As the editor of a magazine (Playback: playback.avguide.com) that focuses on home theater as one of its central themes, I’ve got to admit that one of the questions that keeps me up late at night is this one:
Why aren’t the joys of home theater more broadly pursued?
In informal polls of friends, neighbors, relatives and office mates the answer I’ve come up with points toward two or perhaps three related problems (or at least perceived problems).
In future blogs I’ll talk about home theater’s cost and complexity issues, but for now I’d like to focus in on that third problem spot: confusing user interfaces. They say the first step towards solving a problem is admitting that you have one, so let’s draw a deep breath and say it right out loud:
The remote controls and onscreen user interfaces for many (perhaps most) home theater components are too complex and convoluted for their own good.
In fact, they’re so complex that they can baffle and/or turn off most normal mortals, more than a few self-proclaimed A/V “experts,” and even a good number of theoretically well-qualified custom installers. Not good. If you think I’m making this up or being overly dramatic, then let me share a few anecdotes.
Being an “industry insider” doesn’t necessarily help: Not too long ago had dinner with a technical support specialist for a major A/V company (one with roots in the high-end audio world), during which he shared some sobering—and strictly off-the-record—“war stories” (which is why I’m not giving you the company’s name). The support specialist described being on support calls with dealer’s technicians and asking basic questions such as, “what speaker size and distance settings are you using?” The scary part is that some of those technicians actually replied, “Size and distance settings? What are those, and how would I go about adjusting them?” My point: confusion occurs not only at the consumer level, but at the professional level, too.
Even A/V veterans can be stumped: Some months back I had an eye-opening conversation with a veteran A/V reviewer who was stumped by the user interface of an A/V receiver under review. He called me, sounding very distraught, and basically said, “I’ve tried everything I know how to do, and I can’t get this thing to work.” I could relate to his frustration. The poor fellow had tons of experience (more than 200 A/V receiver reviews to his credit), yet was in this instance tripped up by the fact that a few critical but arcane details were buried in the deepest, darkest, least obvious fine-print recesses of the user’s manual.
Eventually, I downloaded a copy of the manual, did some creative troubleshooting (and, um, “forensic” manual reading), and helped get the reviewer back on track. But it suddenly hit me: if it took an A/V editor who actually likes to read manuals (heaven help me, but it’s true) and a veteran reviewer a conference call plus maybe a man-hour of effort to get a receiver working, what are the odds that a first-time buyer would have success? And realistically, what are the odds that that buyer would be patient enough to read through a manual written in techno-babble-ese with contents organized by a guy who probably designs brain-buster puzzles as a sideline?
Technophobia isn’t the problem: A relative of mine asked for advice on a good, high-performance, low-cost AVR to buy and I gave him some input. In fact, once he settled on the model he wanted to buy, I even arranged to give him some hands-on set-up training to show him how the automated speaker/room EQ setup procedures for his new AVR would work. My intent was to familiarize him with the processes so that they wouldn’t seem foreign or scary.
Several weeks after my relative received his AVR, I did a check-in call to see how things were going. He reported that, before taking the plunge and setting up his system, he decided to do a quick read-through of the manual to review procedures. But instead of achieving success, he found the manual so daunting and confusing that he more or less gave up and decided to use the system primarily as a stereo rig. To this day his surround channel speakers remain boxed up and are sitting in a closet unused!
Is this a classic case of technophobia in action? No way. My relative is a retired aerospace engineer whose instrument designs have flown successfully in U.S., NATO, and Israeli military aircraft. In short, when it comes to technology the man has definitely ‘got game’ and he is no stranger to solving complex problems. Even so, the user interface (and manual) of his new AVR perplexed him in ways that design specs for frighteningly complex aircraft instruments never did. What’s wrong with this picture?
A/V Aficionados Demand Features & Functions Galore,
But the Rest of Us Need Clarity & Simplicity
If you follow some of the A/V specialty sites online, you’ll quickly discern that high-level A/V mavens have an almost perverse gift for asking about obscure “corner case” applications, and for demanding that equipment be flexible enough to handle those applications. And manufacturers—ever looking for marketable new features and functions to tout—are happy to oblige. But here’s the rub.