Universal buttons: Now my washing machine thinks its a DVD player

My new washing machine has a Play/Pause button just like my DVD player/stereo.


This trend towards universal control icons/buttons (or butcons as Mr Cooper would have it) certainly makes the washing machine more intuitive for me, but what about if your previous washing machine looked like this?

The new interface strikes me as revolution rather than evolution. Yes the language may be similar, but the interaction is completely different.

Where the old interface is all pull/push, knobs and physicality, the new interface is just buttons. The old interface gives a sense of the mechanics behind the interface (which if you’re interested to read more about, see How stuff works – where the image comes from), where the new interface controls could be from an iPod (kind of!).

Usability testing the new machine

I wondered how my iPod-less, slightly luddite, 20th Century mother would cope with the new controls? So I did some guerilla usability testing of it with her. A brief summary of the issues she encountered is as follows:

  • She tried to twist the push button display that changes program, i.e. she tried to interact with the new device in exactly the same way as the old device.
  • She spent 2 frustrating minutes trying to work out how to get the setting back to the previous program, i.e. synthetic back to cotton, before deciding “something is broken”.
  • She didn’t comprehend how these programs affected the temperature controls (not pictured).
  • She attempted to pull the change program push button to start the wash.

In summary, the interface failed for her.

Of course people learn and adapt, and personally I feel that convergence of interaction and common controls has much to be said for it, but as interface designers it is wrong to assume that just because something makes perfect sense for us and touches on familiar cultural reference points, that it will be intuitive for all.

The root of the problem

I think the root of the problem is that LG have tried to make the interface look like the old style machines, but the reality is that it works completely differently. This faux similarity  is the issue. The push button change program control on the new machine looks too much like the old tactile knob that people can twist back and forth. The position and style of the new change program push button gives the new machine a familiarity that is self defeating.

Maybe LG are targetting the “iPod generation” with these new machines – I can almost hear the marketing meeting now – “I want you to create an iPod experience to make washing clothes enjoyable!”.

I am still none the wiser as to what “Pump” or “Quick 30” mean on my new machine, but then again what did all those 15, 12, 9, … numbers mean on the old displays?

Thinking along these lines I stumbled across Bill DeRouchey‘s History of the Button site, well worth a read.


2 responses to “Universal buttons: Now my washing machine thinks its a DVD player

  1. we have the same machine and it makes me laugh every time I press the play button, perhaps there is a gap in the market for circualr screens on the front of washing machines!!

    nice blog mate

  2. Pingback: Intuitive design replaces dozens of keys with a wheel « Simpler is better

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