Thursday, 2 April 2009

Choose Other or Other

I went flying on a modern Airbus 330 lately (well, it was towards PSL, so it was quite recently).
This airplane has a wonderful feature: every seat, even in the economy class where I sat, have small screens with a full blown entertainment system. During flight each passenger can watch movies, listen to music and even play games of his or her own choice.

Throughout the testing community various stories flow (or rather fly) around, about how to break the system. As a tester it is almost ones duty to see if it can indeed be done, or whether it's only fun stories to share over a beverage at a cosy place and time. Well, I mean, of course, I tried to.

My first attempt was rather promising. 1 minute and around 40 seconds into my frantic 'test' session, the screen froze. Only on/off worked (I tried that last, as I suspected and hoped - given this was 2 mins into an 8 hour flight - this to be the case).
Unfortunately I did not succeed in repeating the freezing situation, as the VA system kicked in soon after and what with safety instructions and all sorts of service messages (and the mandatory Bloody Mary, from Mr. and Mrs. T) I kinda forgot where I got to. I did not record my doings, but I can tell you, that I ran through both the movie list and the radio list before the freeze hit me, and the movies had not started yet.

Getting a freeze on the screen is however only one thing (as long as on/off still works), for there are other glitches. Here's a selection of my notes and 'wonderings':
  • In various places you can press the Menu-button and get to choose language. Some 'applications' offers a choice between 2 languages: the exotic "Other" language or the even more strange tounge "Other". Alas, I speak neither. Luckily both seems to have a lot in common with english. But, if there's no real languages to choose from, then why not just hide the option in the menu ?
  • In the Flight Info application (which you find in the main menu) you can choose from Moving Map (which has a lot of other pages than just a moving map), Camera Down, Camera Forward and Aircraft Data. But if you choose either, you need to press Menu - Quit to get out of it. That leaves you in - ta daa- the main menu. So if you choose Camera Forward while in midflight, you'll see a horizon, perhaps some clouds. Getting to Camera Down, which is more interesting (yes, I'm that weird. I watched Canada unfolding underneath me for a couple of hours. Fascinating...) you needa longer ride (Menu - Quit - Flight Info - Camera Down). Of course this may be a minor problem since this kind of aircraft is meant for long distance flying - users will have many hours to spend and pressing buttons is just one way of making time pass. However, I think users shake their head and frown instead.. I did. When there's only 3 other items in the menu, why not make a quit back to main, and direct choices for the three alternatives ? I don't think the developers would actually mind putting that into the system..
  • There seemed (on emperical basis of testing three different sets of screens - out and back and utilizing my 'neighbours' screen) to be a too tight distinction between the -> (forward list) button and the last item on the screen. Several times when trying to step (forward) through the pages of movies, I got to see a bit of the last movie listed on the screen. Stepping backwards worked every time. Maybe I just got fat fingers ?!
  • When the VA system kicks in, you can't really do anything. Movies stop while the important messages from the crew are called out - which makes sense. The flight info system however, which do not have a sound feature, would not be disturbed by having the user change camera angle or between camera and moving map. One could argue, that the VA messages are so important that you should not be tempted to concentrate on anything else. But - why then is the moving map not stopping as movies are and you can still change languages (from 'other' to (an)'other'..) ? I wonder about the consistency in this.
  • The movies run in loops. They all start at the same time, and you can make your choice. But there's no way of seeing prior to choosing a movie, for how long it has run. Neither is it possible to figure whether you'll have a chance of seing the end of it, before the VA kicks in with the last messages and preparations for landing. Why not ? They do show the total length of the movies, so if you took careful note of when the entertainment system was 'released' for use, and add one or two extra minutes for 'rewinding' - for want of a better word - you could do the math yourself. I bet there's a microprocessor involved somewhere in the system, and it would be able to do it much more reliable and faster than the soon2be jetlagged passengers.
There were more notes, but I just wonder: I'm an arbitrary end user. I have no idea of the requirements for this system, so how come I can see that something is missing ?
Overall it works - you can see movies and be entertained - but the user interface, being very simple, has some obvious potential improvements. Why ? None of the above would require large development tasks to be improved substantially.

Like many other systems it lacks a 'final touch'. I see this happen to almost all systems, which are developed by looking at simply what functionality you need in the system (watch different movies, listen to different music lists, look at the moving map, check, check, check). You easily miss out the end user experience, and that - unfortunately - is what lasts as the impression of the system. Interestingly this is possibly because the requirements were too restrict and contained a too detailed list of features and functionality.
Had they been more openended, the developers might have been led into thinking of using the system instead of focusing on fulfilling the explicit stated items in each requirement.

I need to give credit to David Barnholdt for providing me the final knack for this entry. It became clear after reading his great application of openended requirements.

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