With everyone at the Consumer Electronics Show drooling over giant flat screen TVs and miniature tablet-shaped supercomputers, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at a common consumer device that we STILL haven’t gotten right after a hundred years or so: the alarm clock.

You would think that a device so critical to modern life would be designed better, but in spite of the fact that there are thousands of models to choose from, they pretty much all suck. How often have you gone to bed the night before a critical meeting and been unable to fall asleep because you had no confidence that the alarm was set correctly? My own alarm clock requires at least a dozen cognitive steps to set the alarm with any confidence.

How it should work

You should be able to set your alarm clock in a few seconds. You should be able to tell from across the room if the alarm is set, and for what time. You should be able to set it in the dark, without your glasses. You should never be lying in bed wondering if you accidentally forgot to push some button or bumped the volume control and are going to get up late and look stupid.

So, forty years after the digital watch was rolled out at CES, I decided to design and built the perfect digital alarm clock. Even with all of the advances we’ve made since the 1960s, this has turned out to be a really interesting challenge. It involves assembly language programming, custom fabrication, parts suppliers from all across Asia, and an enterprising low-volume circuit board manufacturer based in Bulgaria. Why all the complexity? Because of the simplicity.

Simple = Complex

Let’s assume you want to fly to Los Angeles. (Don’t take it personally, it’s just an example.) Think about the steps you have to go through to make that happen.

  • Determine when you want to go and when you want to return
  • Go on various websites to find the right combination of itinerary, cost and airline
  • Identify and use the correct payment method
  • Manage your seat assignments
  • Create appropriate reminders to ensure you arrive at the correct airport at the correct time
  • Arrange for transportation to and from the airport

And this doesn’t even include packing luggage and all the personal aspects. This is just getting there and back. Now imagine you wanted to make this completely simple for yourself. What would you do? You’d hire an assistant and say “Steve, book me a flight to Los Angeles.” Very simple for you, but it requires that you interface with a highly complex and sophisticated machine — Steve.

The easier it is for the user, the harder it is for the designer. This is something I’d always more or less understood, but this project made that completely clear.

In the next posting, I’ll describe the clock itself: how the user experiences it, and the insane complexity behind that apparent simplicity.

(Read Part 2 of this article here.)