In 1995, Casio launched a revolutionary product: the QV-10. It was the first camera to feature an LCD that showed what you were shooting. Ever since, manufacturers have run terrified at the prospect of having to implement a basic feature that has still not been properly designed, and there's a good chance that this won’t happen in our lifetimes.
I like to think that shortly after the QV-10 hit the market, the senior executives of all the major camera manufacturers put their rivalries aside and gathered in Tokyo to discuss the insurmountable problem that lay before them: how to design the menu system. The chief executive of Casio stood up and, having felt that his company had done enough, decided to pass the baton. “Has anyone programed a VCR before?” he asked the assembled gray suits. The response was a mixture of blank faces and terrified expressions. A hand finally went up. “OK. You’re in charge. See what you can do.”
The groundbreaking Casio QV-10
Menus Are Every Camera Manufacturer's Nightmare
Research and development departments at the likes of Nikon, Canon, and Sony are huge. Millions of dollars are invested every year in improving sensor technology and refining beautifully crafted products that become the creative tools of countless photographers and videographers around the world.
Despite these vast budgets and impressive concentrations of technical expertise, one element has remained completely beyond reach: the menu. Cameras are supposed to be magical boxes that allow us to go and capture the world, but ease of use has been far from the forefront of anyone’s mind. Very much an afterthought when it comes to getting a product to market, menus are archaic, complex, and seem almost designed to make the experience as unpleasant as possible. Why?
Initially, it was probably because no one knew how to do it. As technology has progressed, the situation has been compounded by new features that overlap across multiple categories. Secondly, the small screens — especially in a 3:2 landscape ratio — do not lend themselves well to the vast amount of information that can require seemingly endless scrolling.
Thirdly, the menu is probably the last part of any camera that gets designed and most likely comes at a stage when R&D budgets are exhausted and deadlines are looming ominously. Engineers and technicians absorbed with tweaking sensor stabilization and autofocus performance are likely to spare little time for making a menu system that’s functional, never mind pretty. If a company told you that they handed the job to an intern just weeks before their newest mirrorless effort was due to leave the production lines, you would not be surprised.
If Ergonomics Are Important, So Is User Experience
When it comes to changing the settings on your camera, user experience does not seem to be on the radar of anyone at Canon, Nikon, or Sony. With the possible exception of luxury brand Leica, Fujifilm is alone in understanding how a sense of refinement felt through handling a camera contributes to the creative process. (Feel free to correct me in the comments below.)
Sony and Olympus appear to be the worst culprits, and there are times when navigating those menus where you have to wonder if anyone at those manufacturers has ever designed a menu before in their lives. The Sony a7 III is complex, and the menu system gives the impression that it was cobbled together in piecemeal fashion as new features were implemented over the course of the design process. Abbreviations are weirdly inconsistent, and some menu items are inexplicably capitalized. Designing the menu seems to have culminated in a final phase where the overriding attitude was “Ah, sod it. They’ll figure it out.”
The Broken Dreams of a Disillusioned Project Manager
Alongside some degree of logic, the other aspect that needs to be addressed urgently is the appearance. Menu systems don’t necessarily have to be pretty, but there’s no excuse for making them deliberately ugly. There’s a reason that creatives used to prefer MacBooks to PCs: “Intel Inside” is a logo that looks like it was jauntily designed by someone’s mom in the 1980s. Quite why you would want that visible every time you open your laptop is a mystery, and quite why PC manufacturers thought it would be nice to inflict upon people as they designed magazines, cut videos, and edited photos is truly baffling. (Answer: money.)
Just because it’s a menu system doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to use complementary colors and pleasing typefaces, and this goes for the rest of the interface as well. I want a tool that is refined and makes me feel like I’m using a sophisticated blend of technology and ingenuity, not an expensive box bodged together from the broken dreams of a disillusioned project manager. There’s the suggestion that ZEISS might be able to do it, and they barely make cameras.
Time for Change
We’re at a stage with LCDs that manufacturers have even fewer excuses for not addressing these issues. Screens are bigger, higher resolution, and more importantly, touch-sensitive. We don’t need skeuomorphic icons and pointless animations; some refined touches and a healthy dose of logic would be more than enough.
So, how do we convince the camera giants that it’s necessary and where is this expertise going to come from? Did all of the user experience engineers in Tokyo get wiped out simultaneously in some horrific accident? Surely, there are still a few knocking about and in search of a job. Even if there’s only one, perhaps he or she can do a few months at Canon, then move to Nikon, and then spend a few years with Sony. For the sake of camera owners around the world, let's hope that one turns up soon.
If you’re a user experience engineer or a usability analyst with some knowledge of cameras, feel free to post a link to your C.V. in the comments below. Maybe Tokyo will be in touch.