Why do Alarm Clocks Suck?

It's been a month since I posted so I'd say it's time for a rant. I've been traveling a lot lately so the object of my wrath this week is alarm clocks. Most specifically the alarm clocks in hotel rooms, but home use clocks don't get off easy either.

Alarm clocks have one purpose in life. There's only one thing they need to do to be considered a success. It's not to 'tell the time'. That's a nice bonus, but the purpose of an alarm clock is to get you up in the morning. This is doubly so for alarm clocks in hotel rooms. If you are sleeping in a hotel it's likely because you have traveled somewhere to do something, and it's also likely that you want to do that something at a certain time; hence a clock to wake you up so that you may do that something without being late and getting fired. A device which cannot reliably complete this basic task is simply a failure, and not worth being made or purchased. End.

The Bad

How are they bad? Oh, please let me count the ways. (cue evil grin of glee).

First, most clocks tack on a ton of extra features, like iPod integration. Then they massively overload these features onto a small number of buttons by using modes. Many will have a single set of buttons to set both the time and the alarm, with a switch to toggle between the modes. Modes aren't a great idea in desktop software when you have a huge screen. They are even worse on the limited user interface of a clock with a fixed LED readout. Which mode am I in?. Did I set the time or the alarm? After I've set the alarm how do I know which mode I'm in now? Did it switch back automatically somehow or do I need to press another button?

Some clocks use quasi-modes to get around these problems. A quasi-mode is like a shift key: a button you hold down to temporarily enter a new mode, then release when you are done. Not a bad idea for a computer with a full keyboard. Absolute madness on a clock where you must hold the mode button with one hand and try to set the time with the other.

Even worse, some clocks put the mode button on the front instead of the top. Clocks, typically being small, are lightweight. So pushing from the front will shove it right off the nightstand. Now you have to use your third hand to hold the clock on the table, while accomplishing the aforementioned gymnastics.

Now do all of the above right when you go to bed... when you are sleepy.. and it's dark... No wonder so many people opt for a wakeup call or use the alarm on their phones. I always completely unplug the clock just in case the guy before me set it to ring at 3am. (yes, this actually happened to me)

Now suppose this is a clock you've never used before (very likely, since every hotel bought from a different supplier). Now you have to learn how to use this particular clock. Some come with their own instruction books. It's madness, I tell you. Madness!

The Good

Only once in my life have I found a non-sucky hotel alarm clock. It was in my room at a very nice hotel in Tokyo. Here's what it looked like.

Simply beautiful. Two buttons to change the alarm time up or down. One button to arm the alarm and snooze. AM/PM is indicated with real words.

How do you set the time? You don't. I'm serious, there were no buttons anywhere to set the time or customize the alarm. Either the time is set via radio or there's hidden controls locked inside somewhere. Maybe they use something wireless through that little transceiver on the front. The point is: I don't have to care. The only thing I care about is setting the wakeup time, so that's all the device lets me do. They also don't put in a radio since that would require controls to change the station. If you are in an international hotel in Tokyo you probably wouldn't understand the radio anyway, so jettison the feature. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

I don't know why this clock isn't used in the US. Perhaps it's because everything in Tokyo is from the future. Perhaps in another five years will will all be enjoying alarm clock bliss. No wait.. I took that photo five years ago! Yeah, we're doomed.

The Ugly

So why do hotel alarm clocks suck so badly? I think there is two reasons. First, these devices are mass produced overseas so they cut corners wherever they can to save costs and increase profits. If you can make a clock which uses two buttons to set the time instead of three buttons, then you might save five cents. Across millions of units that adds up to a lot of money.

Second is the buying decision. I'm not 100% sure, but I suspect that electronic clocks in general have become commodity products. The guts are a single chip that costs around 25 cents, and it's probably the same chip used by everyone. So the various clock makers compete with each other on price, features, or by simply looking cool. Now, don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with competing on price, features, and visual design. But what suffers in this competition usability.

I think usability suffers because of how clocks are bought. When you go to the store you can see the price, features and design from outside the box. What you don't see is how difficult it's going to be to actually set the alarm on the damn thing. The buying decision doesn't include usability. And since manufacturers optimize for the buying decision, usability gets dropped on the floor. C'est la vie.

The Lesson

I don't know how to fix the economics of alarm clock design, but the moral of today's story when applied to other products is simple: when you make a product you must design for the primary use case first and foremost. In this case that means setting the alarm reliably so you can wake up in time to not get fired. Everything else is secondary.

Okay kids. Time for work. I woke up late!

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Posted March 8th, 2010

Tagged: rant