27 May 2005, 10:53 am

Maybe my bias stems from my participation in the small stultified world of indie rock, where use of wireless guitars and microphones frequently is looked on with suspicion and/or contempt.
And I havta to admit, when I go to some of our friends’ homes with ‘net-enabled laptops, it does seem enviably cool to be able to look something up from wherever the laptop happens to be.
But I gotta draw the line at wireless input devices.

I was looking recently at a review of mice that were designed with attention to ergonomics — a subject of great personal interest — and was disappointed to see how many of the supposedly best-designed mice were wireless.


I had a meeting with one of my clients last week. Before we could review the site I’d built her, her [wireless] keyboard suddenly stopped responding. In order for me to finish typing the URL, we had to troubleshoot her entire computer interface set up (base unit, keyboard, and mouse). First we replaced the battery in the keyboard, because battery failure seemed to be indicated (even though no low battery warning had been displayed). Then we had to reset the code for the system. This is the equivalent of making sure your garage door opener doesn’t open your neighbor’s garage door, and vice versa –clearly, if you’re in a cubical situation, you don’t want your cube-mate’s mouse responding to your mouse movements. My client’s wireless unit didn’t provide any way for her to indicate that she wasn’t in a multi-user environment. She couldn’t, for example, just plug everything in, start working, and assign a new code only if a conflict was present (which is the way most consumer remote controls work).

The complexity of the process utterly floored me.

There were three steps, which had to be completed, in order, within a 30-second time limit.

All of the steps required turning the unit (base, keyboard, mouse) upside down and using a stylus or pen-tip to depress a button on the underside of the unit.
All of the steps (except the mouse) required looking at the top of the unit to see flashing lights. (The mouse was easiest because you could see its lights flash without turning it rightside up.)
If you inadvertently clicked or pressed any other control (mouse button or keyboard key) before the process is complete, you had to start over.

My client and I were able to complete the process successfully only by working in tandem. (I actually think I could have done it by myself — she slowed me down — but the point to emphasize is that she could not complete the process herself.) Even working together, it took us several attempts before we completed the process without any errors.
The keyboard was particularly tricky. In order to press the reset button and verify that the lights flashed, I had to balance it on its edge (without pressing any keys, mind you), lean over the back to press the reset button, then pull my torso back quickly to observe the lights. There’s simply no position in which you can simultaneously see the top and the bottom the keyboard.

It’s probably worth noting that there was at least one attempt on which I thought my client and I both performed the steps in the correct order without making an error, but the reset process didn’t actually work. I’d also like to point out that there was no feedback from the system to indicate that (let alone exactly how) we screwed up; it just failed. We managed to get the system into states where the keyboard responded (but not the mouse) and the other way around.

My client is a thoroughly typical user. She follows instructions to the best of her ability, but her fundamental lack of deep knowledge of how systems really work means that she’s a good litmus test for conceptual misunderstandings in documentation (she had trouble parsing the 30-second limit from the instructions, and I think her first few attempts failed because she took too long). She doesn’t have any motor skill impairments, but she’s not particularly adept with the keyboard or the mouse, and certainly not practiced at flipping them over without accidentally pressing something on them.
I can press buttons faster than she can. But when you get down to brass tacks, I’m basically a professional key-and-button-pusher and mouse-squiggler. (My professional value is in knowing which keys and buttons to press and exactly how to squiggle the mouse, but the fundamental physical skill I execute is using computer input devices over and over again.)

So in summary, setting up (or reseting) the wireless keyboard and mouse combo:

  • involves putting batteries in objects that didn’t formerly need them
  • was frustratingly difficult for an average user even with expert onsite assistance
  • would probably be completely impossible for someone with reduced motor function

I’ll pass, thanks.


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