We Are All Flashing 12:00s


By Samuel Greengard

Manufacturers keep adding capabilities to devices, but I'm convinced that most of us rely on about 10 percent of the features available. Think about your DVR or fancy alarm clock; your microwave oven or your automobile. You'd have to spend virtually all your free time reading manuals to even begin to get a clue.

I've given up on my Acura. The Jetsonesque concept of telling your car what to do sounds really cool. But after having my car for nearly two years, I essentially know how to tell it to do two things: Change the interior temperature and display the trip computer on the LCD. Every time I try to access the GPS with voice commands I fail badly. Ditto for finding radio stations.

But voice commands are only the tip of the iceberg. Mysteriously coded buttons abound, and deciphering the bevy of chimes, buzzes, dings, dongs, beeps, voices and vibrations is beyond taxing. Worse, sensors, cameras and crash warning systems--all valuable safety devices--become a medley of distraction when tossed together in a technology stew.

The problem was so severe in the first generation MyFord Touch system that Consumer Reports and J.D. Power downgraded cars with it. Although Ford recently rebooted the system and has received much better reviews, the underlying problem of too many screens and too much information isn't going away.

The confusion is magnified when you're traveling. Rental cars are infuriating because there's no consistent system for how wipers, headlights and other functions work. In hotels, I've had alarm clocks blast in the middle of the night because there's no way to know they've been previously set and nobody bothers to reset them prior to the next guest checking in. I now unplug the clock upon entry and rely on my iPhone.

I won't even try to fathom how to cook a meal in a microwave oven (or why I would want to do so, for that matter) or use the advanced program on the washing machine.

Things are getting more complicated and over-engineered. Let's hope designers and human factors experts grasp the problem and begin to build systems that really work. Otherwise, we may all see our lives reduced to flashing 12:00s.