My grandpa and his not so smart TV

Today I used one of those “SmartTV” for the first time for more than just one minute and for more than just the ON/OFF switch. It was a horrible experience. Let me tell you a story of my grandpa and the problem of bad design.

My grandpa is 92 years old. He bought his first ever computer three years ago and taught himself how to use it. He is now able to unload the pictures of his DSLR onto the computer, process them, add some text and send those photos to his grandchildren. On a Windows XP machine! Using a pretty bad photo management software from Nikon that came bundled with his camera. So he is interested in new technology. I think that alone is remarkable. I know, he should have bought a Mac but sadly he didn’t listen to me.

He got his new TV about a year and a half ago. Unfortunately I didn’t had anything to say in the process, again. He ended up with a generic 46 inch model from LG. I can’t recall the cryptic model number—another of the many problems of current technology-related products. He understands some of the tech jargon used in the manual but he is confused most of the time. That was expected.

He got a question today how he can watch some of his old recordings on VHS tape if it is possible at all. He has a VHS recorder connected to his TV so this shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. I looked through the settings and switched the input to the one signal where his VHS recorder is connected. I explained which button he has to press to switch back to his normal television program.

Some time after he finished the movie he wanted to watch news. I guess he tried pressing some buttons for a few minutes. He came to me and asked for my help because he can’t see the TV picture. To switch back to the normal television box, he has to press the button labelled INPUT on his remote, use the joypad-type arrow thing to select the next input channel and press OK to select it. I had no problem to explain these three steps to him. I gave him the remote so he tried it and I can see what went wrong. After he pressed INPUT the TV showed a grid of all available input signals. He looked at the TV to confirm the grid is showing—the pressure point for the buttons and an one to two second delay for reacting to the action didn’t help here but the grid showed up. He then looked back at the remote to scan for the small right arrow. He found it, pressed it, looked back at the TV and was shown a rotating 3D cube with the text No signal on all of its sides. Why? What happened? He did exactly as I told him.

The TV tried to be smart. After his press of the INPUT button which brought up the signal grid it took him to much time to press the next required button. The TV dismissed the displayed menu after 5 seconds when no input is made. This is horrible! I searched the menus and manual but there is no way to adjust the idle time threshold. It must have been an extremely frustrating experience for my grandpa to do exactly as I said and not getting the expected result.

I don’t think this situation is far fetched. Not every person in the world who buys a current generation TV is a tech-savvy person. I don’t expect a designer to be on the team that is responsible for the overall menu structure judging from the 5 minutes I’ve spent with the device. I don’t get why. Shouldn’t a big company who sells a lot of products to a lot of customers strive to maximize the joy for its users when interacting with its products? Why is there so little thought in the information hierarchy?

Please, if you somehow have something to say in the development cycle of any product that has to have an interface to its customers, please think about the interface and include a designer in the process! The perception of your product by its user is the most influential metric on wether they will buy another of your product or switch to a different brand.

Hopefully my grandpa won’t have to change the input signal ever again.