to press if you can’t see the display?
So we’ll make the first button press do nothing. It just turns on the display.
Cool. Ship it!
But that’s stupid. The first three times I used this thermostat, I was irritated because I thought my button presses weren’t registering. Then I realized “Oh, the first press never does anything. It just turns on the light.”
I’ve “learned” to use it correctly, and I’m no longer confused. But I’m still annoyed, because I just want to quickly change the temperature. One poor design choice can turn a good user experience into one that is frustrating.
This might seem petty at first, but it’s exactly the kind of bizzaro-world design tradeoff that companies make all the time. Some edge-case priority (“What if they want to change the temperature when it’s kinda dark!?”) brings down the whole, daily experience of just using the thing.
Modern televisions and computer monitors suffer from this kind of thinking, too. Companies are so obsessed with making their hardware look sleek, they’ve hidden the buttons underneath the display, or on the side. The controls are barely labeled, and now in some cases: touch-sensitive! Not only is it hard to find the button you want, but by feeling around for it, you end up “pressing” everything.
Here’s how the thermostat should work.
Your first button press should work. If you press UP, the temp should go up. And yes, the backlight should come on, too. After changing the temperature five or six times, you’re not going to forget where the two big arrow buttons are, anyway.
But what if you do happen to be changing the temperature in the dark (or, less likely, defining a whole new heating schedule in the dark), and happen to press the wrong button? What’s the worst case scenario? Your house explodes? No, you’ll say to yourself “Oops, I pressed the wrong button.”
Not only is this more rational, it makes the manufacturer look smarter. Because of this thermostat, my daily relationship with Honeywell is that they annoy me. But if the backlight behaved sanely, I might actually say to myself “If I ever build a house, I might get one of these.” Sure, one rare night I might stumble out of bed in the darkness and press the wrong button (immediately followed by the right one). But I won’t blame Honeywell for my mistake.

Why my thermostat represents everything wrong with most consumer technology.

Using this thermostat, how would you decrease the temperature by one degree?

You press the down arrow twice to decrease the temperature by one degree. The first press merely lights up the display. Nothing else happens until you press another button.

It’s easy to imagine the “thinking” behind this:

  1. Let’s add a backlight.
  2. But wouldn’t it be annoying if it’s constantly on?
  3. So we’ll make it button-activated.
  4. But how will you know what to press if you can’t see the display?
  5. So we’ll make the first button press do nothing. It just turns on the display.
  6. Cool. Ship it!

But that’s stupid. The first three times I used this thermostat, I was irritated because I thought my button presses weren’t registering. Then I realized “Oh, the first press never does anything. It just turns on the light.”

I’ve “learned” to use it correctly, and I’m no longer confused. But I’m still annoyed, because I just want to quickly change the temperature. One poor design choice can turn a good user experience into one that is frustrating.

This might seem petty at first, but it’s exactly the kind of bizzaro-world design tradeoff that companies make all the time. Some edge-case priority (“What if they want to change the temperature when it’s kinda dark!?”) brings down the whole, daily experience of just using the thing.

Modern televisions and computer monitors suffer from this kind of thinking, too. Companies are so obsessed with making their hardware look sleek, they’ve hidden the buttons underneath the display, or on the side. The controls are barely labeled, and now in some cases: touch-sensitive! Not only is it hard to find the button you want, but by feeling around for it, you end up “pressing” everything.

Here’s how the thermostat should work.

Your first button press should work. If you press UP, the temp should go up. And yes, the backlight should come on, too. After changing the temperature five or six times, you’re not going to forget where the two big arrow buttons are, anyway.

But what if you do happen to be changing the temperature in the dark (or, less likely, defining a whole new heating schedule in the dark), and happen to press the wrong button? What’s the worst case scenario? Your house explodes? No, you’ll say to yourself “Oops, I pressed the wrong button.”

Not only is this more rational, it makes the manufacturer look smarter. Because of this thermostat, my daily relationship with Honeywell is that they annoy me. But if the backlight behaved sanely, I might actually say to myself “If I ever build a house, I might get one of these.” Sure, one rare night I might stumble out of bed in the darkness and press the wrong button (immediately followed by the right one). But I won’t blame Honeywell for my mistake.