old digital clock

A Tale of Two Clock Radios

My Take

I recently had to retire my tried and trusty alarm clock radio. I never thought it was anything special. I didn’t keep it around because it had superior functionality, a great experience, great audio quality . . . . it was just the clock I had.

But in making a change to a new clock, I realized how good I had it before. It seems that attention to simple human factors principles was not a priority.

Here are just a few of the attributes that made a difference.

  • With my old clock, I could see the tuning indicator with a sideways glance, still halfway under the blanket. With the new one, I have either lift my torso out of bed or reach my arms out of the blanket, grab the clock and bring it down. Not only does this take time, effort, and winter cold – it also wakes me up twice as much as just looking. This happens several times a day, so it is more important than I would have thought a priori and more annoying every day (seven so far).
  • With my old clock, I could turn off the radio when I was ready for sleep without looking. I could stay in bed (again, under the covers without lifting my torso). With the new one, the radio on and off buttons are pretty similar. They have tactile cues, but not enough for a tired user to tell the difference. Know your use case!!
  • There is a basic control affordance problem that really surprised me. The old clock matched the typical population stereotype. If you rotate the volume control or the tuning control towards you (it was a rotating control on the right side of the clock) the volume or frequency went up, which matches to the right on the display. But with the new one, it is backwards. Even after seven days, I still make this mistake about half the time. We have known about control affordances and compatibility for years. No excuse for this mistake.
  • The new clock has a daylight saving indicator so that you know if it is daylight savings time and it will adjust automatically twice a year. Does anyone think this is worth the extra programming UI and the display indicator to show you 24/7 which time zone you are in? This seems to be like a feature looking for a use case.
  • The daylight savings indicator also means you have to set the date. There is no display for the date. I can’t imagine too many people use their alarm clock to find out the date. But if you don’t set it, the clock might adjust to or from daylight savings time on the wrong night and wake you up an hour too late or too early.
  • The battery backup on the old clock was a simple 9-volt battery. Available at every local store. The new one requires a Sony lithium battery made (or at least used to be made) for their clock radio line. Where would I find a replacement? Order it online? At Radio Shack (or what used to be Radio Shack?)? And for a lot more money as well. What a pain.

But in all fairness, the new one does have one advantage. The button to turn off the alarm is different from the alarm mode control that toggles the alarm between off-buzzer-radio-aux. So the alarm is ready for the next day even when you turn the radio/buzzer off in the morning using the button. The only problem here is the learning curve. On days I don’t use the alarm, I forgot I had to turn off the alarm mode too. I woke up a little too early on the first Saturday and Sunday after making the switch.

Your Turn

Do you have any examples like this? A simple product you use in the kitchen, in the car, in the backyard? One that isn’t fancy or sexy, just really intuitive and simple and effective and does what you need it to, when you need it to, how you need it to?

Image Credit: Caleb Nestor

5 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Clock Radios”

  1. Just had to comment on this one. Maybe I am just “old school,” but I have completely abandoned the idea of trying to use the clock radio in a hotel room to set the alarm for a wake-up call. I travel alot and have been completely flummoxed by some of the clock radios I’ve seen in hotel rooms – totally non-intuitive, often very high-tech, and no instructions. I tend to use my cell phone instead, these days. But that is the main reason I’m commenting – to comment about smart phones. Because I work mostly from home, I don’t use a cell phone very much, and even on the road I travel with tablet computer and communicate mostly via e-mail using that. All I really want a cell phone for is: 1) make/receive emergency calls (and as you can imagine I keep my contact list very small), for the alarm clock, and for the CAMERA. But these days, it is very hard to find a phone that isn’t so completely overloaded with bells and whistles that even the simplest operations (like dialing the phone) can actually be difficult to figure out. And apparently, no phone comes with basic instructions for simple functions. You have to go online and go through a tutorial to find out anything, if the provider even has made that available. And since I’m an infrequent cell phone user, I’ve forgotten the instructions by the time I need them. (Had one phone where I happened to want to use the camera, and I’d forgotten exactly how to TAKE the picture. Took me forever to fiddle around with the phone to find the right action. I did finally find recently a smart phone with a reasonably intuitive interface for executing the three specific functions I need, but it really did take a while. How I would love to be a able to buy a customized phone, stripped of all the functions but the ones I need, with a PLAN that only charges me for what I actually do with the phone. But at least where I live, the latter does not seem to exist. Every once in a while I’ll hear about a new plan option, but when one checks it out, there are always strings attached or limitations that make it undesirable or not feasible in some other way. As you might have guessed, I’m probably a bit older than most readers, but it just seems to me that very few people are really putting any effort into addressing the communication needs/desires of people who are a bit older, possibly retired, who want something simple and affordable, but functional in a way that meets their particular needs at this time of life. You don’t necessarily hear from these folks…because no one is necessarily keen to talk about the changes that occur as one ages, so I suppose everyone just assumes that older customers are being served well. I’m not sure that’s true at all.

  2. I had a similar experience with my old clock, which I’ve kept my entire teen and adult life because of the superior UI for setting it:

    -for either time or alarm, three simple cheap pushbuttons specify AND adjust hour, tens-of-minutes digit, or minutes. you hold them and the digit moves automatically, by +1 every half second. Generally these sorts of schemes where you have to “wait” for an autorepeat function rather than press buttons yourself quickly is often annoying and very inefficient EXCEPT for two key details:

    -that ability to set the tens-of-minutes, and

    – the availability of an additional button to reverse the direction (-1 instead of +1).

