If your ability to add features squeezes out time to do those less-glamorous tools, your users suffer
I recently needed to replace my very modest home-alarm system, when lighting apparently fried some of the I/O lines. No big deal, I figured, and I was in luck: the very same control board I purchased five years ago was still available, and for a fair price.
But then I remembered what I did not like about the unit: first, it had what seemed to be hundreds of arcane, incomprehensible options which the user—usually an alarm professional—could invoke (“turn alarm on but ONLY IF the wind is from the south AND doors 1, 3, and 5 are open”; “time out for 2 seconds IF the alarm condition is met BUT the phone line is busy AND Zone 4 is winking at you”); second, it was almost impossible for anyone to actually initialize and program, see here. I recall that I spent hours going over the set-up and programming manual to figure out which of those few initialization options I actually needed, then a few more hours trying to figure out how to actually set them.
The programming was done via the user panel and in a quasi-assembly language style with some binary BCD number-coding format to add to the mix, and there was no good way to read back what you had set into the various memory locations; it was like old joke of a “write-only memory” —except that this was no joke. Nor was there a basic PC-connection with an application/set-up program, as logical as that seems, and no way to store and recall your setup outside of the control board itself. (If you want to experience this for yourself, download their manual here and go to section VI.)
Even worse, some of the mistakes you could easily make would actually lock you out of further access, analogous to inadvertently overwriting the password without realizing it. In the end, I got so frustrated with all this studying, and fearful of completely messing it up, that I gave up, despite my engineering imperative. I found a local installer with some experience to do the set-up for me in his office, for a small fee—and well worth it.
Since it is now five years later, I was happy that the same board was available, but shocked that it had not been updated to provide some semblance of connectivity to a PC and programming support. I foolishly assumed that the vendor had perhaps upgraded the design (backwards-compatible, I hoped) with a USB port and maybe even a GUI for the programming.
Wrong again: all they had was a crude, line-entry, text-only software package for a PC, and it needed a serial port (umm…lots of PCs no longer have those); plus you also had to buy a special adapter to interface that serial port to the proprietary three-wire interface of their control panel. Overall, I felt as if I had fallen through a portal to the 1990s: no/poor PC connectivity, arcane instructions, and an emphasis on the wired-phone landline for audio-message alarm reporting, without texting/emailing/browser notification of alarms.
Well, I thought, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”—I’ll look for an entirely new unit from another vendor that has decent connectivity and set-up support. Wrong again: the major competitors don’t have anything much better, it seems. Whether this is because they want set up barriers to the purchase, installation, and use by home do-it-yourself types instead of alarm professionals, or because they simply want to keep making the same old product for which all costs have been amortized, I don’t know.
[I’ll tell you this: if you are looking for a small-business opportunity, consider offering a basic alarm panel with ease-of-setup and PC connectivity, plus more alarm-reporting options as part of its design.]
So how does my modest tale of woe end? Luckily, I found my good notes from the previous time (documentation is a virtue, right?), and the name of the installer who helped me out. I called him, he is still in business, and sort-of remembers helping me out—and is willing to help me again. I asked him if this sort of arcane, stone-age set-up and connectivity had improved, maybe I am missing something? And he said, no, it’s still the same, hard to believe but true.
I am not saying that every “older” product needs an upgrade; some clearly don’t, nor have they received one, see here. But it appears that even in our fast-changing technology world, some things do remain the same even when they shouldn’t.
Have you ever had a similar experience, of putting too much time into bells and whistles, and features and options, and not enough on making the product usable? Or do you know of a long-standing product or design that could really use an upgrade to the 21st century, but which hasn’t gotten it?