alarm-clock-ringingI was about to write tomorrow’s blog post but decided to set my hotel alarm clock first.  I’d checked in earlier, and needed to be up early for a client workshop tomorrow.  The experience led me to a very different post – one written by frustration at the stupidity of certain technologists!

Setting a Hotel Alarm

This should be trivially simple to anyone – especially to an IT consultant, right?  For context, I’m staying in a global hotel chain – not a premium brand, but a decent, well-regarded business travel hotel.

Before I tried setting the alarm, I needed to get the time set correctly – it was an hour and fourteen minutes fast! How to do this?  There were no buttons to set the time!  In fact, screen printed on the front of the alarm/radio was a 6-step process – just to set the alarm! Notably, there was no manufacturer’s name on the device – just a “Made in China” sign embossed on the base. I futzed for about 10 minutes.

Eventually, I called the front desk, who promptly offered to send up a maintenance guy to take care of it.  This, of course, was both an insult to my manhood (couldn’t set his alarm!) and an unnecessary intrusion on my privacy. I said, “That’s not necessary, just let me speak to someone who can tell me how to set the time.” I was told they’d call me back in a few minutes.  I went back and tried again, and on further investigation discovered that although the clock appeared to be working (time was displayed and seemed to click by as the minutes passed) none of the alarm set or radio play buttons actually worked.

I called back down to the front desk, “You’d better have someone come up and help me with this!”  Some minutes later, a rather surly maintenance tech came in and proceeded to dismantle the clock.  I watched him (for future reference and idle curiosity) and mentioned that I was surprised they’d design a clock that needs to be dismantled to set the time.  He grunted.

The task seemed so complicated, and he was fumbling so badly, I decided my watching him was not helping, so I went back to my desk and my work.  Ten minutes later he said in broken English, “Battery dead – I need replace.”  The idea that a clock that was plugged into the wall socket should need a battery to run was foreign to me. Yes, battery back-up is good – but to depend on the battery to work? After all, this was not a Boeing Dreamliner!

He left and returned some minutes later. Surprisingly, replacing the battery required a screwdriver – another masterpiece of engineering design! Another 10 minutes of fumbling passed – and I don’t mean this maintenance guy was incompetent – the process was extremely fiddley!  With the new batteries and the machine reassembled – no luck! He apologized (sort of) and left for another 10 minutes to come back with a new alarm-radio in a box. Another 10 minutes of fiddling and the thing worked.  (I hope, having not yet experienced the morning wake-up signal!)

The Cost of Poor Design

I know something about the hospitality business, having done a lot of consulting in that industry.  I was staying at a corporate rate, courtesy of my client, so the margin was pretty thin.  The engineer probably spent 30 minutes working on my alarm – a good chunk of the margin eaten up. In my semi-retirement, I don’t let things like this get to me (too badly!) but a younger, angrier soul might have taken it out on the hotel, and never returned.  (There are 3 similar chains within walking distance of this property).

Who designed this product?  Who sold it to the chain? Who bought it for the chain?  Did anyone ask any basic usability questions? Did anyone test the alarm?