Radio UI/UX Thoughts

I’m taking a lot of notes on the IC-705 as I get acquainted with it. I did this when I got my TH-D74 and it served me well. I keep a little notebook around or throw bits and pieces into my notetaking software with tags so that I can find it later. What is emerging for me is an interesting pattern: I write down the menu paths to the functions that I use most.

Let me say that again: I write down the menu paths to the functions that I use most.

Why do I do that? Well, we can say that I don’t remember things very well or that I’m somehow coming up short in really learning the interface. But that’s not entirely true, is it? The truth is that ham radio interfaces are hostile toward their end user. This isn’t a surprise to anyone, I’m sure, but for a device that at one time had a brutally simple, physical interface (knobs, switches, wires, etc.) it has taken a turn toward obscure and opaque methods of applying even the simplest of settings.

Examples? There are a bundle of them. I have to remember that I can only be on the A band selector on my TH-D74 if I want to use D-STAR. Where is that indicated? In the manual. Sort of. Where is the Squelch setting on my IC-705? Press the knob, then touch the screen, then adjust via the knob, then dismiss with the knob. What about the output power setting? Function hard button to 2 soft button to MAX TX PWR setting and back out via function hard button.

I can’t even talk about my “disposable” Baofeng HT or my DMR HT or my mobile rig in the Jeep.

We will also set aside for another day the fact that all of the rig programming software that I’ve used (those provided by manufacturers as well as free or paid solutions) reek of the sample code one would find in a “Learn Visual C++ in 24 Hours” book back in 1998 and do very little to improve the experience of programming a radio. Hooking up a grid to a CSV file is not a user interface. More on that in another post…

In writing this up I was thinking about my IC-7100 and why I don’t have as much trouble going from HF SSB Phone to DV to HF Digital to VHF/UHF. The simple truth is that my brain adjusted to the dysfunction of that interface far better than it did to any other. And that’s the sad truth of it: I like ICOM’s UI/UX best because they are broken in a way that I can cope with more easily.

I don’t like to use smartphones or mobile operating systems as a model for how a user should interface with a device, but they are proof that one can make it easy enough for a wide variety of people with differing skill levels to execute fairly complex tasks repeatedly and with little friction. So maybe it’s not all bad and I’m sure there’s something to learn there.

Let’s think about a radio like the IC-705. It has hard buttons, a touch screen, and several knobs that can also be pressed. With so many elements available, why does it take so long to get to the functions that I’m using the most? Perhaps we could steal something from smartphones and allow people to set the top level of soft buttons on the touch screen. That would mean that if I’m in the field and need to drill into something quickly, I could simply assign it to the top level and have it right there. Everyone is going to use this radio a little diffently, so why not give the UI the ability to be personalized?

This feels more critical for mobile radios than for desktops if only because an HT has limited physical real estate and overloading buttons and combining them with modifiers quickly loses a user. Doubly so as they will likely be using it while walking or standing somewhere and maybe even trying to use it one-handed. A rig like the IC-705 suffers for the same reason, though I doubt anyone is trying to fiddle with it while walking.

If I had comments turned on and anyone actually read this blog, I might get some noise about how I sound like an appliance operator and I should roll up my sleeves and use my head and a bunch of other non-productive rhetoric. I will say that I expect that with my uBitx or my Phaser kits. Or even my homebrew experiments. But when I slap down the plastic and take home a box and open it, I don’t think that it’s too much to ask to have a little more polish in the product than what I get when I solder something together myself.

I want to be clear: So far, I love my IC-705. It’s checking off all of the boxes that I hoped it would. And my TH-D74 is always at hand (ha!). But this is 2020. There is a wealth of information and plenty of solid practice around UI/UX. It is a real shame that it’s not leveraged in complex devices like these when it would truly remove some friction from operating them and improve the amount of fun one can have.