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Analog Angle Article

Can you actually “show off” your product?

We recently had to look for a replacement dishwasher for a unit that had served trouble-free for about 20 years. (Spoiler alert: this is NOT another column about how “they don't make them like they used to” or “you can't get parts anymore” or “electronics in appliances are not a good thing.”) The unit, which has gone on to its recyclable resting place, had a basic, early-generation electronic control panel that was still working fine when the electromechanical guts gave out.

We did our research (Consumer Reports , online review sites) and headed out. Looking at the units, some had simple pushbuttons and LED indicators, some has modest numeric readouts, and some had more detailed alphanumeric displays–or so we think.

Why do I say this? Because not one of dishwashers was connected to an AC line, so they were all dark. The customer has to “imagine” what the display and front panel looked like in actual operation, which is somewhat bizarre. Talk about “flying blind”: the look and feel of a user interface is a critical part of the decision process.

I understand that connecting the power line in the showroom would be a nuisance. And I believe dishwashers have an interlock so that if there is no water pressure, the front panel controls are locked out can't be operated, and the machine can't be run through its sequences, which makes sense, of course. But still, having a nice user interface that is dark and can't be shown seems odd to me, when you are trying to sell a product.

Perhaps vendors could have a special-access front-panel sequence, which overrides the lockout and lets users go through the controls and displays, but without doing anything real? At least that way, you'd know what the various buttons, LEDS, and displays of the unit were, what they looked like, and what they showed. Or perhaps they could have a demo CD on a stripped-down PC with a touch screen, to simulate actual operation? There would be no need to hook up AC to the dishwashers, and it would be easy to handle new models as they came out.

Fortunately, most products we develop can be powered up and run thorough their paces. If they can't, we're making it harder to sell it, and that's what it is all about, whether you are making a handheld instrument, a home appliance, or a large control system. It's not enough for the design team to know what the thing looks like when it's running: potential users have to know, as well. ♦

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