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March 31, 2005

The hotel alarm clock still isn’t fixed

Hotel alarm clocks are awful. It is hard to set them, hard to tell if they are already set, and hard to get back to sleep after they go off at 5:00 am because the previous guest didn’t turn off the alarm. (Or worse, left it set at 5:00 am in the empty room on the other side of a thin wall.)

Hilton just announced that they are rolling out 250,000 new, custom alarm clocks across their hotel brands. Features include pre-set radio buttons, a line-in for your personal MP3 player, and an easy-set alarm: it’s just three steps!

Are they kidding? Is this for real? After spending all that time and money they are going to give us an alarm clock that requires three steps to set and still requires the use of a time-down and time-up button to set the time?

Time setting appears to be the unsolvable problem in consumer electronics design. I would think that good solutions have been developed, and that designing the perfect alarm clock is an assignment in every Interface Design 101 class in the world. Are the good designs locked down with patents by companies unwilling to produce them? Are more buttons or knobs just too expensive?

This has to be the most thoroughly plowed ground in the world of design, but, since a chain as big as Hilton can still miss the mark (to the tune of a quarter of a million units) I’m going to lay it out again.

All the paired button interfaces (time-up/down or hour/minute buttons) require multiple presses, or a hold, in order to scroll through the time. You have to switch buttons or loop all the way around if you overshoot. Holding or repeatedly pressing a button on a lightweight little box takes two hands and too much patience.

One obvious interface would be a keypad. It is direct and fits the mental model: I want to get up at 6:45, I enter 6:45. Enter the time, and press the AM or PM button. Bingo, it’s set and clearly indicated on the display. The big, lit Alarm Off button turns it off.

If the keypad is too technical, use a knob. A knob allows easy and precise navigation for the typical small changes (7:00 am back to 6:45 am) while still making it easy for pre-dinner nappers to spin it quickly into the afternoon.

If the keypad requires too much software, and the knob too much hardware, how about some pre-set times? I’ll bet an analysis of wakeup call times shows that 80% or more of hotel guests are getting up between 6 and 9 am. 12 buttons labeled 6:00 am, 6:15 am, 6:30 am, … 9:00 am, could serve as one-step solutions for most guests. The time-down and time-up buttons already in use could be to the left and right of these presets, labeled Earlier and Later.

At home I have a wonderful alarm clock with a split LCD display. The large green LCD shows the current time and, if I press one of two light-up alarm buttons, the smaller orange LCD shows the alarm time. Pressing the lit alarm button turns off the alarm and the alarm time. It’s obvious and intuitive. Unfortunately the time setting is awful – you have to press a button to cycle through setting the clock time to get to the alarm time where you then use the paired time-down and time-up buttons.

I just found this knob based alarm clock, but it doesn’t appear to show the alarm time simultaneously with the current time. Can anyone point me to the ultimate digital alarm clock? Can you tell me what is wrong with my design ideas and why I haven't seen them?

Update: (05/11/05) This past weekend I stayed in a Hilton and used the new alarm clock. It works well, and isn't too hard to set, but I'm still disappointed that it does not feature a more innovate way to set the alarm time. I did like the genre buttons for choosing a radio station, though.

Posted by Bob Pritchett at March 31, 2005 11:32 AM

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