Opinions Resisting the Mainstream

If it is not intuitive, get used to it!

by Fred Steinhauser, OMICRON electronics GmbH, Austria

Way too often, we are confronted with miserable user interfaces, not only since we have been using computers. 

Sadly, honest feedback about this is rarely appreciated.

Recently I rode in the co-driver’s seat in a modern rental car. Instead of classical meters and indicators in the direct view of the driver, it had a screen, with about a 50cm diagonal above the middle console. There was lots of space for displaying information. But with the font size used, the speed was just barely readable. It was even worse with the turn signal indicator, we really had to decipher the tiny symbols first. The user interface (UI) implied the driver to have the eyesight of a 20-year-old, sitting right in front of the display. 

I wonder why the authorities gave permission to use this car on public roads in the first place. We are obliged to dedicate our attention to driving and are not allowed to use our smartphones for good reasons. But constantly squinting over the right arm to grasp some poorly displayed information is almost as bad. Considering the ingenuity of the UI, we concluded that it must obviously be the work of UI-Experts.

This realization established a running gag about UI-Experts. And now paying attention to it, we were ourselves surprised how often we ran the gag.

It is hard to pinpoint the instance where this could be fixed. Product managers should take care of this, but they often have a hard time discussing it with those who implement it. I have seen much software and no matter how screwed up the UI was, the SW developers always insisted that it was easy to use. 

SW developers are simply not the ones to assess this. They reside in a different reference system and since they know the function of the product inside and out, it will always be easy for them to use. There are also UI-Experts or UI-Designers who guide the creation of the UIs. But these people tend to let you know that it is your own fault if you have usability issues.

When I once pointed out that there was much unused space and the font size could be increased, I was told that I should have “courage for blank space.” And when I complained about poor contrast because characters were displayed in grey on an almost as grey background (and not black on white), I got the reply that “Apple does it also like this.”

But it is not only about UIs on computer screens. Conventional UIs can also be disappointing. Take the payment machine at the parking garage. The layout is totally arbitrary, depending on how the components did fit behind the panel. There is no clearly structured workflow, you tend to mix up the slots for the ticket and the credit card. Sometimes there is a function to request a receipt, but you must be attentive not to miss it. And the ticket and payment card must be inserted the right way, otherwise it will be rejected. As there are four possible orientations, you have a 75% chance to get it wrong if you are not careful.

This misery is even more surprising because there are examples of decent or even excellent solutions for many of the mentioned points. 

The readability of text has been addressed on aircraft dashboards long ago. And the ticket machines at the railway platforms in Japan are just amazing: you can feed them even multiple tickets, the machine will read them, no matter how they were oriented at insertion, retains the one expired and returns the one which is still valid for the next ride. But unfortunately, these role models do not set a precedent, usability remains underrepresented. Or UI-Experts insist on reinventing the wheel, albeit in a square shape.

Therefore, I am still not convinced by the business of UI design. There is much to do to elevate this to a professional level. And don’t deceive me by claiming that being an UI-Expert is not a profession, but an art..


Fred Steinhauser studied Electrical Engineering at the Vienna University of Technology, where he obtained his diploma in 1986 and received a Dr. of Technical Sciences in 1991. He joined OMICRON and worked on several aspects of testing power system protection. Since 2000 he worked as a product manager with a focus on power utility communication. Since 2014 he is active within the Power Utility Communication business of OMICRON, focusing on Digital Substations and serving as an IEC 61850 expert. Fred is a member of WG10 in the TC57 of the IEC and contributes to IEC 61850. He is one of the main authors of the UCA Implementation Guideline for Sampled Values (9-2LE). Within TC95, he contributes to IEC 61850 related topics. As a member of CIGRÉ he is active within the scope of SC D2 and SC B5. He also contributed to the synchrophasor standard IEEE C37.118.