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Interface: Too much information.

Chris Haining October 24, 2017 All Things Hoon, Terrible Ideas 30 Comments

We have a simply ludicrous coffee machine where I work. It’s a Wittenborg 9100. I know this because it introduces itself with the line “I’m the Wittenborg 9100” on its high-resolution touchscreen display. The latter has a number of uses, the first of which is to display the menu of hot, yummy beverages this bean-to-cup machine can rustle up. Naturally I choose ‘black coffee’, and as soon as I’ve made my selection a whole new world of needless information is presented.

Half of the display is dedicated to a rolling vista of snow-capped mountains, lush plantations and icy tundra, to entertain you during the brief moments that you’re standing there, waiting for your drink to arrive. The other side of the screen shows a countdown, a red circle that gradually closes around a static image of some coffee being brewed, before closing and turning green. Now, when you can physically see that coffee is no longer dribbling into the cup and hear that the clanking has silenced, the display visually confirms that your drink is ready,

At length, you’re reassured that dispensing is complete, with the invitation ‘please, pick up your beverage’. Every time I use this machine, I think about being behind the wheel and ask myself “do we really need all this information?”.

By reminding me of the present time and date, and informing me that its water temperature is 92.7 degrees, the Wittenborg 9100 probably thinks it’s doing me a favour, but it’s all white noise. It’s aggressively pitching information at my face that I’m forced to take notice of. I wish it wasn’t there.

Ever sat behind a dashboard so copiously stocked with information you don’t know where to start? Ever sat in a car at 70mph and realised that the only dial you’ve looked at in half an hour has been the speedometer? Surely car manufacturers must be able to spot a relationship between those two points?

Saab’s ‘night panel’ was a great idea, showing you only the information you really needed. Now, with the advent of ‘Virtual Cockpit’ OLED dashboard displays and the like, an even more sophisticated 21st century successor must be achievable. All of today’s driver information displays are customisable to some extent, but they never quite go far enough. Do we need a constant read out of the fuel level, for instance? Surely you only need to know how much fuel you have at the very beginning of a journey, so you can plan for a stop en route, and then as you approach reserve fuel. The rest of the time, it’s just another dial vying for your attention.

It could really go the way of oil pressure gauges and ammeters, condemned to an auxiliary display in a sub menu. When engines are entirely computer controls, you only need know that everything’s okay, and nothing does that better than a total absence of warning lights. Coolant temperature gauges have become rather marginalised, and not before time – today’s engines typically run at a set temperature or don’t run at all. Because there’s precious little you can do to improve matters, there’s no point in knowing that your engine’s running a little hot or a little cold. A warning light or – better still – dot matrix read-out when something goes outside an acceptable set of parameters is a far more useful idea.

That leaves us with the speedometer and tachometer, the two gauges that they’ll peel from my cold, dead fingers. Except, I don’t really need the rev counter for the majority of journeys I make – I’ll change up before 3,000 rpm as a force of habit, and can hear when a shift is due from the engine note. And the speedometer. We all joke about the mandatory 85mph speedos of North America in the ’80s, but that range covers most of our daily driving, if we’re honest. So have a ‘touring’ speedo, with nice, wide calibrations, which becomes a ‘sports’ 0-170mph speedo at a simple command – and a great moment to welcome the return of the tachometer.

Configurable dashboards are great news, then, but only if we can choose the information we want ourselves. Manufacturers just can’t be trusted.

(Images: Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2017)

  • Troggy

    Machines like that make me wonder if there’s a usb port through which I might load a lightly modified firmware with a few additional custom ‘error’ messages. such as “Mayonnaise low”, or “Main decrunculation chamber nearly empty, please re-crunculate”.
    As for cars, I would want a “boring mode”, Sport mode” and Highway mode”
    Boring mode would show speed and tacho and only show warnings for driving around town or with family on board.
    Sport mode would show extra information like oil pressure and engine temp(s) so I know if things are getting a bit hot under the collar if I’m hammering a twisty road.
    Highway mode would be a plain digital speed readout with all every other gauge and readout around it for long boring highway runs. A tacho would only flash up if a hill is encountered or revs are low/high.

  • Alff

    One can make due with no gauges and a decent smartphone app.

    • Rover 1

      Says the voice of experience?

