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Lessons from the VCR Clock Flashing 12:00

by Joe Loong on November 6, 2009

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So, continuing some thoughts I started in my earlier entry, “Things That I Don’t Understand” (a limitless topic, to be sure), I revisit the VCR Clock Flashing “12:00″ Scenario (where the inability to program one’s VCR, as demonstrated by the flashing 12:00 on the VCR display, was an indicator of other forms of technological incompetence.)

Now that I think about it… you don’t really hear about this anymore. I forget sometimes that VCRs are obsolete; I guess it shows my own generational and technological bias (I still use mine occasionally to time-shift, since I don’t own a DVR or use BitTorrent).

But with other devices with built-in clocks, you don’t run into this problem as much, perhaps because we’ve had 30 years to get used to programming digital clocks using poorly-labeled, non-intuitive, multi-modal, context-sensitive controls; or because clock programming user interfaces have gotten better; or most likely, since most connected devices now automatically program their own clocks (thanks to time signals from a variety of sources).

Using the VCR clock as an example, we see that the first, longest, laziest phase of technological acceptance was a Darwinian sort of familiarity — it required no effort from product manufacturers, just relying on technology users to adapt, or age out of the marketplace. It places everything on users, requiring them to learn the required syntax (education), or at least memorize the steps (training).

(It helps if you’re talking about something completely new — users had no expectations, and we were jazzed enough to be able to do something new, that we were willing to put up with crappy, barely-existent interfaces because that’s the way it was. It took us a while to figure out that things could be better. This isn’t really the case nowadays.)

The second phase in the maturing technology was largely design-driven improvements, adding step-by-step menus and displays using natural language and clearly labeled controls, and even introducing layered-on services like VCR Plus codes to make things easier for people.

It also means having a better understanding of how people actually use things (which is why I’ll bet that the most used button on your microwave oven is “Minute Plus” or a functional equivalent). It’s more of a matter of will, recognizing that usability is important, and accepting that the costs of adding friendly controls was worth it.

The third phase — “it just works” — represents the maturation of technology, where tasks like setting the clock aren’t just made easier, they’re made unnecessary and completely hidden from the user (as in the case of, say, your cell phone, which gets everything from the network). It becomes part of the overhead managed by the device and the network — at the cost of a little control, maybe a little privacy.

Because so much of what we deal with these days is software, and because design and usability have moved closer to the head of the class since we see how it drives adoption (Apple, anyone?), and because we place more emphasis on usability testing and feedback from the marketplace, the third phase isn’t really the third phase anymore: We not only expect things to work, we expect them to work the way we want them to, without having to figure them out. Which is a huge change from the expectation that we need to figure something out to make it work, and throwing up our hands when it doesn’t

I wonder what the modern equivalent of the VCR clock flashing 12:00 is, as the signifier of technological incompetence or refusal? A wireless router that still broadcasts a default SSID (“Linksys”) is one, or anything that  shows that the default settings haven’t been changed, I suppose.

I have a few other candidates, but they mostly present as attitudinal choices (refusnik/Luddite stuff — people who choose not to engage with the technology at all).

Have your own flashing 12:00 candidates? Have we lost something, expecting things to work automagically without education or intervention? Leave a comment.

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