By April 6, 2010

An Alarming Case of Bad Usability

I’ve had an ADT alarm on the house for over five years. The main reason I got it was for the fire and smoke monitoring. I wanted to make sure someone would come if the house lit up while I was away. I don’t really care about the things inside the house, I just want someone to rescue my three dogs.

Over that five year period, I’ve had a few false police alarms. Those were mostly caused by pet or house sitters, and ADT called every time to see what was the matter. It was never a big deal.

However, I inadvertently triggered the fire alarm over Easter weekend, in possibly the lamest way imaginable.

Here’s why user interfaces and usability are important in all facets of our lives, and not just software and Web sites.

The phone line the alarm is on is just for the alarm. We don’t call anyone on it, and we have never used that number. Every once in awhile we get a call on the alarm line. It is usually an autodialer, someone conducting a survey or public opinion poll. We had a series of calls over the weekend, and I wanted to turn the ringer volume off on the alarm panel.

I have an Ademco LYNX alarm panel, and you mute the ringer by pressing the 2, 3, and # keys all at the same time.

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If you peek around my fingers, you may see a little shield with a fire symbol inside of it. If you press the 3 and # keys at the same time, the alarm automatically calls the fire department.

Apparently, I pressed the 3 and # keys slightly before the 2 key in my attempt to silence the ringer on the alarm. Instead of shutting off the ringer, I got blasted in the face with 120 decibels.

Less than four minutes later I got a call from ADT asking if everything was alright. I said yes, and the operator stated the fire department was already on the way. By the time I hung up I could hear sirens getting closer to the house. I spoke with the crew for a few minutes, we had a good laugh at my expense, and they turned away.

The 3 and the # keys should only be used in combination to call the fire department. They should never be used to do anything else with the alarm panel. This is the equivalent of saying, “use the accelerator to make your car go faster. If you press the accelerator and honk the horn at the same time, your car door will open.” It just doesn’t make sense.

The user interface “penalty” for screwing up the volume mute combination is severe, and there are plenty of other buttons that could be used instead.

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Posted in: gibberish, preparedness

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