Brilliant, but how do you use it?

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
It was a Leipzig bar, and we were discussing economic opportunities for small businesses. From the foaming half-litres that were passing over the bar counter, it was clear that the proprietors had no trouble thinking of good business developments. Their clientele were enjoying the products, and hearty, riotous laughter filled the premises, which made it hard to discern Caroline's words of wisdom.

"Whale farming looks like an up and coming area for rural areas," came her memorable words. Now, I never claimed to be on top of all this economic development stuff, but immediately I could envisage enormous nets stretched along the coast of Argyll and Caroline perched on a plank at dawn, throwing gigantic feed pellets into the ocean, in the same fashion as the fish farmers in the Highlands generally. What I couldn't get my head around was the PC-ness of the economic opportunity; surely she wasn't suggesting whale meat to compensate for the lost income of the Scottish fisherman and their quotas? Knowing of her love of expensive perfumes, I toyed briefly with the idea that she was going to market ambergris.

More probably she was thinking of restocking the oceans of the world from a nursery farm. Nevertheless I could hear the potential outrage from the environmentalists. What I hadn't heard was what she had said, and that became clearer when she elaborated her plan with reference to eggs and jars. My drinking companion had proposed quail farming, and I resolved to have my hearing tested.

The whole trip to Leipzig was peppered with needing more or less or better information; fortunately the bar experience was the only one that combined whales and quails, the others focused on technology. Munich airport is a marvel. If you have not yet visited it, it's almost worth the fare just to experience the clean airport. Shining marble, polished metal and full directions and instructions everywhere except by the high-tech roller towel. Imagine a stainless steel cabinet about a metre square and four centimetres thick. Towards the bottom there are two slots, each showing a thin strip of linen towel. The instructions recommend you put your finger under a beam to operate the thing.

Two minutes are allocated for drying, and then, without warning, the machine retracts the soiled towel to await the next beam-seeker. It's brilliant technology for those who know how to operate it, and fails totally otherwise since it leaves you vulnerable with wet hands. In the hotel room, hidden behind a drawer-front in the dressing table, lay this little personal safe which provided the opposite experience. Instructions on a password came with clear drawings and in three languages. It was loads easier than a video player. Dutifully I set it up to open only on my chosen command, and was able to secure my passport and few spare Deutschmarks while attending meetings.

Bought the day before departure, a new mobile phone was also put to the test on this visit. The booklet had been packed, but was far too long to be useful, and, like the towel commands, made little sense. Luckily, I sat on the bus next to a mobile-maestro, and was able to receive basic training in the idiosyncrasies of Nokia and GSM with guided hands-on tuition, all on the journey back to the hotel.

The user's needs must always come first with technology. Ideally, no manual or instructions should be needed, but the towel experience shows that manufacturers are not best placed to judge. For technologies with a limited range of functions, like the safe, instructions are ideal, and for those with a wide-range of options, like the phone, there is nothing better than a knowledgeable tutor.

However good the technology or the instructions, though, it all comes back to the user. If, like the whale farm, you can't be sure what the concept is, then no instructions will help. And as yet, I have found no technology to help with my latest need, which is to track down the bratwurst I bought in the airport and left somewhere along the way.

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