Just because you CAN automate something, doesn’t mean you MUST.

WYSIWYG stands for ‘What You See Is What You Get’. It was actually the name of a software language, but it had a brief and more colloquial coinage in the 80s, when Apple were giving the world the GUI (stands for ‘Graphical User Interface’), and liberating the personal computer user from the tyranny of DOS (stands for – oh, forget it…) You don’t hear much about WYSIWYG these days, and that’s a pity, because, as I was reminded on our recent trip to the UK and Italy, when we used four hotels, three Air BnBs and a rental car, stuff these days gets more and more loaded up with automated features, and correspondingly more irritating to operate.

The guiding principle for anything designed to be used by travellers ought to be WYSIWYG – operating it should be intuitively easy.

As far as the car was concerned, we just wanted to get into it and drive – fat chance, but we’ll get to that later.

The accommodation – we just wanted to get into our room, dump our bags, brush our teeth in cold water, have a shower in hot water, draw the curtains, watch a bit of telly, put the lights out and go to sleep. And make a cup of coffee when we woke up. That really is about it. The ease with which these simple demands were met varied in inverse proportion to the sophistication of the establishment. The more glitzy, the more modern the place, the less WYSIWYG it was likely to be, and the more time we had to spend scratching our heads, trying to work out how to control the air-conditioning, which switch turned which lights on, which drew the curtains, and, perhaps most irritatingly, which way to turn the mixer to get hot, and which way cold water.

Why most irritating? Because it’s so damned simple to fix. In the old days, water came out of two taps – a cold one, by convention on the left, and a hot one, on the right. Modern ‘mixers’, with their bewildering variety of designs and orientation, are not amenable to this simple orthodoxy. Here’s a good example of what we were confronted with.

For a start, there’s no way of knowing which direction of rotation produces warmer, and which colder water. Only by experimenting – and getting covered in cold water – can the sense of operation be determined. That might be acceptable in a residence, but if I’m arriving, travel-weary, in a place I’m staying in for one night, I don’t want to have to waste time learning to ‘drive’ the place, simply because the guys who designed it valued making it look cool and sophisticated over making it easy to use.

And it’s not hard to fix. For as long as I can remember, the colour blue has been associated with cold, making it a simple matter to mark the apparatus in such a way as to make its sense of operation obvious. Even where the blue/red code is used, it’s used in such a coy way that it still sheds little light on the matter of how to quickly get a nice warm shower. Here’s an example:

They’ve grudgingly put a tiny red dot (memo to designers: some of us are old, decrepit, and wear specs; we don’t want to have to peer at your stuff to see how it works) on the left, and a tiny blue one on the right. But so what? This is a rotating tap. Are we supposed to imagine a pointer on top of it, so that rotating it anticlockwise ‘points’ to the left, and gets you warmer water? Or is the imaginary pointer on the handle, in which case the opposite applies? What, for goodness’ sake, is wrong with putting a nice, curved red arrow, showing you which way to turn it to get hotter water, and a nice, curved blue arrow for cold? That’s how they used to do it – what was so wrong with it? You’re designing a device to give people a comfortable mix of hot and cold water. Why be coy about it?

After trawling through Google images, I managed to find one – just one – design that does the trick:

See – not hard, is it? (Although the coloured lines could still do with being bigger!)

Now, where was I? Ah, yes, curtains. And blinds. Drawing curtains is something I’ve never had difficulty with, even as a hemiplegic. Likewise blinds – once you got used to that tug-down to release the clutch business. Now, heating stuff up, or winding car windows, there I can use some help. So I appreciate microwaves, and I appreciate powered car windows. But curtains? Blinds? Seriously?

