Generational differences -

Generational differences

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In September the History Channel interviewed me for a program about the failures of the Patriot Missile and the Ariane 5. It aired while I was on a flight back from Europe, so I missed the show.

Never fear, technology to the rescue. My nearly 80-year old parents taped the event and proudly handed me a VHS cassette. Proudly, I say, because for them mastering the VCR is quite an accomplishment.

After kicking around here for weeks we finally played the tape. Two hours of other programs, apparently ones before Modern Marvels, scrolled painfully by (we don't watch much TV; now I remember why). Finally, the show started!

And the tape ran out.

My folks just haven't a clue about modern technology. They've got a desktop with gigabit Ethernet but transfer files using 3-inch floppies. A dial-up connection is the only safe part of their computer network; at those speeds not much mayhem gets through the wires. A new digital camera has me terrified since floppies are no longer a viable backup media, and it's hard to imagine them mastering the art of burning CDs.

Yet my dad was a mechanical engineer for a half-century and one of the early space pioneers. He has a t-shirt that says “Actually, I AM a rocket scientist.”

The electronics of today have left a large number of older folks behind. I get frustrated, but then find myself similarly baffled by inscrutable technology.

For instance, we recently acquired a Prius, Toyota's 55 MPG hybrid. This is a fabulous vehicle, a marvel of engineering that deserves an article to itself. Only through a network of 32 bitters running very smart code is it possible to attain these drastic reductions in gas consumption, and even more dramatic emissions benefits. Embedded systems are probably our best hope of dealing with looming environmental problems.

But the car is, well, odd in some ways. There's a reverse beeper, probably since in electric mode the thing is so quiet it's a hazard to pedestrians. (Oddly, the beep only sounds inside the car, never outside. Go figure). Annoying? You bet. But there's a simple way to disable the noisemaker:

1. Press the power switch
2. Set the trip/odometer switch to “odometer” (if it's already in that mode, one must go out of odometer mode and back into it).
3. Press the power switch to turn the car off.
4. With foot on brake hit power switch again and wait till the ready light illuminates.
5. Within six seconds, press and hold the trip/odometer switch for 10 seconds or more.
6. While still holding that switch, after 10 seconds, shift from park to reverse, and then back to park. Now release the switch.
7. The trip/odometer display will show “b on” instead of miles.
8. Toggle the trip/odometer switch till the display shows “b off.”
9. Turn power off.

We don't have the GPS option, but if we did there's a procedure to display the number of satellites in range:

1. Press the power switch twice, without touching the brake pedal so the car doesn't start.
2. While pressing the info button, turn the headlight switch from “off” to “parking” to “off” to “parking” to “off” to “parking” to “off.”
3. The screen will switch to a diagnostic mode.
4. Press the menu button.
5. Press the navigation button.

Oh boy. Talk about intuitive.

This interface is just as baffling to me as the VCR is to my parents. Perhaps Toyota saved a few pennies by eliminating some sort of mode switch. Yet the vehicle has a touch-sensitive LCD display. Virtual switches, with which the car is already awash, cost nothing.

I mentioned the power button. There's no ignition key in the conventional sense, no engine cranking to get the car going. Once you know the routine it's easier to start and stop than a conventional (in other words, Prius-storic) car. But it's sufficiently different that Toyota provides a pad of start/stop instructions to hand to valets. In the last week I had two chances to use these instructions and the results were fascinating.

The first valet was perhaps 18 years old. I explained the procedure and handed him a slip from the pad of instructions. His eyes opened wide and a smile appeared. He eagerly hopped in and sped off.

At another garage a few days later the scene repeated itself. But now the main character was in his 60s. As soon as he heard that somehow this car was different, he sighed: “the hell with that, just park it over there and keep the keys.”

There are three or four contemporaneous generations alive today, all presented with masses of technology. Younger folks soak up new ideas as quickly as they master new languages. It's not as easy for older people. In the USA the population is aging. How will they (actually, us) manage with the increasingly sophisticated gadgets coming out each year? Do we need new design parameters to make devices more elder-friendly?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Response

Why didn't Toyota make the power button emulate an ignition switch?

Will each manufacturer come up with their own user interface?

