Week 4 Assignment: Bad Usability Journal Entry

24 10 2009

Journal Entry: Bad Usability, October 24, 2009

I chose to evaluate a piece of electronics equipment that has caused me hours of frustration – the Zoom H4 Handy Digital Recorder. I’ve used this equipment to record narrations for audio slideshows and other projects. I should note that – after I spent hours reading the user manual – the recorder did ultimately create high-quality recordings. But the buttons and interface fail in usability and lead to a poor user experience. This recorder is meant for audio professionals recording musical performances and podcasts, not necessarily the average user who needs to record a class lecture, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be user-friendly.

The designers of this recorder made quite a few poor choices. The four buttons on the left allow you to choose one of four audio file types (MP3, 44.1kHz, etc.), but I’d argue that those options could instead be included in a menu on the screen. There is a large record button on the right side, but that button doesn’t make it record. It puts it in record mode. A second press of the button will make it record. Pressing it again pauses the recording rather than stops it. This takes a while to get used to and I can certainly see it causing frustration for people who thought the equipment was recording, only to have it turn out that it was just “ready to record.”

The middle button can be pressed in the center to return to the main menu on the tiny digital screen. Pressing the bottom of the button also returns to the main menu but it can ALSO set the type of input into the recorder. Pressing the circular button on the top will play or pause the recorded track. The sides of the buttons can be used to fast-forward and rewind or skip tracks. You might expect this click wheel-like button to control the up-down cursor in the digital window, but there is actually a finicky scroll wheel clicker on the side of the recorder that you use to move up and down. You press it in to select the option you’ve highlighted. (It took me a long time to discover this scroll wheel.) I’m sure this is partially due to my familiarity with the iPod, but I’d prefer to see an iPod-like click wheel that you use to scroll through the menu options.

This recorder reminds me a lot of our discussions about a DVD player. It doesn’t make sense to hide so many of the basic functions. Instead of having four buttons for the file format, that space could used for buttons for the most important recording functions – record, play, stop, fast-forward, etc. I’ve since used other digital recorders that, while bulkier, have much easier interfaces that include all the important functions.

There are different settings that are represented by whether a light is on. For example, the red light means the recorder is in stereo mode. If it were off, it would mean the recorder is in 4-track mode. I dislike when the absence of a light tells you a setting. What if that light is broken and it’s actually in 4-track mode?

You choose the mode in the menu screen, so the light also has nothing to do with the function for changing the setting. There are a variety of ways this could be better communicated. There could be a spot on the screen that told you “stereo” or “4-track” when a track is being recorded. There are also tiny black switches on the side of the recorder that indicate other settings, such as the type of input. In order to read the text on these black switches, you have to squint and hold the recorder up to a light.

The menu screen is tiny and the type is difficult to read even for my good eyes. There are many options for file formats, inputs, etc., but they’re not organized in an intuitive way. I typically pick up new technology very quickly, but with this recorder, I quickly learned that the user manual was required reading before you even turned the equipment on.

There is little consistency in the design of this user interface. Functions are controlled by a hodge-podge of tiny hidden switches, lit-up buttons, settings within a hard-to-read menu and lights. The design of the Zoom H4 Handy Recorder needs a massive overhaul.




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