Yet the Italians (it does seem to be an Italian thing) who design hotel rooms have decided that if a thing can be done by electrical power, it MUST be. So, in Venice and Milan, we walked into rooms where the curtains and blinds were powered by electricity, controlled by a bank of unmarked switches. The room in Venice, for instance was at a corner of the hotel, so it had four windows. Lovely view of the Grand Canal, but each pair of windows had a switch to control the curtain, another to control the blind, and yet a third to control those diaphanous curtains that are meant to let you see out without letting those outside see you. Getting up in the morning and wishing to view the Grand Canal involved interminable experimental fiddling to work out which switch did what, and then waiting, switch pressed, while the curtain or blind moved at glacial pace into the desired position. By the time we left, after three nights, we still hadn’t memorised what did what. And I swear we’d expended just as much energy as if they’d let us pull the bloody things ourselves. Harrumpf!

The car

For the first part of our trip, in the UK, we had a lot of travel to do, and needed a car. Having no use of my left arm, I have no option but to use an automatic. In Australia, New Zealand, north America – indeed in most of the world, this is simply a choice, with little effect on the cost of the rental. In the UK, however, asking for an automatic produces a response like Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen – ‘bloody looxury!’ – with an eye-watering price-tag to match. We rented from Hertz a Toyota Hybrid. Can’t remember the exact model, but it was a boxy thing, with a lot of ugly creases in the bodywork. At least, I thought, if we have a crash, they might not notice. Here’s a picture of one – probably:

Aside from its ill-found appearance, the Toyota had a couple of other harrumpfs to its name.

Firstly, it had keyless ignition. Instead of sticking a key into the steering column, you have an electronic ‘key’, which remotely locks and unlocks the car, and has to be inside it for the thing to ‘wake up’ and run.

So, you have this one device that will allow you to start the car if it’s inside it, for instance in your wife’s pocket. If you drop your wife off, however, and she forgets to leave the key, there’s nothing to stop you driving off. Only when you reach your destination and want to get out for a much-needed pee, does it tell you that the key is not detectable, whereupon you realise it’s several miles away, and you can neither switch the car off, nor lock it.

And then there’s the risk of losing the key. Replacing a metal key is irksome, but it’s not the end of the world. Luckily, and by dint of constant, anxious pocket-patting, we didn’t lose our ‘keyless’ key, but I’m pretty sure replacing it would have been a major faff, and horrendously expensive. Why? What benefit such an arrangement confers over a physical key is not clear – if an additional level of security is desired, there’s nothing to stop them adding a PIN system.

So much for the key – a pointless, anxiety-inducing gizmo whose only raison d’etre seems to be ‘because we can!’ Presumably because it was a ‘looxury’ car, the Toyota had a flat screen display with more functions and settings than you could jump over – most of which I had no use for, but which got in the way of me accessing the small number of functions I did want.

So far, so irritating. But I haven’t told you yet about the way it nearly gave me a heart-attack. You see, it turns out it’s got a thing called Lane Centring Assist (LCA, natch). It’s a system that looks at the road ahead, detecting such features as a broken white line. If you have the temerity to cross the line without indicating, it will attempt to intervene like a stern nanny, steering you back into your lane. There’s nothing to warn you about it, and the first time it happens, it feels as though something has gone seriously wrong with the car’s steering, or perhaps you’ve had a front wheel puncture. If you keep turning the wheel, you will eventually overcome the computer’s intervention, but it’s a seriously scary moment.

I realise that, like so many other infuriating aspects of modern life, LCA’s been put there to increase my safety. But I struggle to see how my safety is enhanced by giving me a heart-stopping shock, right at the time when, axiomatically, I should be at my most alert and undistracted. 

Driving in the UK, there are many situations where crossing and recrossing a broken white line is not only desirable, but aids safety by extending your sightlines, and where the use of the indicator is simply superfluous. And yes, there is a way of deactivating the system, but it’s far from obvious, and it resets itself the next time you set off.

A rental car should be the epitome of WYSIWYG – a characterless motorised box with automatic transmission, key-operated and with a minimum of choices to make before you put your foot on the right pedal and start your journey, which it should complete at, where appropriate, ‘motorway speeds’.

Enough with the nannying. Harrumpf!

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