– Anthony Wong

Jack replies Good question! But the whole paradigm has changed. There's no key. None. There's a “fob”, a tiny radio transmitterthat lives on your keychain, coded to the car. Walk up to the car and it unlocks itself automatically. Sit down, andthe fob lets the car know you're there. Just press “Power”, put it in gear, and go. It's actually pretty cool.

My mother recently purchased a new LCD TV for her bedroom. She mostly watches cable but she also bought a DVD player (< $60.00="" !!!).="" i="" set="" them="" up="" and="" was="" able="" to="" watch="" programming="" from="" either="" source="" with="" some="" button="" pushing="" on="" the="" remotes.="">

When I showed her how to switch from cable from DVD and back, she said that she would have to write down the button sequences so she could duplicate it later. I was able to look at the screen and follow the menus, but this is a skill that seems hard for older people to master. To my mother, the required button pushes were truly akin to magic. Say a few incantations, add a few ingredients and something good (or disastrous) will occur.

I briefly considered buying a programmable remote and trying to set it up with dedicated buttons to watch cable or DVD sources. I soon realized that this would probably break down eventually since switching the TV's source was done by toggling a single button on the remote. If the TV somehow got switched to the wrong source, (there are 5 inputs possible) there would be no way for the remote to switch it back to a known state. Even turning off the set will not fully reset all of the myriad options.

When she wants to watch a DVD, my mom calls me on the phone!

– Tom Warner

The question is WHY?Why should our parent's generation or our generation OR our kids generation have to deal with technology.The user interface to technology is out of control.

Technology is supposed to make our life easier … right?

Has it? I think not!

Who's fault?Microsoft? Sure why not.

Mostly us I think. Us as embedded system designers. I think we should ask other people (non-technical folk) if the system is acceptable.

– Tim Flynn

“Do we need new design parameters to make devices more elder-friendly?”

No, we just need to stop letting dumbasses design them.

– Andrew Warren

So, you are telling me that your car ceases to operate if your FOB batteries die? Amusing. “Hi AAA, I need a watch battery to start my car.”

I've watched my Mother progress from an Osborne 1 through her current Pentium 4 and it still isn't intuitive to her how file folders work. She is wrestling with her 4Mpix camera. She finds it very frustrating because she knows what the technology is capable of. I can shrug off a bad user interface (OK, it is annoying that it is easier to hit OPEN on my DVD player remote than hitting PAUSE) but that stops many older people trying to navigate menus.

I hate to make a blanket statement but I believe that engineers think a bit differently and if you let an engineer design an user interface without external input, the organization of the buttons and menus with be less intuitive unless the designer can really adjust their thinking to match a more typical user. Designing an interface is a skill that needs to be studied and understood.

– Steve Nordhauser

What would our parents response be when the battery in the Prius' key fob inevitably dies? Or worse, when the fob visits the washing machine and the RF interface no longer functions? Suddenly the vehicle cannot be entered or started. I doubt that there are bypasses to these functions. It reminds me of James Burke's discussion of “technology traps” in his original “Connections” series.

– Keith Heob

The fob has a removable metal key that gets you into the car if the batt dies. Then the fob can plug into the dash and get power from there.

– AC

HMI (Human-Machine Interface) design is a discipline and an art. The inherent problem with things as they stand is that the typical HMI designer usually has a heavy technical background but no real human factors training (and I'm no exception). It is too easy to fall into the trap of valuing efficiency over ease of use; this mindset is not a problem in situations where any regular user will undergo mandatory training, but for the world at large, a good HMI architect will assume that at least 75% of his/her users will never take the manual out of its plastic wrapper.

In the case of the Prius, my guess is that the designers intentionally made the reverse beeper difficult to disable. There could be several reasons for this, but I think the two most likely are that (1) they wanted to make sure that it would never be unintentionally (or carelessly) disabled, and/or (2) they did not want to go through the interface design process (on the touch panel) for a feature that they thought would be seldomly used.

This is understandable to some extent–if the beeper is only audible inside the car, it was probably intended to remind drivers to look behind them when they're in reverse. While any good driver would do that automatically, the warning could still be considered a “safety feature” for those who would not. And of course, anything branded a safety feature in today's litigious society screams “lawsuit”–you can imagine a case where an inexperienced driver accidentally leaves the car in reverse and, having turned the warning off from the easy touch screen menu, is not aware of the danger until damage has been done. Nothing prevents a driver in a '92 Corolla from doing the same thing, but the fact that the feature exists and may accidentally have been disabled creates liability.

