User Hostile Design

Modern Japanese design is terrible. It seems to be defined by project engineers, with no attempt to employ an industrial design expert. Or even a functioning normal human being. It goes beyond bad design, and even beyond user-unfriendly design into what I’ll call User Hostile Design. What’s UHD? A made-up example applied to a car: when you hit the horn button, instead of honking the horn you’d somehow have to know to twiddle the turn signal, flash the hazards twice, then tap the brake before shifting into reverse.

Otherwise the airbag would blow up in your face.

This would be mentioned in small print at the bottom of one page of a user’s manual the approximate weight and thickness of the old-style yellow pages (remember those?)

Want a real world example? Let me tell you about my watch. It’s a Citizen Exceed Eco-Drive. It was an engagement gift from my wife. Costs several hundred dollars. Runs on light. Will theoretically last longer than I will. Water resistant to 30 meters. Synthetic sapphire crystal, titanium back. Has a built-in radio receiver to set the time automatically, so never needs adjusting.

…Except when you go overseas and it can’t receive the time signal broadcast by the two towers in Japan.

The watch stem (or crown, in watch terminology) doesn’t work the way watches from the 1800s onwards have worked. You’d think, “pull out the crown to the first click, twist to adjust the time.”

BZZZT! I’m sorry, you fail at thinking like a Japanese engineer. Pulling out the crown to the first click and twisting allows you to adjust the seconds. At the second click you can adjust the minutes. The watch motor advances the hand automatically and does not respond again until it’s done with the adjustment.

There are two advancement modes, which are indistinguishable the first time you use them. If you twist a little, it’ll advance one unit at a time. If you twist farther, it advances continuously. The difference between “a little” and “a lot” is still completely opaque to me. There is no feedback to let you know which mode you’ve chosen until you see what the watch does. The disconnect experienced by the watch motor doing the work instead of you directly advancing the gears by twisting is also disquieting if you’ve ever used an analog watch before.

There are two obvious controls: a watch stem and a single large squarish button. You’d think, “Oh, okay, I guess I have to press the button to access the hour controls.”

BZZZT! I’m sorry, you fail at thinking like a Japanese engineer. Pressing the button once shows whether or not you have a radio signal for adjusting the time automatically, indicated by the second hand rotating to a small printed NO above the 11 o’clock mark any time except during the 2 times a day in which the signal is broadcast (schedule printed on two pages of a very thick little manual booklet that came with the watch). Never mind how you’re supposed to know when to place your watch out to be reset when you don’t know what bloody time it is right now, and you’d have to memorize the schedule or carry the manual with you all the time, and why does it matter anyway when the stupid thing is supposed to Just Work automatically?

“Uh, hold in the button?”

BZZZT! I’m sorry, you fail at thinking like a Japanese engineer. Holding in the button sets the manual override to force the watch to receive the time set signal. After you set this mode, you should (according to the manual) leave your watch on a window sill or some other place where it will have unobstructed access to radio signals during the scheduled time broadcast.

You’d think you never have to force it to set the time, since it’s supposed to—you know—set the time automatically. But the engineers have thought of everything, including the fringe case where you might have been out of range of the towers, in which case, your watch might have lost track of one or more seconds (the manual claims ±15 second accuracy over one month). Or possibly you’ve been underground for weeks, perhaps trapped in a shinkansen tunnel under the ocean with flesh eating man-machine hybrids that can only be killed by ripping out a special nerve center, which means that you may have to manually alert your watch to receive the time signal.

So, how do you actually adjust the hours?

There’s a recessed button that you need to depress twice with a ball-point pen. (Pressing once shows you the time radio signal strength level, I think. Seriously, the damn thing is so complicated to work with that I’m still not sure what does what.) Only then can you twist the stem to adjust the hours. Just be sure not to twist too far since the motor will “helpfully” wind the hours around about ten times faster than it adjusts the minutes.

This is typical of far too many designs I’ve encountered here. Adjunct functions, like adjusting the seconds up or down, or manually setting the watch to listen for a radio time-set signal, were given priority over core functionality like adjusting the hour. Instead of being easily discoverable, some functions are so deeply buried you need a manual to figure them out. The design choices make sense to a certain kind of engineer, but for normal functioning people it’s the worst user experience you could create short of making a watch that kicks you in the balls if you try to adjust the time.

If you never travel, and never try to actually change anything, it works great. Maybe that’s the point; you should never actually try to set the time and just let the watch do its thing automatically. But why they went to such great lengths to break the conventions of a watch interface, and at the same time put in user-accessible mechanisms for interfacing with the radio time-setting function — which should be an entirely automatic process that happens in the background — is a complete mystery.

I guess you’d have to think like a Japanese engineer to think that’s a good idea.