By Virginia Postrel
My new thermostat was designed by brilliant morons.
It helps to explain why we can see computers everywhere but in the productivity statistics: In too many cases, computing power still makes ordinary tasks more complicated than they need to beÜor used to be.
The old thermostat had a clear knob for setting the desired temperature. It simultaneously showed you how hot the room already was and how hot you wanted it to be. It had two simple switches, one for setting heat and one for setting fan or auto. Henry Dreyfuss and Carl Kronmiller's design of the round Honeywell wall thermostat is a touchstone of great industrial design: simple, elegant, considerate.
The Honeywell Deluxe Programmable Thermostat, by contrast, takes advantage of Moore's Law. It is incredibly powerful. And it is complicated, clumsy, and rude.
The new thermostat comes from the factory with 56 different temperature defaults: four a day, seven days a week, for both heating and cooling. Instead of a single setting that consumers could vary to suit themselves, the programmers force everyone to start by dealing with 56 choices. That's not a feature. It's a monster bug.
In the mythical world of the Honeywell Deluxe Programmable Thermostat, the defaults assume everyone wakes up at 6 a.m., leaves the house at 8 a.m., comes home at 6 p.m., and goes to sleep at 10 p.m.Üseven individually programmed days a week. No one stays home during the day, even on the weekends. And everyone likes a hot house, especially in the summer. The air conditioning temperatures put Jimmy Carter to shame: 78 degrees when you're home and awake, 85 degrees when you're asleep or out.
Don't like those defaults? You can reprogram them. Instead of selling you comfort, Honeywell sells you programming lessons: Read the manual and click through seemingly endless menus.
A properly designed thermostat would be self-explanatory. It would understand that most of us don't want to be thermostat experts. Instead of making life better, the Honeywell Deluxe Programmable Thermostat's computing power gives consumers less control over their environment and wastes their time. The thermostat won't even let you see both the current temperature and the desired temperature simultaneously.
The problem isn't the technology but the thoughtless way it's applied. "The reason why all our computerized appliances and computer software all behave in that same obnoxious, demanding way is because that's how programmers think," says Alan Cooper, the gadfly interaction designer and author of The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.
I heard him speak at the Industrial Designers Society of America's annual meeting in July and returned home to Los Angeles to find everything he said captured in the thermostat that had been installed, along with a new heating and air-conditioning system, while I was away.
"You can design for technology, and you can make the human user adapt," says Cooper. "Or you can design for the human user and make the technology adapt." Nowadays, Honeywell does the former. So do a lot of other companies. Every day, people around the world curse the Microsoft geniuses who think it's logical to put the computer-shutdown command under "start." VCRs are notoriously difficult to program, and microwaves are worse.
Digital design won't grow up without consumers who demand better. That feedback can come two different ways: "exit" and "voice." My neighbor got a new heating and air-conditioning unit at the same time we did. She took one look at that absurd new thermostat, picked up her phone and demanded the old design back. That's exit.
Most consumers, though, are too busy to deal with replacing a tiny component of a system that, with installation, costs nearly $5,000. They read the manual and gripe about the technology.
That's not fair either to technology or to consumers. And the programmers never get the message. So I'm trying another form of feedback: voice, or in this case, shame. Can't you guys do any better than this?
This article appeared in the October 5, 1998 issue of Forbes ASAP.