I’m sorry I missed your call (or, why my office telephone makes me feel stupid)

This is my office phone.

See the red light? Most people who know me know that the best way to reach me is always my cell phone or email (or Twitter). But that red light marks purgatory for those who didn’t know.

You see, office phones and I just don’t get along. I’ve tried, really I have. But these “designed by an electrical engineer” phones have always driven me nuts. Right up there with fax machines and printers, the needlessly complicated “work phone” has always driven me nuts. The user interface makes me feel stupid. It feels like it lowers my IQ every time I try to use one (and I know it’s not just me) – and no two office phones are ever the same!

I saw the red light today, and thought, “I really should make sure there’s nothing important in there”. So I searched the Internet for directions to the device. Almost everything came back as handsets for sale (hmm…), no documentation. I could, admittedly, ask a peer here how to check it, but then I’d feel even more stupid. I mean, I worked on Windows. I’m not an idiot. I even know this is far from being a really complex office phone, but how the heck do you check voicemail? I just want to check voicemail!

I think my iPhone has broken me to use overly complex user interfaces. I use my iPhone, my iPad, and even my Nest thermostat, and appreciate the elegance and simplicity of what they do – but more importantly, what they don’t do. With this phone, it’s impossible to figure out how to use the “Feature” button or check voicemail without an instruction manual. It’s completely unclear what “HFAI” is (High Fructose Amplification Input? High Fidelity Analog Input?), or if I should be worried that I don’t have an indicator light to tell me if my HFAI is working or plugged in. I have no idea. Voicemail is important enough on this device to include an indicator light. But no one-click access to voicemail through a button labeled, oh, I don’t know… “Voicemail”?

A few weeks ago, I saw a non-technical person using a technical piece of software. They tried something. It didn’t work the way they expected. Their response?

“What did I do?”

Technology that doesn’t work as we expect it to innately makes us feel stupid – like we screwed up. We should try harder, we should just know better.

If you want your end-user to get things done faster and easier, drive your product by understanding their real scenarios – how they’ll use the device. Design it to just work in those scenarios. If you design a device, or a piece of hardware or software to simply bubble up your features to the end user, without anticipating how it will be used over a day, week, month or lifecycle of the device, you’re trivializing the tasks that your end user wants to accomplish – and you’re going to make them feel stupid.