Time travel design

In this month’s newsletter, Tony refers to a Washington Post story titled The End-User View of Techo-Nirvana: Blink, Blink, Blink. The Washington Post writer had this to say about Video Cassette Recorders:

That flashing "12:00" has become a symbol of technology as tyranny, taunt, impotence, ignorance, intimidation, humiliation, stone in the shoe and pain in the butt. It stands for innovation created without humans in mind. Yet humans have grown to live with it. To expect it. To adjust themselves to the selfishness of these machines. Like sheep.

Consider the most recent twist of the knife. Some 25 years late, the electronics industry promised to solve the flashing-12:00 problem. Today, most new VCRs are supposed to seek out a broadcast time signal and set their own clocks.

Except when they don’t.

It’s practically a cliché. Seemingly everyone has bashed the much-maligned VCR at one time or another, with the blinking clock their primary target. This is evidence of how widespread and annoying a problem it has been. However, while some point to solutions using today’s technologies, no one has stepped forward to offer a feasible, affordable, and appropriate solution that could have prevented the whole mess back before it started. But, first things first. How did we get into this situation?

A short investigation reveals the two main causes of the blinking 12:00 problem: The VCR clock forgets the time when you unplug the VCR, and the clock is awkward to set at best. So when the VCR is unplugged and moved, or the power goes out, the user has to reset the clock to the correct time. The chronic blinking occurs when the user of the VCR either doesn’t know how to set the VCR clock, or simply doesn’t want to be bothered with it the third or seventh time around.

The forgetfulness of the clock is clearly a technical issue that impacts the user. But why are the clocks so difficult for consumers to set? Well, with electronic devices, developers tend to rely on many small buttons to do the work of one simple control, usually in the name of efficiency. What this means is that someone who understands how the more complex time-setting controls work can set the clock more quickly than they could with simpler controls. However, these home-use VCRs were targeted at the mass consumer market, at people who tend to be more interested in ease of use than efficiency—they just want to use their entertainment devices without feeling stupid.

Also revealed is a higher-level problem: The manufacturer of the VCR didn’t delve deeply enough into the needs of their users, who had no interest in continually resetting the clock on their VCR. Setting the clock is a task, not a goal, and has nothing to do with watching movies or recording favorite shows.

So, would it have been possible to solve the blinking 12:00 problem using the technology available when the VCR first appeared on the consumer market in the mid-to-late ’70’s? It sounds like a worthy design challenge—it’s time for you to take a trip in the WABAC machine and find out.

Shazzap! It’s 1977. Jimmy Carter is the President of the United States. Debbie Boone, KC & the Sunshine Band, and Andy Gibb are slugging it out on the Billboard charts. The original Star Wars has just opened in theaters, and Elvis is still alive. Hmmm, you think to yourself. Perhaps they just didn’t have sufficiently advanced technology back here in 1977…

You decide to get the easy problem out of the way first—make the clock easy to set. Heck, you didn’t need to travel to the seventies to solve this one! Why not set the time with a simple rotary control, similar in operation to the ones already used by millions to set their alarm clocks or analog watches? The user simply rotates the knob until the correct time is displayed. Your solution is time-tested, easy to use, and possible with 1977 technology, as demonstrated by Atari’s freewheeling video game driving controllers released the same year. This leaves you with the trickier problem: How can you eliminate the need to frequently reset the clock in the first place?

Here in 1977, the RCA SelectaVision VHS-format VCRs are selling at a price of $1,000. So, what other technologies are available? While flipping through the advertising section of the local newspaper, you notice that the new Texas Instruments 503 model digital Sports Watch is on sale for the unheard of price of $9.95, battery included.

Wait a minute. You don’t have to plug the watch into the wall at all, and it keeps accurate time for years! Hmmm. It seems clear that a clock that doesn’t forget the time when it’s unplugged from the wall is technically feasible. Add the battery from the Sports Watch and some minor circuitry to the SelectaVision, and the VCR can now keep accurate time even when unplugged.

However, you know there are other factors to consider in addition to technical feasibility, factors like size and cost. Size isn’t so much a concern with the SelectaVision—it’s already a huge tank of a machine, with plenty of room inside for a small watch battery—but cost is clearly a critical issue for a consumer device. Can this timekeeping functionality be added without drastically raising the retail price of the VCR?

You do some quick math: The battery of the watch costs far less than the $9.95 retail price of the watch. Adding it and some basic circuitry to a $1,000 VCR would have a negligible impact on the price of the VCR, while providing a competitive advantage over the companies marketing VCRs that can’t remember the time.

So, this fix is technically feasible, cost-effective, makes the product more enjoyable for the user, and gives the manufacturer a competitive advantage. Problem solved—time to return to 2001. Shazzap!

Great work! Unfortunately, this sort of problem is not limited to VCRs or the 1970’s, and there’s still plenty of work to be done. Contrary to popular belief, new technologies like wireless and voice recognition will not rescue us from bad products. Like all technologies before them, these new technologies will introduce as many problems as they solve unless they are focused with good design. This makes it critical to spend as much time thinking about your users and the design of your product as you do about the technology behind it. Otherwise, the next product you use the WABAC to fix may be your own!

Wayne Greenwood

Learn more

Subscribe to our mailing list and stay up to date on our latest thought leadership and learning opportunities.

Connect with us

Want to know how we can help your company drive real business progress?

Let’s talk

Stay up to date on our latest thought leadership and learning opportunities