On a related thought (and in response to another comment), there is probably an untapped market out there for a DVD player with a large, readable remote and front panel controls that can be configured to play a movie with one button, skipping any nested DVD menus and special features in the process. I would guess that there are many people in the 70+ crown who have received DVD players as gifts, but never even turned them on.

– Scott Winder

Before the microprocessor revolution, machines were designed as products for use by customers. If the product was difficult to use,another vendor would make one that was easy to use and take the business. Eventually, much of this was documented as the science ofdesign. “The Design of Everyday Things” by Bob Norman is a good reference for design.

Along comes the electronic revolution and then the microprocessor revolution. Microprocessors run software, and softwareseparates control complexity from hardware cost. The uP allowed the control of very complex things for almost zero production cost.You could add an almost infinite number of virtual knobs and switches without the cost of real ones. The danger starts to becomevisible.

This opened up new product possibilities, such as the VCR and all the digital things (PC's, phones, IPods, etc.) that we havetoday.

The new digital things are complicated, by definition. Complexity of function is what they bring to the party. The products andtheir human interfaces are designed by programmers, who are paid by the functions they add (code they write), not by customer use ofthe functions.

Programmers are seldom paid to make the product easy to use, as defined by the customer, not the programmer. (Apple may be anexception.) If it works, ship it.

This is not new. People who understand and design products in a new technology are seldom the people intended to use theproducts. Poorly designed products can survive when they are the only products providing the benefits of the new technology.

We have been in this situation for some time partly because the whole idea of software driven products is a new and experimentaltechnology, in mass market terms. Every year the processors get faster, the memories get bigger and someone invents a newer way towrite the software. This allows another increase in software size and complexity, expressed as more product features. The new,”better” product with more features replaces the older product before that product can be redesigned for ease of use. What we see asa result is a continual parade of lab prototypes in pretty production skins. There is even a joke for this: A software upgrade iswhere new features replace old benefits.

This problem has been seen before, in the early days of the industrial revolution. In the 19th century many machines of startlingand absurd complexity were made and used. Usability and even safety were seldom considered. The experimental phase eventually endedwhen mechanical design becamestable and widespread, and most pure machines today (tools, etc.) are pretty well designed.

The experimental age of software may be starting to end. Moore's law seems to have finally run out of steam, reducing a source ofchange. Also, the new generation does not consider the PC or the Web to be new or exciting, but takes them for granted likeelectricity and refrigeration. Software by itself is no longer “cool.”

As the volumes get high and the margins get low, products tend to get more usable. Read cell phones and automobiles. When everyauto manufacturer has hybrids, quality and ease of use can drive sales.

So, maybe our digital Rube Goldberg devices will start looking like real products. Let's hope this thinking eventually getsaround to VCR's, DVD's and digital cameras!

– David Wyland


I saw a universal remote with the ideal user interface at this years CES. It's got a color touchscreen and when it's inchannel-select mode, little color icons appear with the names and logos of each channel: the NBC peacock, the CBS eye, etc. It'svery easy to select channels with this device. The perfect mode-matching graphical user interface for AV equipment. The catch? Itcosts $1000 and must be set up by a licensed dealer, presumably for more $$$. Not needed in this day of Internet downloads, exceptfor extra profit. A sign of things to come, perhaps.

– Steve Leibson


One of the basic tenets of MMI design is that abstract operations should be modeled as something already familar to the user. Unfortunately, the familiar object on which modern machines are based are often OTHER modern machines; for example, a DVDs buttonsare pretty much the same as those you'd find on a tape cassette player. I suspect this is partly why oldies have trouble with thelatest stuff – having been left behind a few technological generations ago, they have no familiarity with common user interfaceparadigms. Presumably they had no trouble in their younger days tuning the radio or operating the dial-programmed washing machine.

This doesn't really explain all of it, though. Like Steve Nordhauser, my mum doesn't grasp the concept of files and folders, eventhough she knows perfectly well how such things work. Figuring out exactly why oldies have this particular cognitive discontinuitywould be a fascinating research topic!

