I have owned domestic electronic timers for turning appliances on and off for many years now. I mainly use them for table lamps which sometimes need to be turned on or off before the programmed time and then left to run automatically on the next day. They used to be extremely simple to use but in the last five or so years all manufacturers have "improved" them with the result that they are very inconvenient to use -- so much so that I am looking at the usability of the mechanical ones with motors and pegs. My difficulty centres on being unable to override the new timers without reading the LCD display.

My question is how did the industry get the user experience so wrong? Or, am I missing something obvious?

It used to be the case that all the timers had a simple override button. When pressed, it changed the state from on or off to the other state. When the timer reached its next on/off time, normal service resumed. If the light had been turned on, it stayed on until the next off time. If the light had been turned off, it stayed off until the next on time. There was no need to read the LCD -- the timer clicked when overridden and the controlled device turned on or off.

Now the things have a mode button labelled "On/Auto/Off". They also have a faint 2mm-tall LCD legend telling you the current mode. To override the current state you have to press the button more than once. The best situation is that it is "on" and in "auto". Pressing the button once turns it to "off" but the button has to be pressed again to change the mode back to "auto". The worst state is that the last manual change was to "off", the mode is "auto" and you want to turn it off. The button then needs to be pressed four times -- "on", "auto", "off" and "auto". If you don't press the button firmly enough or if your hand shakes you are in trouble. You have to get down on your knees and may have to shine a torch on the legend to determine the state you are leaving it in. Alternatively you could unplug it, take it to a well-lit place, sort it out, bring it back and re-insert the timer and the controlled appliance.

The "improved" version has the advantage that it can left "on" or "off" for more than 24 hours. Even this was easier with the old one: to leave the appliance on, you took the timer out of the circuit; to leave the appliance off, you unplugged the appliance, or turned it off.

I'd pay ten times the price for a timer that still used the "unimproved" design!

closed as not a real question by André, Matt Obee, Benny Skogberg, Charles Wesley, msanford Mar 26 '13 at 15:44

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    I don't really see a question in here. It just seems like you want a timer with an override button. What exactly is it that you need to know an answer about? – JonW Mar 25 '13 at 20:16
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    How does it happen that something that worked so well gets messed up by all manufacturers at the same time? – Peter Scott Mar 25 '13 at 22:00
  • So that's the question which needs to be in the main body of the text. It's really an example of a common problem with the lack of 1:1 relationships between buttons and functions. – PhillipW Mar 25 '13 at 22:02
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    This looks like a rant disguised as a question to me. – André Mar 26 '13 at 8:47
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    Calling it a rant is unkind. Though it isn't a question and doesn't belong here, Peter makes valid points. Good products do get wrecked with stupid user experience. Some consumer electronics has incredibly obtuse design with respect to user experience. Microwave ovens, entertainment system remote controls, you name it. Those designers should really be flogged with a wet noodle. – Kaz Mar 26 '13 at 21:00

I believe it goes like this. Of course there are inconveniences, like the ones you mentioned, but in general, these can offer more flexibility, because their function is less limited by the physical form and it does not depend on this form only to the same point. Electronic timers can potentially be programmed more accurately, with more accurate and more numerous on/off times, conditions etc. With a traditional socket timer it's not possible to create a calendar, set different on/off times for weekends, holidays, you cannot automatically deal with daylight saving time change, etc. The time interval is (usually) limited to 15 minutes usually as well, while most digital ones can be set with one minute accuracy - preparing a device with physical controller allowing for that would be a hard task to do, and it would be too expensive. This leads to another conclusion - digital timers can offer more functions at a lower production cost. The testing procedures can be limited to testing the electronic circuits only, not the physical parts.

Producers of digital timers can also manipulate their feature set with ease, thus offering multiple lines of their products (cheaper and more expensive ones) that offer less or more features (and I think the same features could be performed by the cheaper devices if only the feature set of these could be updated to match the higher line of products. A new set of devices on the shelves can be released with a new "cutting-edge feature".

Physical controllers use also way more mechanical parts (switches) which (theoretically) are more likely to cause a failure than digital ones - no statistical data about it, but as the operability is shifted to the physical aspect of using them, it seems to be very probable.

  • At some point a speech interface will be built in to everything anyhow, and this problem will go away, to be replaced by another one. "Open the pod bay doors, Hal." "I am sorry Dave, I can't do that. The mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it." – user67695 Jun 7 '17 at 16:36


There has been a trend in the industry to reduce the visual clutter and do more things using less buttons but where they are reducing the visual noise, they didn't bring enough simplicity to the features at the same time. That means less buttons have now more burden and manufacturers have to use combinations and multiple clicking to do something which was previously done with one click.

I have got a similar electricity saving device with me which has one light and one button. Now I turn-on, turn-off, set-timing and change mode using the same button. There is definitely less cognitive load on me in a sense that I have to learn only button but there is several times more cognitive load that I have to remember combination and click-count. I had learned those combinations the moment I had got that device but 6 months down the road those combinations are lost from memory and device is pretty much useless.

I doubt that manufactures of these devices are testing usability user-experience to the levels required or if they did, they tested with a specific audience only and ignoring the other. They certainly need to listen to these complains and start thinking.. after all simplicity doesn't mean making the devices useless.

  • That is one of the things that is so intriguing about the bad design of the second generation of electronic timers. My earlier models have five buttons and the later ones have ten! I'm in favour of simplicity but the manufacturers seem not to be. – Peter Scott Mar 26 '13 at 12:54
  • Remove "Sir," :) – ADTC Jun 26 '14 at 2:14

Your description reminds me a lot of the popular issue regarding the painful initial TV configuration experience, back in the 90's.

It's often due to a combination of the following:

  • a product/functionality often conceived in a foreign environment with a foreign thought process, which is totally valid for its native market.
  • a product/functionality designed and produced without a clear understanding of its usage.
  • an installation or setup guide poorly written or translated
  • expectations and expected usage pattern based on a previous experience.
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    It is true that my second generation ones are all from China and the leaflets are poorly translated. However, I am sure I am using them as well as they can be used. – Peter Scott Mar 26 '13 at 12:58
  • @PeterScott maybe Chinese people are way smarter and can see tiny things far away in total darkness? Maybe they are just better. – user67695 Mar 28 '17 at 19:42

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