Time to think different

Designers of lighting controls would do well to take some posthumous advice from Steve Jobs, the man who helped make technology easier for everyone to use

Apple aficionados are mourning the death of Steve Jobs, a person who did so much to make technology usable.

The phrase he used so often at Apple product launches – ‘it just works’ – is so simple yet so powerful. Buy a piece of Apple kit, plug it in, input your details and you’re good to go. Buy an accessory, a new version, an app or download music from iTunes and it ‘just works’.

In many other technological circles, ‘it just works’ means something completely different. It ‘only just works’, on a Monday if you’ve set the switches correctly or paid someone to set it up. A classic example of ‘it only just works’ is the self-service checkouts that are spreading like wildfire in the retail world. You can see the bean counters’ logic in all this, they’ve had the same realisation that Ikea and MFI had years ago – that the cheapest form of labour is the customer. Bring in a set of checkouts that the customers can work themselves and we can sack a boatload of checkout operators.

The introduction of the self-service checkout is probably a major factor in the spiralling rate of youth unemployment. These electronic Darrens and Sharons don’t bother to ask if you’d like a bag for life, a hand with your packing or if you have a Club Card – their aim is get you out of the store as quickly and efficiently as possible.

However, more often than not, they simply ‘just don’t work’. The chances of getting through the process without being electronically accused of being an underage drinker, glue sniffer or shoplifter and requiring the beady eye and intervention of the ‘checkout captain’ are virtually zero.

Customer experience

Even if you manage to chose non-contraband products, you’re still likely to fall foul of an invisible item in your shopping bag or a machine that won’t accept the mouldy fiver you got from the pub. These machines probably save tons of cash for the retailer, but do they really improve the customer experience? Are they any quicker than Darren or Sharon?

What has this got to do with lighting? Well the phrase I’m hearing more and more with regard to lighting controls is ‘out of the box’ functionality – products that are easy to install and will work without the hassle of separate and expensive commissioning visits. A criticism often levelled at lighting controls is that you need to be a Nasa scientist to figure out how they work, so they are often way beyond the capacity of the average electrician. Once they do work, at some point in the future they will break down and demand another commissioning visit. More likely, they will be overridden, never to control again.

Fiddle to your taste

While judging the Lux Awards, I was introduced to the iDim from those clever people at Helvar. It is a neat little device that fulfils the needs of many common lighting control applications. The sensor has a simple dial on the front that offers true ‘out of the box’ functionality. Simply turn it to choose whether the room under control is a classroom, open plan office, meeting room or corridor. Once the application is set, the iDim takes care of the occupancy and daylight settings for a typical application. If you like to fiddle then you can always go in and adjust to your taste.

It may not be as sexy as an iPhone, and you can’t download apps to it, but it’s a step in the right direction for lighting controls.

The end user and installer are often ignored when light fittings and controls are designed. They boast lots of nice features to specify which need the dexterity of Mr Tickle and the brain power of a Mastermind winner to install.

But some companies are listening – let’s make it work!

Follow Gordon on Twitter: @gordonroutledge

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