<TFM> 1.9 Home Sweet Home

<TFM> Number 1.9
About TFM | Archives | Number 1.9 (originally published September 2001)

Home Sweet Home

In a questionable lapse of reasoned thought, I subscribed to AT&T’s At Home cable service prior to having surgery in September. I had a six-week recovery ahead of me, and access to more television than my rabbit ears supplied seemed a good idea.

I ordered the service from the AT&T web site, which conveniently excludes the ability to order traditional, or analog, cable. My only option was varying degrees (expense) of digital cable.

On the assigned day, my cable installer was late (I would have been shocked had he arrived on time, so I wasn’t unduly upset).

We had a minor complication because there is no telephone jack in the room where I house my TV; this requirement was missing when I placed my order — and was missing from my confirmation e-mail. We ran a really long (and ugly) extension to the neighboring room.

The importance of this telephone line cannot be overstated. It is the vehicle by which the digital TV interface is populated. Until it had been “turned on” at the main office, my whiz bang interface was devoid of information.

Not Ready for Prime Time

In my opinion, the remote-control interface is not quite ready for prime time, and not just because navigating the alphabet by incrementally going “up” from “A” or “down” from “9” is a pain. Stay with me and you’ll see why.

One of the selling features of the digital cable service is the ability to set a reminder to alert the viewer that a preferred program on another channel is about to begin.

My first experiment with reminder was indiscriminate. I soldiered through hundreds (it seemed like) of channels and programs; if something looked interesting, I set a reminder.

Later, I thought, I’d go to “today’s reminder page” and see where I had overlaps. Nope. No such thing exists – and the system doesn’t prompt you that you are want to see two shows at the same time. I don’t know which one “wins.” Probably the last one registered.

The more annoying interface issue has to do with the physical process of setting up a reminder. Well, there is annoyance when reminded, as well, but that’s getting ahead of myself.

Finding and Saving Star Trek

I like Star Trek, so I thought I’d find out what stations, times and versions of that science fiction staple were available.

remote controlEverything begins with the remote control unit. The power button stands out – it is larger than its neighboring buttons and is red. It does not indicate state, however (on or off). Nor is it obvious which of four states is operational — TV, cable, VCR or auxiliary.

When pressed, each button emits a red color; however, that color is masked by the finger pressing the button. Since the remote control can have only one state, it seems that a slider control would be a more appropriate one. [Think radio buttons versus check boxes.]

To find out what’s playing, one first presses the “Menu” button. Right, left, top and bottom arrows are used to navigate around the TV screen, which is vaguely “web like” in its appearance. It is possible to “press” the arrow and have nothing happen on-screen; the result of an “incomplete press” I suppose.

It is only today – after having used this control for six weeks, that I “saw” the page up and page down buttons … as well as the day “forward” and “back” buttons. There is no choice offered on the screen to view anything but today’s listings, and I have tried in vain to figure out where the day buttons are active.

The bottom portion of the remote control allows the viewer to directly input a channel number. It also contains the controls for a VCR. However, I discovered the hard way that being in the VCR mode does not disable the control that are geared towards menu/search, even though they have no meaning in the VCR environment.

Digital TV Menu

To find Star Trek, I pressed “menu” on the controller, which brings up a menu screen. The menu screen defaults to “view by time.”

initial menu screen

initial search screen

I used the scroll buttons on the controller to get to the search screen.

star trek search screen
After a lot of finger-pushing, I found the listings for Star Trek and arrowed down to the show I’m interested in.

Then I pressed “OK”. As expected, I am presented with information about time, channel and story synopsis. I am also asked if I would like a reminder. Yes!

initial reminder screen

It is here that the interface breaks down.

second reminder screen
I select “remind” by pressing “OK” on the controller. I’m greeted with one of those ‘are you really sure you want to do this?’ screens, which makes me think of Alan Cooper’s admonition not to make users feel stupid.

I dutifully tell it a second time that I want to create a reminder, by pressing “YES”.

But the following screen makes me say “Huh?”

third reminder screen
The active “button” is remind — am I supposed to press it again? This screen looks just like the one I started with. Why doesn’t it show that a reminder has been set? What’s Lock, anyway?

alternate reminder screen

This is what the response screen should look like.

And it should be the screen that shows after pressing “remind.” The screen should provide feedback that a reminder has been set. And the “back button” (Last) should be the default or active button.

fourth reminder screen
If the unsuspecting viewer lets the default determine the next action (pressing “remind” a second time), she will be greeted with this pleasant screen.

However, this screen is the only one that will provide the feedback that a reminder has been set.

Activating Reminder

Finally, there are problems with activating the reminder. You’re sitting here, watching the end of another show, when the reminder screen pops up. First, it has a set number of seconds for its lifespan; no response in that period of time and it disappears forever.

Therefore the (trained) viewer wants to quickly say “yes” if she wants to see the program in question. A glance at the screen suggests that all one has to do is “press OK” and you’ll be whisked away to the correct channel. Yeah, right.

popup reminder screen

Notice which button is active : “Hide Reminder” — and once it’s hidden, it’s gone. Too many times I thought that I had clicked OK and waited, puzzled, as nothing happened!

A friend had to point out that I was activating the “hide” feature. I protested, “But it says ‘press OK to watch’!”

A better screen would look like this:

popup reminder screen

Bottom Line

This, and other interface issues with digital TV from AT&T, cause me to curse the TV or the remote control daily. This business about the reminder, however, is particularly annoying — especially since the solution seems obvious (and documented in interface design research).

If telephone keypads can be made to associate three (or four) letters with a number on a keypad, why can’t the AT&T control? That would make the search less painful; right now you must “page through” the entire alphabet to get to “S” — you can go up from “A” or down from “9” however.

If the system “knows” to put a check beside a program I have marked for a reminder, why can’t I see all of my listings for the day? How can I tell it to remind me every time Star Trek plays; why must I do this each day? Heck, even VCRs are smarter than this!

Why do customers put up with this? Maybe because cable is a monopoly and they have no choice, except in some areas where DirectTV or the Dish Network is an option. Stay tuned; I’m trying a dish next.

Resources and Citations

  • Alan Cooper, About Face
  • Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things
  • AT&T Web