The Problem With Technology

I’m on holiday.  Two weeks in southwest France.  Glorious autumnal weather, misty mornings, bright sunny days and trees with leaves of every shade from burnt copper to liquid gold (very poetic if a little formulaic, sorry).

Of course to get here involved a little trauma; no pain no gain.  I had to leave home at 5:15 on Saturday morning, shoveling children and bags into a taxi that took us to the airport (my wife was resistant to being shoveled).

Which in turn meant setting the alarm clock for 4:30.

The world’s most technologically advanced alarm clock

I have what can best be described as a “whizz bang” alarm clock.

It has all the following features:

  • 4 different alarm times
  • 3 sound settings; radio, buzzer or iPod
  • 2 wake up settings; gradual or instant noise
  • 2 displays; 12 or 24 hour
  • 4 on / off settings; weekday, weekend, neither or both
  • 2 display types; digital or analogue
  • 2 display settings; dim or bright

It most certainly has other features; I just haven’t found them yet.

All of them controlled by a sophisticated and expensive looking array of small, matt black, touch sensitive buttons.

It was my job to set the alarm for the early morning flight.

Can you guess where this is going?

Wake up time

4:30 Saturday morning came… and went.  Nothing, not a sound, not a murmur from the alarm clock and certainly no soothing gradual awakening to the voice of the BBC as I had planned.


Fortunately my wife second guessed me and set her phone alarm for 4:45 (trust is a wonderful thing).  So we caught the plane, though the children did need rather more shoveling than was really necessary and I was reminded on a couple of occasions about my inability to fulfill “one simple request”.

A bad workman blames his tools

Clearly my alarm clock with all its sophisticated technology works.  All the buttons do what they are supposed to do when they are supposed to do it.

But I failed to set the alarm clock on the single most important morning of the year.

I am not a stupid man.  I nearly have as many letters after my name as in it.  Nor am I a technophobe, most of those letters have a scientific bent, yet the alarm clock beat me into submission.

I know a bad workman blames his tools, but I can’t help but think that for all its high-tech beauty my alarm clock is: over specified, unnecessarily complicated, badly designed and unintuitive.

It isn’t the easiest alarm clock in the world to set.

All I needed was a clockwork bell.

Two requests

We obsess about features, but usability never crosses our minds, at least not until we are on the receiving end of the “matt black” solution.  So I have a couple of requests for you:

  1. When you are designing your next web site or telephony system or agent GUI; try testing it out with some real people before you launch.  People who have the sense to admit they can’t work out how to use your technologically advanced, yet totally unintuitive solution.
  2. Pray for me that the guys who devised my alarm clock had nothing to do with the design of the controls of the airplane I will be flying home on.

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Alarm Clock

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Image by Alan Cleaver



  1. Hello James
    Beautifully told. Absolutely get love the way you have brought attention to the importance of usability. And the intersection of features and usability. As you point out a focus on features without a focus on usability is most likely to end in tears.

    Enjoy your holiday.


  2. James, I believe you spoke for the masses on this one. I know it was just the other day that I said to my wife, as I was toiling to operate some newfangled gadget: “The people who design these things should be forced to use them.” Bravo for cranking out a blog during your holiday. I guess when you love your work, it’s not really work at all, is it? Ciao!

    • James Lawther says:

      If you define work as something you get paid for, then no, it doesn’t come close.

      Any way it was either write the post or an ice cold swimming pool with two purple children.

      Thanks for the comment

  3. Hi James,
    Simple is hard.

    Do we have an in-built, shiny new object, magpie tendency within us? Is it a male thing? Is it about the size of our toolbox? Is it to avoid saying no to things and people which may result in some sort of upset or conflict or choice or focus even?

    Why is it that when we know that simple is good and useful that we still over fill our things with too many features?

    Reminds me of the quote from poet John Lydgate, later adapted by President Lincoln:

    “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.

    Enjoy your holiday,


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