Hidden Functions in Digital Cameras

Usability of Digital Cameras: Computers, Complexity, Hidden Functions, ... | Afterword: Pay More for Less

This page discusses some usability aspects of digital cameras and then focuses on so-called "hidden functions," that is, on functions that are not indicated in the user interface itself and thus need to be remembered by the user.

See the specific cameras for details, that is, which functions I regard as "hidden" or "not so evident" (Ricoh GXR).


Usability of Digital Cameras: Computers, Complexity, Hidden Functions, ...

Cameras Are Computers!

At the end of the 1990s, I listened to two talks by Alan Cooper, a usability guru who is also called the "father of Visual Basic." In his talks he discussed, among others, BMW cars whose computers shut the fuel off in corners so that the car stopped, and he also held a Nikon Coolpix 900 (in owned one myself) in his hand and asked the audience, whether it was camera or a computer. As the Nikon 990 booted when it was turned on, he concluded that it was a computer. He was right back then, and he is much more right with respect to today's digital cameras.

Complexity Thanks to Computers

Turning cameras into computers has, however, an important side effect: Even simple consumer cameras are much more complex than cameras of 30 or 50 years ago. 30 years ago, my cameras had some electronic, but basically they were still electronically augmented mechanical cameras. 50 years ago, most cameras were completely mechanical (apart from an add-on light meter...).

Although all the gimmicks in modern cameras are meant to make handling the cameras easier, these cameras are way more complex than, for example, a simple box camera for roll film in the 1950s (or 1930s). The menu system alone introduces a huge complexity: Most cameras offer loads of automatic programs, including face and grin recognition. Currently, some manufacturers try to top this by introducing a "meta-automatic" that selects the correct automatic program depending on the motif (sometimes called "intelligetn automatic)...


I see two consequences of this trend:

I feel like being somewhere in the middle - relying on automatics, but not on those that depend on scenes (I still want to know what my camera does), knowing much but not everything about my camera, and having at least some background knowledge of photography... Thus, I could pick on some people if I wanted to, and others can pick on me any time...

Hidden Functions

Apple Computer and Ricoh Cameras have one thing in common: they are praised for their user interface (however, not all reviewers praise Ricoh...). Despite their ease of use, they have one more thing in common, which somewhat conflicts with ease of use: hidden functionality. With hidden functionality I refer to functions that are not easily discernible in the user interface. For example, they:

There may be menu options that refer to these hidden functions, but these are usually not obvious.

Hidden functionality is a boon for computer magazines. Every month, they can reveal new hidden functions und thus fill their pages. Interestingly, nobody ever asked MacWelt, a German Mac magazine, how hidden functions comply with the idea of ease of use. For Ricoh cameras, there are no magazines - there are only user forums on photography Websites with a lot of threads with respect to unknown functions.

On digital cameras, most of the functionality is accessible only through menus. While this is normal for computers, for digicams this is regarded as cumbersome. Therefore, the most important functions that are needed for shooting are placed on buttons and levers. Cameras of different manufacturers differ considerably in how they distribute functionality between buttons and menus - Ricoh belongs to those who put a lot of functionality on buttons. The menus cover all the remaining functionality, particularly functions for configuring and maintaining the camera (and its memory card). Such a maintenance function is formatting the memory card. Since her first camera, my wife has never formatted a memory card in her digicams. She maintains that she cannot find this function in the menus and would also forget immediately how to find it - so I have to do the formatting... So much about the usability of camera menus!

Perhaps, I should add one more point: The Fn1/Fn2 as well as the My1-My3 settings buttons on my Ricoh GXR are in a sense also buttons, but ones without a description. However, in this case, the user actively assigned specific functions to these buttons. Therefore, it can be assumed that users have an idea what they assigned to those buttons, and I do not count the assigned functions among "hidden functionality."


Afterword: Pay More for Less

In the Leica forums, there are discussions, maybe a bit sarcastic ones, that some users are willing to pay more for less. In a way, Apple was already confronted with this criticism, but it may be true for Leica (and any other "premium" brand) as well. In fact, my Leica X Vario is "functionally" simple compared with a Ricoh, Sony, Panasonic, etc. And it cost me a couple of times more than my GXR or GR. I have to admit that I enjoy the Leica's simplicity (although I also like my Ricoh's - but maybe not quite as much...). So, the saying may well be true for me...


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