Did Rube Goldberg Lead This Design Team?

catwashingmachineThis afternoon, my son wanted to play NBA 2K14 on the XBox One. I decided to take a break from working to play with him. After fifteen minutes of trying to get the XBox One to recognize that both of us wanted to play, my seven-year-old decided to climb on a chair to get the Kinect to recognize that he was in the room. Success! The XBox One acknowledged his presence, and his controller was activated. Unfortunately, I, for some reason, was then signed out of XBox, and it no longer responded to my controller. We were back where we had started. We ended up not playing.

How about designing a game console where all have to do to play is … I don’t know … press a button on the controller to activate it, without having to ham it up for the creepy camera embedded in the $100 mandatory motion sensor? How about not requiring players to sign into a nebulous network of some sort where the currency is expressed in points instead of a recognizable gold-backed currency? If you really want to provide a unified television and media experience, how about providing a remote control with numeric buttons you could press to advance to a particular channel? How about carrying over some of the button conventions from the previous XBox console to this new one? How about dumping the voice recognition, because it absolutely does not work, unless you repeat something three or four times? It makes the XBox One resemble my kids when I ask them in vain to help out with housework. If that’s the XBox One’s strategy for blending into the family, mission accomplished.

Designing intuitive user interfaces is difficult work, particularly when engineering ambition takes the driver’s seat. We technologists love to shove lots of gizmo magic into products. The problem is that the average use doesn’t share our gadget lust and instead becomes frustrated that the simple has gotten buried by the flashy, less useful features developers introduce for fun. When developers are allowed to run amok and pay no heed to what the average user actually wants and needs, you end up with a product faded by the harsh glare of unmet ambition. That’s how you end up with voice recognition that isn’t ready for prime time taking center stage in a user interface. That’s how you get a camera-equipped motion sensor that should be optional instead made mandatory so that it scan the room to determine who can play and who cannot. That’s how you end up with the need to be constantly connected to the Internet, a scary proposition in this age of Snowden. Is pairing constant connectivity with a camera that scans your living room looking for human capital really a good idea?

Imagine if Microsoft were to design a washing machine, It would be voice-activated and constantly connected to the Internet. To run it, you’d have to log in by holding your dirty underwear to its built-in camera. Once logged in, the machine would send water and soap usage statistics to a cloud service called Laundromat. If you used too much water or soap, Laundromat would send a message to your Windows phone, giving you the option to purchase soap and water credits using a special currency called eSuds. You’d have to log in again to spend your eSuds, this time using a special joystick mounted on the washing machine to cycle through the characters in your password. As the machine washed your clothes, it would stream hd video of the process taking place inside the wash drum to your XBox One, and even allow you to feed the video to your friends and your mother via Skype. The revolutionary Microwash would do all this. It might even wash your clothes!

As a long-time Microsoft fan, I hate how the folks from Redmond seem so intent on reinforcing the engineer stereotype. I know that stereotype. In fact, I lived it. Before I came to Lewis full time, I wrote software for a company that provided tools for the electric utility industry. We were engineers providing tools for other engineers. I would regularly add features to the product that had a gee-whiz appeal to them. They were cool to describe to my fellow developers and to our technical client base, but I certainly didn’t execute them well. I let my ideas get in the way of creating high-quality software that reliably gave the customers the information and services they needed. I added features that would enable them to publish real-time power system data and models to a web site. Oooh, a website! Back in 1995, everybody wanted to web-enable their software, and I wanted to do the same. But I provided access to these features through haphazardly designed forms and terribly unreliable communication interfaces. But man, the promise of this feature was so cool! Our software could talk to the World Wide Web!

Fast forward almost twenty years. The XBox One has voice recognition that can occasionally recognize your voice. It detects and welcomes you when you walk into the room! You can watch cable TV and Blu-Ray movies on it, and you get to experience the thrill of using the left thumbstick to cycle through channels and chapters. Or was it the right thumbstick? Or the D-pad in combination with the right trigger? Ah, who cares! You could try speaking your choice, and perhaps the voice recognition will understand you. Maybe it won’t, but you can try again. After all, this is tomorrow’s integrated media experience, delivered today.

Just don’t mind that today is not entirely up to the task.

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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