      • Alff

        Sadly

  • ptschett

    My Mopars are actually pretty good at this. I hardly ever actually look at the gauges once I get the screen set up how I want…

    The Challenger (20,000 miles ago and with a heck of a tail wind): https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6149ef2bc91ef9a1439924dc0b3f726dc4c53ca8df79fb20c166b0471bb3f182.png

    The Ram (more recently): https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/01ace355cba8578177e67cdb059c5104182b865cc5ada5fb2420cc6276270a1a.png

  • I_Borgward

    Share and Enjoy!

    • Still my closing line when announcing new publication output within my corporation.

      We had a commercial “beverage” dispenser at high school, made by Wittenborg, too. One guy wrote that phrase next to the “tea” button.
      Since I’ll never have the opportunity to tell this at Hooniverse again: we also used black tape to turn the company label on the machine into WITTEN“BORG”.

      The service man just laughed and let both be. I think he was slightly disappointed of our generation when nothing more came after that.

      • Alff

        You will be caffeinated.

        • Maymar

          Decaf is futile

      • Most people never noticed that the one-line display on an HP LaserJet 4 was programmable, including the default message of 00 READY.

        Most people never noticed it was just long enough to contain KNEEL BEFORE ZOD.

        I am not most people.

        • I am most people, then. To be fair those were pretty reliable, and had rarely to be reset.

  • My regular complaint about UIs: “From engineers for engineers”. I once asked aloud “don’t they use their stuff themselves?” and someone around replied “Indeed they do – obviously“.

    I’m not an expert, here my peeves:
    * Why do you need the temperature in tenths of degC? A “Temp. OK” / “Temp. too high/low” would be sufficient.
    * Will the screen burn in after 10 years and become illegible?
    * Why can anybody in my kitchen change the language? What if I’m anti-royalist in Canada, and that thing is displaying the Queen’s flag when I’m most vulnerable: pre-coffee?
    * Why do I need words in the first place?
    * I like the time/date format, it’s close to natural language (always confusing: 12/10/17 vs. 10/12/17). Alas, I already have a bunch of clocks in the kitchen, and two calendars, so that should be an option.
    * Hopefully they’re using the green and presumably, red in useful contrasts and patterns (green O vs. red Ø or similar) to help the color blinds (that’s like 5% of men here).
    * Touch interface is ok in kitchen environments, easy to clean – if it’s robust enough for splashes (driven shield), but I still can’t believe that they are cheaper than eight buttons with a 20 char LED matrix next to it.

  • I heat water in this by twisting and releasing the upper knob, then I make tea. The other knob has two positions but I have never used its lower setting, so even this could stand to be simplified.

    https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5005/5229449929_17593197d4.jpg

    • The radiation is palpable.

    • I_Borgward

      After they drop the big one, and all of our microprocessor-controlled machines have been EMP’d to oblivion, we all know who will still be able to heat up a freezer burrito.

      • I’ll known when it’s ready, too, because the bell is mechanical.

    • Rover 1

      You boil water in a microwave instead of a kettle to make tea?

      Americans. English and colonials will understand.

      • I know, I know. Nonetheless the overriding consideration is that I am allowed to have a microwave in my office at work but not any type of hot plate.

  • Maymar

    Part of me wants to say a fuel gauge is really useful in specific circumstances – just because you’re fine now doesn’t mean there’ll be a gas station within distance once you hit reserve, so it’s a nice piece of data. That said, most cars I’ve driven have had about 100km of reserve, and I don’t think I’ve seen gas stations around here more than 65km apart (if you’re not willing to venture a little off the highway), so you’re really probably okay.
    Also, my motorcycle has nothing but a speedo/odo/trip odo, and I do fine just filling up every 200km.
    Now, the idea of reconfigurable dashboards sounds sort of nice, but it’s just shifting the surplus of data to a different point of contact. Do you want to be bombarded with an excess of data, or an excess of choices for your data?

    • I’d like to set it up how I like it, once, and have done with it. Like when you get a new smartphone and immediately disable most of the notification options.

      • Vairship

        Maybe you need a degree in business to understand your company’s coffee machine? I would recommend http://www.wittenborg.eu/ !

  • wunno sev

    i love gauges and data. i always want more! on something like a car or a computer, i think indicator lights, gauges, needles, and the more you give me the happier i’ll be. i can ignore them all until the moment i need them.

    that said, i tend to shy away from screens. gauges, needles, indicators, etc are in place because someone made an effort to include them. on a screen, it’s too easy to provide totally useless information – or even worse, conflicting information. the coffee machine? i’m on board with the temperature information, but leave the time/date off. not only do i probably have that information already, but if the information i already have conflicts with the information on the coffee machine i’ll probably freak out. overconstraint is no joke!