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A Simple Telephone Answering Machine Design

A friend has a mother that has trouble with user interfaces with household machines, they are too complex. Even a phone answering machine is difficult for her.

When I thought about it, I too have a problem with the my answering machine, it screeches at me when I am late picking up the phone and it has started recording, it has a dead battery (just another broken thing, damn it), loses out going message and time and messages when the power goes out (which is all the time in Minnesota rain or snow storms). Another friend, has an uncontrollable time function which tags his mail with a fictional vocal time, annoying and misleading. Voice mail service from the telephone company has privacy concerns, a complex set of phone numbers, codes, annoying graph of options, etc.

Don Norman, the notorious design whiner does not just whine about design but tries to improve it. He has books and articles talking about how to think of design, critique design and how to think of what the appliance does, not just think of a set of functions and stuff them in a box. And here is my Norman inspired effort to help make the world easier for our dear old mums.

So what do we really want? Well, I want an ultra simple appliance that will take my home telephone messages and give me my messages. Pretty simple, and that is my design plan. Simple.

Before designing, I looked at what is there: my crummy, infuriating, cheap, complex answering machine. Yet, I cannot live without it. On this torture device I will based my design. Why? I am not usually an original thinker. I tend to modify what I encounter and use something a little different, an evolutionary approach, or in this instance a devolutionary approach.

My current answering machine is a little 6" x 4" x 1" rectangular box, 9 buttons are on top and one little 1" x 1/2" display. 2 controls, a "volume" slider and a "ringer" slide with three settings are on one side and the telephone in, out and power from one of those little cube power converters is on another side. Two sides are blank and the bottom has legal notices, warnings, battery access and the pre-programmed remote message retrieval code as a little stick on decal. ( Insert pic here or visual it now in your mind) Of course, I immediately lost the instructions, warranty, box, receipt, etc. Who looks at that stuff anyway?

The top looks kind of like below with the labels of the buttons representing the buttons. Play and Display are bigger, the rest are the same looking little button.



    On/Off Delete

    |  PLAY   |

So what is the problem? Looks simple? The button labels, except for PLAY and the DISPLAY are hard to read, all buttons look the same in low light. Hitting "Delete" will delete all messages or just the current message, depending on, well, I am not sure, I just hope for the best. The DISPLAY continually blinks "lo" which apparently means the battery is missing or dead. Blinking lights are annoying. On/Off gets hit by mistake sometimes, it is right next to the identical Delete button. When I answer the phone late and the device is already recording the devices screeches like microphone feedback in a Public Announcement system. This causes me to swear and stab randomly at the eight top buttons, ending with "Aaargh!!!!! Call me back." After I handle the call back I spend 10 minutes trying to undo the damage done randomly hitting the controls. Some controls I have no idea what they do, others are difficult and take 10 minutes to do, like setting the time which disappears with power interruption. The PLAY button plays all the messages one after another, not one at a time. Poking "skip" moves to the next message, "repeat" goes backwards. Clock also uses skip and repeat buttons to set the time. Lame. It is difficult to get to message 3 of 5, play it, delete it, without listening to other messages or accidentally deleting all messages. But it kind of works so I just suffer along.

My dream message appliance is far simpler, no battery, no time function, simpler message management, hiding little used controls on the side of the box. Just get messages and play'em back as simply as possible.

So what do I do most now to get my messages? What are the functions I do with the machine every day? I look at the display to show how many I have and the current message I am at, play the message, sometimes repeat it, and then delete the message. So I would put those important everyday use functions on top, where they are easy to get to. Put the rest of the functions on the sides and bottom so they do not get hit by mistake. Top: Big bright DISPLAY to display number of messages such as "1 of 6", Big oval "PLAY" button, slightly smaller rectangle "DELETE" button at orthogonal orientation to the "PLAY" button



 |        P L A Y        |
The final look is not important to me, just that the DISPLAY is big so it is easily read, and the DELETE and PLAY buttons are large, obvious and cannot be mistaken for each other. Bottom: remote retrieval code sticker, warnings, super simple instructions and website to instruction URL on sticker
Side 1: phone in, out
Side 2: on/off, volume, out going message
Side 3:
Side 4:

How does this device work? 10 things instead of 18+ things means it will be simpler especially if I do not overload controls with to many multiple functions like the old machine. First the basic message management: "PLAY" goes to the next message and plays it. Example: DISPLAY shows "5 of 5." Hit "PLAY" 3 times to get to message "3 of 5". Message 3 plays. It is a circular cue of messages, if you are a person with 500 messages on the machine it may be rough to locate the previous message, but most people have less than 10 messages. "DELETE" deletes the current message. Example: Hit "PLAY" 3 times to get to message "3 of 5". Hit "DELETE" when playing or when done to delete message 3 of 5. DISPLAY changes to "2 of 4." "On/Off", "volume" and "out going message" are on the side to keep from cluttering the interface. A pre-recorded out going message that says, "Please leave a message and the time." is included by default so the device is usable right away, no need to record a message.

The recording starts after 4 rings, no choice, no controls, which keeps it simple. No clock function to set time for, keeps it simple. No skip, repeat buttons keep it simple. No button to set the remote code, preset at the factory, the sticker on the back tells the 3 digit code. The recording will go as long as the capacity of the machine, one long message or many shorter messages. No tape of course. Better would be having the device run off the low power in the phone cords, no power converter to lose. No battery, less hassle and maintenance. Maybe some capacitor or something to survive short power interruptions. Otherwise just lose the messages. hell with it.

There is one function overload that may be useful: When it screeches from feedback when recording and picking up the phone at the same time, just hit any one of the two buttons on the top, "Play" or "Delete" and it stops the recording and the scrreeeeeeching. Better yet, just have it stop recording when the phone is picked up.