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I'm working on a hardware+software product that displays video. It has a brightness/contrast control. Unfortunately, it plugs into another machine (made by a 3rd party) that also has a brightness/contrast control, and the two controls cascade. How terribly confusing! Anyone who tries to use both ultimately gets the brightness/contrast so far off they can't see anything at all.

Now, we need the user to have access to our brightness/contrast control in some situations, such as during installation or a telephone support call. But we don't want them to use it for general operation. To this end we have tried:

  • The software can show/hide the brightness/contrast, hidden by default. Unfortunately, the user always shows it.

  • The installation instructions say, "After setup is complete, hide the brightness/contrast control and do not use it again." Unfortunately, the user never does this.

  • The user manual says not to use the brightness/contrast, but this instruction is never followed.

Other approaches I've considered but am not confident in include:

  • Have the controls auto-hide after a time -- I suspect the users are clever enough to re-show them as needed, and might even complain to me that they keep hiding.

  • Like above, but require a password to show the controls -- Potentially same issue.

  • Show the controls in an irritating color, like bright red, maybe make the letters "quiver" -- Unfortunately I suspect most of our users will not be deterred. Our users are scientists and engineers and once they know a setting exists, they are determined to get at it, and aesthetics do not discourage them.

Ultimately I will probably try the above approaches and see what happens. But I would like to know if there are other strategies I have not considered?

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Solve the real problem

It sounds like your users are taking extra steps to get to this control, despite your best efforts. So the question is why?

You mentioned that this is for scientists and engineers. I've worked with this audience before and I know they want total control over their equipment. And when they mess with settings, they are usually trying to optimize something.

Don't guess

In a highly specific scenario like this, any steps you take based on generalized UX principles are guesses. There is a behavioral factor (or multiple) at work in your users' specific context and you need to understand it thoroughly.

Just ask

If you let users know you want to make things better for them, they'll usually open up. Even scientists and engineers ;-) Ask why they feel the need to adjust the controls and if they are aware of the conflict with the connected device's controls.

Working from the feedback you receive, you can identify the best way to communicate via the interface. And if you know a good deal about the connected device(s), you can probably craft some general instructions regarding it right in your own UI. Provide complete support so the user feels in control and they are less likely to break things.

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As a UX designer, it's our job to help the user in accomplishing their task. I would recommend the approach of encouraging the user towards the more effective tool as oppose to discouraging them from using the other.

Are the two machines always paired? If your machine can detect the pairing, you can consider redirecting or provide instructions for the user to make adjustment on the other set of controls. Provide like a built-in "default settings", then display a message something along the lines of "For best results, we recommend using the default settings, then making adjustments using _____ device."

A user that messes up on their brightness and controls would probably follow your instructions. This wouldn't annoy advanced users who DO need the finer adjustments, which I suspect most scientists and engineer falls into this latter bucket.

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