Incidentally, while I agree that an untrained embedded systems engineer probably isn't best qualified to design user interfaces, itis a learnable skill and one that every programmer should have in his toolbox. Educate yourself. I have found that the guys whodesign the graphics often assume that they are automatically qualified to design the user interface too (or at least more so thanthe programmer). Unfortunately they are often as uneducated about such things as us computer nerds. MMI design requires somebackground in psychology and an ability to conduct experiments (any design you come up with needs to be prototyped and tested tomake sure users understand it the way you think they will). Our latest product was designed that way on the insistence of thegraphics design manager. It looks lovely … but it's a pig to use.

– JM


Switch design??

I know from experience that beepers ( like seatbelt reminders), can be extremely annoying for test personnel. Usually at thedevelopment stage, it can be configured off. Through an awkward interface. When the product is to be released, in different market,the market department might realize that legislation and market demands are different and ask for a quick fix. Making the switchavailable for the workshops that doesn't have advanced equipment, and there you go another odd interface, with TOTAL lack of anydesign. Of course a good designer or technician might have realized it, but that does not necessarily help.

Recollection is important. One soda machine thatLOOKS a certain way work EXACTLY like a similar sodamachine. No one is living in a void!!

Off course one like to use all features of a gadget.I think both things can be accomplished by having different interface modes.(Configured or default mode)

Addressing all different users, some programmable and others NOT.And COMMUNICATE the mode to the user, without ANY active action from the user.(Hidden states are dissencouraging and intimidate the user.)The numbers of designers HAVE to be equal with the different modes. Otherwise the integrity of the interface might be compromised.

The reverse seems odd in the car, why would itremember if it was set in forward or reverse?I own an automatic geared car and I like that itALWAYS start in neutral.No surprises there.

– Martin Lundstrm

About “elder” folks, of which I am one, and the technology problems with new equipment, the only answer is to wait until we all die, then start over.

By the way, I design embedded control systems.

– Joel Wexler

In the days of high wage countries and low wage countries most automotive companies get software designed by engineers who never owned any car, let alone one with all the electronic sophistication possible.

May be we are too greedy, that's why the writing on a cheap DVD remote must be difficult to read (and I am only in my 40s), cars have to beep at you (beeping is cheaper than changing laws) and using a ticket machine for public transport is a mayor sales factor for cars

– Bernhard Kockoth

I have come to believe that it is not so much the question of age, but the conviction to learn and experience in similar things fromwhich to simulate, that drives the disparity. First of all, my experience has been that many older people don't have the sameeagerness to learn as us younger pups because they don't inherently see a need to; at some point, every challenge to assimilate newtechnologies boils down to “why bother”. (note the comment from Joel Wexler stating that “the only answer is to wait until we alldie, then start over.”) My father spent the last 30 years of his career as a mainframe operator. In the face of bad eyesight,arthritis, and 30 years of less-than-fond memories about an overly stressful profession, this man claims he won't go near acomputer. Furthermore, he has very little compulsion to learn how PCs work even for an activity he would find worthwhile likechecking his stocks online.

Secondly, it's an inevitable constant that the learning models and analogies by which the previous generation was indoctrinated willeventually become obseleted by the paradigm shift that also drives technological advancement. We live in an age of heads-updisplays, process flows, and terminologies invented by the consumer electronics industry; most of our parents and grandparents,well, didn't. I make the analogy of a linguist. Behavioral and cognitive scientists have long proved that languages become easierto learn overall with each one you learn because they are all stored in the language center. Applied to learning new technology,it's easy to see while our X-Box-fueled youngsters can typically learn to reprogram the DVD more efficiently than their grandparentsthat grew up on a healthy diet of checkers and pick-up-sticks. My father was among the electronics-savvy baby-boomers merelybecause his vocational training and job allowed him to pick these things up at a later age while alot of his peers were left behind.

But, there is always hope. I served in Afghanistan in 2003 is support of OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM. With a broken and backloggedmail system, the most efficient way for friends and family to communicate with me was over email. I sat behind the computer usedfor morale and welfare one day and openned my Netscape Email to find, to my shock, and email from my dad. He had my brother throwtogether a home computer, get Internet access, learned how to use Windows, and emailed me because he had no other way to get to me. Now that I'm back home, the computer is collecting dust in the basement. But this proves that he could do it if the motivation werestrong enough, and I'd like to think that the same is true with all older persons.

– Shawn Price

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