On usability and the domestic appliance

Christmas Day, and for want of better things to do at 3pm, I try to overcome my domestic disability by doing some washing …

No luck, of course: despite many successful cycles yesterday, a few shuddering jerks and starts are all I can get out of the near-new machine. And so the Vicious Fates of Fisher & Paykel decree that the next hour will be spent (a) trying the 7 different cycles of the “SmartDrive9” [after 9 goes wouldn’t they have it running perfectly by now?] (b) pulling apart whatever bits aren’t bolted on; and (c) wanting to kick the living crap out of it, but settling for a toe tap just hard enough so that the repairman won’t notice any signs of domestic violence.

What’s particularly annoying is that upon lifting up the machine and looking underneath, even my limited mechanical knowledge tells me that the parts itself really aren’t that complicated – nothing appears to be stuck, and it’s not like your typical racecar or sophisticated circuitry: just cogs and wheels and spokes and so on. But the only feedback I can get from the “computer” is a succession of mindless “beep, beep, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP” which only ended with me ripping the power cord out of the wall.

Now if it were the old days, say 1990 or so, I’d be able to pull out the tub as well, all the bits, and everything would look fine … but still not work. At least then, however, I could conclude that the fault was with my own lack of knowledge, and know it for myself. But nowadays everything is sealed off – the premise being that the onboard computer is smart enough to detect and fix it’s own problems – but the reality is that it appears as clueless as I am.

Note this is a small goal: I’m not even talking usability in terms of fixing the problem, just an indication that yep, the problem is with #455 spoke or #733 cog. Think of the printer’s error message evolution – even “PC LOAD LETTER” gave you some sort of direction, which has now gotten to the point where … well, it call tell you that it needs paper or where the paper happens to be jammed, even if it’s not. But it gives you something to check, you check, start over and see where you get to.
When I was working at Microsoft back in 1998-9, the talk was already about the domestic appliances that would be talking to each other, anticipating your every desire, ordering the milk when you’d run out. One that could talk to itself, self-diagnose and self-medicate would be a start.

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