Dr. UI or: How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love TWC

So maybe it's because I've been doing a lot of UI work lately, or maybe it is because Jeff Peters and Hal Helms have been talking about user interfaces on their podcast, but for whatever reason I've been taking greater notice of interfaces over the past few weeks. It really interesting just how bad some interfaces can be, and how sometimes, just one feature can really make or break a user experience. Case in point my cable box. Here in Philadelphia I have Comcast. When I first moved into my new house a few months ago and called to set up my service I was really surprised that human answered the phone within about 10 seconds of dialing. I'm most familiar with Time Warner Cable in New York where you usually had to try to talk to a machine for 5 minutes before getting fed up and pressing 0 or screaming "Operator!," only to be put on hold for another 30 minutes before you could finally talk to someone. And once you did get a human on the line they usually sounded like they were doing you the biggest favor in the world by talking to you. So anyway, at this point I though Comcast really had it together. However once I finally got my HD/DVR digital cable box (made by Motorola) and started using it, well that is where the love affair ended. I've actually had to call customer service three times in a little less than three months due to the horrible interface this box has.

The first time I called was about ten minutes after I started using the box the first night we had it. The problem was I would navigate down into some listing menu five levels deep and couldn't figure out how to go back up one level. It was so annoying because I could completely exit the menu, but then I'd have to navigate back down to where I was to view the next option in the menu. Now I really don't think I'm that dense, I tried several things - the back button, the page up button, the menu button - but I just couldn't figure this out. So I called only to find out I needed to press the "last" button. I guess that sort of made sense, but it just didn't seem that obvious to me at the time. (To this day I still find it awkward. This may be due to where the last button is placed on the remote control. It is basically under half of your palm when you hold the remote which makes it hard to reach.)

The next time I had to call because, while we had ordered a DVR box, our cable box didn't seem to be recording any of the programs my wife and I were trying to record. (DVR is kind of like Tivo built into the cable box.) I was able to navigate to the program in the on-screen guide and hit the record button on the remote control which in turn caused a little red circle appeared next to the program title indicating it was recording, however, once we went to watch any of our recorded programs we couldn't find them in the menu system. I though that this was me just not "getting it" again so I called Comcast. After a few minutes they determined that the box I had didn't actually have DVR capabilities. When I asked why then it would show the program recording they didn't really have an answer. This was fantastic example of a horrible interface in action.

The third call was just the other night. Somehow the volume on the cable box had become muted. I knew it was the cable box that was muted an not the TV because an on-screen message said "MUTE" in the cable box's display font. This was strange because up until this point we had always controlled the volume and muting via the TV using the cable remote. I tried to un-mute the cable box but everything I tried only changed TV volume, not the cable box's. I even tried navigating into the cable box's audio options menu, but alas I was again stumped by my cable box's interface. I called Comcast and they had me punch a code into the remote and we finally had sound again. When I asked how the cable box could have gotten muted in the first place, again the Comcast rep had no answer. This must be a common issue though because the rep had the answer ready.

Now while dealing with customer service at Time Warner Cable in New York was never fun, I don't really remember having all of these problems working with the cable box. In fact, I remember the interface being quite smart. (I wish I could remember who made those boxes.) One feature I absolutely loved was fast-forward. If you were fast-forwarding through commercials and hit the play button when you got back to your program the player would back up a second or two before playing. The player actually tried to compensated for the time it took for you to press play after seeing your program on screen. I can't say how much I miss this feature on my current cable box.

So just keep in mind that while you may not think it's quite fair to condemn a whole application because of a single UI slip-up, your users may not be so forgiving...

(And yes I know I need to take my own advice and do something about the small reverse type on this blog.)

Phil Duba's Gravatar Nathan, you should have told us at work, we could have given you a Comcast beginners book. Seriously though, I think it's the Motorolla's. A friend of mine has one and hates it. I've had nothing by Scientifics and they've been great.
# Posted By Phil Duba | 10/26/06 10:26 PM
Mateo's Gravatar This was too funny. I have had those same problems myself.. It took me forever to realize that the "Last" button went up one level. And I have had the mute problem twice, I just unplug the box and wait 60 seconds and it seems to reset the mute freeze.. That says a lot about their feelings on usability testing if everyone is having the same issues and they have yet to do anything about it..
# Posted By Mateo | 10/27/06 9:24 AM
Nathan's Gravatar Well, it is great to hear I'm not alone!
# Posted By Nathan | 10/27/06 9:49 AM
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