Thoughts on FT8 Hate

As a newbie to the world of ham radio, some things have been pretty obvious to me that might be missed by those who are steeped in its traditions. One of those is the love/hate relationship between computers and ham radio operators. I think most who are even mildly interested in keeping a log appreciate the flexibility of many logging programs. A significant number of them integrate with radios out of the box and capture pertinent details for logging. I personally love that my computer grabs a contact and pushes it to LotW without my intervention.

But in my experience, when the talk turns away from the computer as an administrative assistant and toward the digital modes, the tenor changes. For emergency communication? Sure! Great idea! But for a QSO? Well, you get a few side glances. And then FT8 comes up and the hate is suddenly on display.

My stated goal was to avoid using computers with radio. I wanted to have a hobby that didn’t touch computers because I work with them all day. Staring at screens kinda sucks. And I love tweaking knobs and listening carefully (why yes, I did work on synthesizers for my degree! Why do you ask?). I didn’t want another reason to stare at the glow. That was before I understood, through practical experience, the cycles of our solar entity and the flat out bummer of being at the bottom of a solar cycle.

Yeah. It was hard to get out. I was in a noisy city with power lines everywhere and on the middle of a hill in an urban area and…things were not optimal for making contacts over voice. An attic dipole can only do so much at the elevation available to me and that was the state of things. I certainly made the most of VHF/UHF, but I didn’t do much at all with HF.

And then I met FT8.

WSJT-X is a simple enough application, but it is not without subtlety. And what I learned by simply watching for a long time was a great lesson in propagation. Then I did my first CQ. I was received at about -17dB and someone heard me out in WI. It was amazing. I was being heard in Europe and South America! All the way out to Alaska! It was really, really exciting to be able to hit these other stations who might very well have been wrestling with the same kinds of constraints and issues that I faced.

Simply put, it was a lot of fun! And I was on the air! On HF!

Imagine my surprise when I came across an opinion in QST saying that FT8 was going to kill ham radio. What? Another killer of ham radio? Imagine that! And then a cartoon with the figure saying, “Alexa, make me a contact on FT8.” I know that it’s supposed to be silly or even a little funny, but in truth, it felt like someone was trying to take the fun out of my experience.

Of course seasoned operators knew about solar cycles and had plenty of fun back in the day when contacts were easy to come by in any mode. So maybe poking at fun at the new kid was just an easy laugh. But for those of us who got licensed during this time, well, it was a little less funny. I mean, we have FT8 and not much other hope of reaching Asia from Ohio or Pennsylvania. Sure, in 2021 things are looking up. But in 2018? Not so much.

I was contemplating this aloud on not long ago and someone mentioned another thought about digital modes: no one hears your voice. Let’s set aside CW for a moment simply because a new ham is going to need some time to get into that and for some it might not be an option (but please do remind me that new hams aren’t real because we’re all “NO CODE HAMZ”). But digital modes only take a computer, which most hams have, and a rig. And no one hears your voice. I didn’t quite get why that mattered. And that’s why it matters.

I’m a big guy. People hear my voice and they assume I’m male, white, and probably a host of other things. And they’re likely right. I’ve met a few women who are hams and I don’t know if it’s just me, but always being referred to as “YL” or “XYL” might not be endearing. And being very direct, I’m not sure that I’ve known more than 10 or so hams of color here in the states. It might be that it’s more than mic fright keeping someone away from keying up. I have heard some pretty dreadful stuff on random afternoons ‘roud about 20m on phone.

Those are big assumptions, again, coming from a big, white dude. But I have to allow for that possibility, right? And in those cases, a digital mode takes us to the same place as the internet. Remember: on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog! I would link to the cartoon, but that’s more key clicks than I’m into today.

Under analysis, the hate for FT8 falls apart. Using this mode, an operator can make contact with stations all over the world even in horrible conditions. An operator can also learn a great deal about propagation as patterns emerge over days or weeks. It lends itself quickly to the adoption of things like JS8Call for more free-form QSOs and even other digital modes where communication is more than signal report. Most importantly, someone can have fun with radio and that’s what it’s about, right? It’s a hobby with many facets. Enjoy the ones you do, and avoid the ones you don’t. But there’s no reason to take shots at something that someone else enjoys simply because it’s not for you.

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.