The Worst User Interfaces Ever

I’m pretty good at figuring out user interfaces and getting the hang of most things pretty quickly without reading documentation or making irreversible mistakes, but that doesn’t mean I’m not critical of them. In fact, I’m extremely sensitive to user interfaces, as I suspect most people who read this blog are. What are some of the worst user interfaces you have ever come across? Here are just a few:

  • I used to use a Motorola i1000 phone with Nextel which had, by far, the worst user interface I’ve ever experienced in a phone. To do any type of configuration, you had to enter some kind of code to get to the right screen rather than navigating through a menu system. Storing phone numbers in the address book was only a little easier than programming in C. Everyone in my office had to use the default configuration because nobody could figure out how to change anything. My i1000 is now a toy for my 2-year-old, and I’m using AT&T.
  • Did anyone ever buy a domain name from Network Solutions about seven years ago? Remember the process? They used to email you forms that you had to email back in a specific formate with answers filled in, which I’m guessing were parsed by some Perl scripts on the other end. Fortunately, NSI has since ported their laborious and inefficient processes to laborious and inefficient web applications and internal procedures.
  • ATM machines are generally very simple to use, but I hate the ones that have columns of buttons beside the screen which correspond to different dynamic options that never seem to exactly line up with the buttons. When you are dealing with your bank account, button ambiguity is not a good thing.
  • Whenever I go to Giant, I almost always use their self-checkout system because I think it has one of the best user interfaces ever placed before the general public. Whoever wrote that software did an amazing job at taking a very involved process (not necessarily complex, but undeniably involved), and making it just about as foolproof as I think it could be. (The only thing I would change is that your receipt should come out from underneath where you sign the credit card pad rather than in the middle of the lane.) Home Depot’s system, on the other hand, sends me running for any line manned by a human, regardless of how long. I’ve only tried to use their automated lanes twice, but both times, I had problems because the computer didn’t believe I had put the item I just scanned in the bag when I actually had. Both times, the Home Depot referee watching over the “automated” systems had to intervene and override something to keep the transaction alive. I don’t generally mind arguing a little bit with a computer, but it’s embarrassing when there’s a line of people behind you, and the computer is basically accusing you of trying to pull the wool over its eyes. I find the employees at Home Depot much easier to argue with.
  • And then there’s my microwave. For some reason, the most prominent button on the keypad is the “Time” button, which one might mistakenly assume prepares the machine to accept a cook duration, when in fact in it is used for resetting the microwave’s clock. I guess their usability tests indicated that customers are more concerned with resetting the time on their microwaves than with heating up a cup of coffee or a piece of pizza. When I first moved into this house, I used to reset the time on my microwave about 10 times a day.
  • The absolute worst user interface I’ve ever used in my life has to be the controls on my washer and drier. I still have no idea how either actually works. I just turn, push, and pull the dials until the machines seem to be doing the appropriate things, then come back later and see if I might need to turn, push or pull the dials some more. Sometimes the machines buzz and take breaks, but that doesn’t seem to be an indication that they are actually finished doing anything. My drier has settings for “more dry” and “less dry,” but more or less dry than what? Just dry my clothes! And what’s with the little stars, and colored zones and seemingly arbitrary numbers placed around the dial like star maps? Maybe more modern washing machines are easier to use, but I think I would have more luck figuring out how to use a particle accelerator than doing a load a laundry.

What’s your least favorite user interface? Any good stories to go along with them?