Petty Annoyances


Update: it seems this article stirred up a hornet’s nest of commentary. First, the article as it originally appeared, then look for my additional comments at the end.

I get a lot of gear moving through the offices, and it always amazes me when companies that should know better get the little things wrong. 

Two new cameras came in for review this past week. Both have the same exact problem. Now before I get to the problem, let me remind you that the title of this article is petty annoyances. Small things. Things that are modestly important, but generally not given a lot of thought by the customer. And, unfortunately, apparently not given a lot of thought by the engineering teams that design them, either. 

So what am I ranting about this week? Lights on battery chargers. 

Yeah, lights on chargers. 

If I plug an uncharged or partially charged battery into a charger that’s plugged into electricity, I expect some feedback that the charger is charging said battery. Seems simple enough, right? 

So how is it that two camera chargers I received this week light a green light when they’re charging? In both cases, the light goes off when a battery is fully charged. 

Green is most decidedly a color with universal meaning: good to go. Light turns green, go. Light is green, everything’s okay. Status check, green is good. 

Yet on these two chargers from separate companies, the engineers who designed them selected a green light to indicate “battery is not ready and not fully charged.” Green apparently means “not” in their bizarro-world. These same engineers apparently are also oblivious to other chargers that get it right: red light while charging, changes to green light when charged. 

Maybe it was some bean counter who got in the way: "the designer specified an LED that lights when the battery charges and we've got a ton of green ones piling up in inventory, so let’s use those.” 

Still, the designer doesn’t get off that easy: what does “no light” mean? Is the charger even working, or did I just put a fully charged battery in it? Don’t know, as there is no feedback, regardless of what color LED was chosen.

It’s not like we haven’t had battery chargers before and designers need to discover the “right formula” for making them work for a customer. The parameters of this problem are known, previously solved, and simple enough to implement. Yet somehow designers at two different companies managed to get it completely wrong. If they’re getting simple things wrong, how many big things are they getting wrong, too? 

Yes, I complain a lot. I’ll be the first one to admit it. No, it’s not because I’m grumpy, or that I like to cause trouble, or that I’m trying to antagonize an entire industry in a foreign country. I complain because I have high standards and goals. I don’t always meet those myself, but I try to get better and try to stop repeating the same mistakes. Mistakes are okay if they’re ephemeral, acknowledged, and fixed. What I want is a perfect world with perfect products. I know I won’t get that, but I sure as hell am going to try to get closer to the perfect world scenario than the imperfect world one. 

Had I been in charge at the two companies in question and seen these charger designs being readied for production, there would have been a summons to my office of everyone involved. I would have asked them to explain their decision, to explain what they thought the customer would think, to tell my why these charger lights were different and worse than the best ones on the market, and if I didn’t like the answers, I’d have new employees next week.

In design, simple things matter. Often they matter more than big things. 

I call a spade a spade. What we have here are a couple of Jokers. 

Update: the primary pushback came from people who are color blind. I actually don’t think that changes anything other than perhaps you can’t get away with one dual-purpose LED that changes color. Others pointed out that in China red and green have somewhat different meanings. Sure. But my point still stands: a charger must give useful feedback to the user. 

Nikon’s chargers mostly do. They blink when charging, turn solid when the battery is charged. If you know this, you can correctly assess the state of the battery regardless of the color of the LED (typically orange for Nikon). If you’re going to use the green/red approach I suggest, you probably have to do it either (1) with two labeled LEDs; or (2) blinking red, constant green. Otherwise the color blind won’t know the status. 

But my point is still the same: I’m getting chargers that meaningfully fail at the most simple thing: telling the user what the status is. This is a design issue. And again, if you fail at simple design problems, you’ll fail worse at bigger ones. 

If you want a charger that is informative about battery status, well-designed, and flexible (supports multiple types of camera batteries through add-on plates), consider getting this one. It’s what I use, and it can charge two batteries at once (turn off your ad blockers, folks):

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