Thoughts on Designing Complex Devices, with a SLR Camera as an example

When designing a new device a key question is what is the demographic of who will be using the device.  This is particularly important if the expected user is not particularly skilled in the use of such devices.  For example, most SLR cameras are festooned with buttons, dials, switches and levers.  In addition to that there are several ports for the connection such things as USB cable, flash drive, power connector, remote shutter control, auxiliary flash and in some cameras, a remote monitor connection via HDMI cable.  Some have audio output and microphone input.

What is the chance of a first time user picking up this digital SLR camera and using it correctly, or even successfully?  Not a chance in hell.

Even for an experienced user this can be daunting task to become familiar where all the controls are, and what each does.  This being said, this article can apply to any technological device.  The principle is the same.

So it is critically important that some controls are intuitive.  For example, the shutter control should always be in a traditional position.  The upper right surface of the camera when viewed from behind.  The power function should be located near or surrounding the shutter control and very clearly labeled.  Nearly all newer cameras have auto focus, but most also allow for manual focusing as well.  Furthermore many have several modes of controlling how the auto-focus works.  For example spot focus on the central target, or focus on what the camera considers a face.  Average auto-focus takes average distance readings and adjusts for the majority of the mid area of the picture frame.

So the focus control should be near the lens, and have a clear label with Auto Focus, Manual Focus and Focus Modes indicated by clear icons.

I would suggest that the manufacturer of such a complicated device have a designer create an interactive application that mimics the camera, and teaches the user how to use each feature.  The application would start at whatever feature the user needs to learn about.  There should be at least two ways of getting to that feature, for example from a context menu that links to the interactive model, and also by allowing the user to see a 3d representation of the camera and clicking some control in question.

The application should include all menu items that the camera would display on the virtual camera’s digital screen.

In the design process, the virtual camera, which should be created prior to the real camera, would also allow for independent virtual testing of features with feedback about the ease, or lack thereof.  This should always be an important part of the design loop.

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