    Thus, any new time can be selected (each digit no more than +-5 from the prior value, or +-6 for hours) = at most 2.5 (3) sec per digit = 8sec total max time if you don’t pause. And if you overshoot, correcting errors is trivial via the reverse button. Also you can pause to relax without any penalty.

    to select between setting the clock or the alarm, you hold down one of two pushbuttons (not a slide switch like most clocks). when neither is pressed, the UI is locked and cannot be accidentally changed by any single button press. This is a brilliant use of “spring-loaded modality” as described in UI Style Guides for mouse-operated systems.

    Thus a total of 5 inexpensive momentary pushbuttons for a very easy and fast and safe setting system.

    [set time]
    [set alarm]

    [hour]
    [min]
    [reverse]

    note: (hold hour+min *simultaneously* to alter the tens-of-minutes digit)

    the only flaw is accessibility: you are pressing up to 4 buttons simultaneously. but since buttons are easier to press and hold, especially from a reaching-from-bed position, this isn’t as bad as it seems; no fine motor control is needed. and the aformentioned reverse allows for easy undo from overshooting.

  3. the best clock UI I’ve ever seen is this, from an 80s Sony bedside clock:

    two rotary *absolute* (not incremental) encoders (dials/knobs), could be built with cheap simple mechanical rotary selector switches. continuous rotating, no stops.

    Hour encoder has 24 positions 12mid-11am, 12noon-11pm
    Min encoder has 12 positions, 0-55 positions in 5 minute increments

    the normal use of these dials is to show and set the alarm time.

    to set the clock time, hold down a pushbutton and dial in the time.

    note that since dials aren’t easily bumped, accidental changes are difficult so a Lock mode isn’t needed.

    Amazing simplicity.

    note the UI and usability shortcut of reducing expressivity of minutes from any of 0-59 to only every 5 minute increment– it’s really not necessary to select an alarm time of 12:53 vs 12:54; 12:50 or 12:55 is sufficient for ordinary everyday purposes. This concept is like “snap to grid” in a graphics program, where super high precision isn’t necessary and interferes with ease of use and relative precision of multiple settings. note: there is an obvious flaw here for setting the clock; the flaw is that the user to set the clock precisely, must wait up to 4.99 minutes until a :_0 or :_5 time arrives. The actual Sony model I remember only used its dials for the alarm, the clock was set with conventional buttons. A workaround is have separate dials for clock and alarm; the clock dials would have 1 minute resolution (and be hidden/locked for safety); or have the M dial 60 positions instead of the 12 (or something in-between like 30 for only even number values).

    cheap to manufacture: 10 digital inputs, 5 bits for H and 4 bits for M, plus 1 for the pushbutton (a 5th bit for M if offering 2 second precision). Using resistors on the selector dials (possibly even using potentiometers, optionally for greater resolution) could be built with a processor offering 2 often underutilized analog inputs and a single digital input for the pushbutton.

    I’m building a clock with such a UI and going one further- to use a ring of LEDs for the *output*, making it a more usable-at-a-glance analog clock, which has the nice virtue of making the physical-to-virtual mapping as direct and natural as possible (pointing due East is 3; dial due East to set to 3), much like old analog alarm clocks superimpose the clock and alarm hands on the same axis.

    1. BAD posts… ALL clock radios or CD devices or … ever have ONE common BAD design from the start of electronics. I Never have been able to set SLEEP volume SEPERATED from WAKE UP volume..?
      WWWWHHH YYYYYYYY ?? (I need to BUY TWO CLOCK RADIO TO DO THAT ??? WTF)
      is there not a single designer that acknowledge THE FACT that waking up needs a higher volume then when listening to whatever is on, when falling asleep !? …We are all so dumb for our employers?
      I HAVE NO CLUE of why every single device being sold either with two wake up times (!!) or … does NOT have the setting on WHAT VOLUME it should wake you up with…. I am still waiting half a century for this one feature. WAKE ME UP LOUD AND LET ME FALL ASLEEP SOFT PLEASE ! dumb asses ?
      so simple, so logic.. And none what so ever was Ever designed, so please let the sun come down on me!
      Greeting to ALL (dumb ignorant) designers from AJ FUNKY please throw out all old equipment AFTER this blessing will become BUILD into the NEW DESIGN of PROPER clock radios TANK YOU !

  4. BAD posts… ALL clock radios or CD devices or … ever have ONE common BAD design from the start of electronics. I Never have been able to set SLEEP volume SEPERATED from WAKE UP volume..?
    WWWWHHH YYYYYYYY ?? (I need to BUY TWO CLOCK RADIO TO DO THAT ??? WTF)
    is there not a single designer that acknowledge THE FACT that waking up needs a higher volume then when listening to whatever is on, when falling asleep !? …We are all so dumb for our employers?
    I HAVE NO CLUE of why every single device being sold either with two wake up times (!!) or … does NOT have the setting on WHAT VOLUME it should wake you up with…. I am still waiting half a century for this one feature. WAKE ME UP LOUD AND LET ME FALL ASLEEP SOFT PLEASE ! dumb asses ?
    so simple, so logic.. And none what so ever was Ever designed, so please let the sun come down on me!
    Greeting to ALL (dumb ignorant) designers from AJ FUNKY please throw out all old equipment AFTER this blessing will become BUILD into the NEW DESIGN of PROPER clock radios TANK YOU !

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