Have you ever asked yourself why equipment is designed the way it is? Ever wondered why somebody chose to position a particular mixer talkback switch slightly beyond arm's length, making it awkward to reach? Or why some software programs make you go back to the main edit screen to click on the 'Play' button when it would be more convenient to do so from within the current screen page? It is all to do with 'ergonomics' and the efficiency of the 'user interface'. Ergonomics, if you didn't happen to know, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the "study of efficiency of persons in their working environment."
The whole subject of ergonomics and the 'user interface' is a tremendously important one. A manufacturer may design the most technologically advanced, mind-blowing product in the world, but it will fail dismally if the human interface is wrong. History is littered with numerous examples of ideologically sound inventions which didn't quite succeed for reasons the designer could not comprehend.
Successful products nearly all have a 'transparent' user interface - one the user is not aware of but takes for granted. The interior layout of a motor car is a classic example. Virtually all cars adhere to a pretty much standardised layout of controls: the steering wheel is always in front of the driver, the handbrake and gear lever between the two front seats, and the wash/wipe selector on a stalk jutting out of the steering wheel column. So why are these things positioned where they are and not elsewhere?
Sometimes they do differ, and often not for the better. For example, years ago I had an old Volvo 144 and the handbrake on it was positioned on the right-hand side of the driver's seat nearest the door. Boy did I use to dread doing hill starts! When pulling away, you had to slip the lever into first gear with your left hand, place it back on the steering wheel, release the handbrake with your right hand, place it back on the steering wheel, then take your left hand off the wheel again to change into second gear. A downright dangerous way of doing things if you ask me. Nudging up a very steep bank in stop-start rush hour traffic was an absolute nightmare. So I got rid of it and bought a car with the handbrake on the left! Since then Volvo designers must have been sent on an 'advanced automobile ergonomics' course, because modern Volvos all have the handbrake on the left now, where common sense tells you it ought to be. (I bet their sales figures improved as a result.) You've only got to look at how successful Renault cars have been since the French eschewed their idiosyncratic ways and started to design 'conventional' (some might say 'sensible') cars with doors that hinge at the front like every other vehicle, and windows that wind down instead of flipping up, etc...
You can only get away with a poorly designed user interface if the product is so cheap that it has no competition (eg. the 2CV). With comparable features and comparable prices, the majority of people will always opt for the product that is the easiest and most straightforward to use - in other words, the one with the best user interface. The success of automatic cameras over their manual counterparts is living proof.
I only wish more musical instrument manufacturers would wake up to this fact. We have lived long enough with the pitiful inadequacies of the parameter/value selection and two-line LCD employed on most keyboards, samplers and synth expanders, it is high time manufacturers took a fresh look at their 'user interface'. There must be a way of improving them.
Editorial by Ian Gilby
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