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ATPM 12.08
August 2006



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by Mark Tennent,

Beeping Mad

There used to be a time when grocery shopping was a civilized affair. In those days, there were no supermarkets with aisle after aisle of toilet tissues and mineral waters to select from. The choice was simple: take it or leave it. Mineral water was, in any case, something to be treated with suspicion, being a fancy foreign product. More usually, refillable siphons full of water mixed with bicarbonate of soda were added to whisky and tonic water for a “G&T” and contained huge levels of quinine to protect the Memsahib from malaria.

The grocer behind the counter would serve you, taking items from the shelves behind him for your shopping bag. He would slice your bacon, grind your coffee beans, and cut your cheese to order. Shopping was a much slower experience, and paying for it took even longer. The bigger stores had vacuum tubes leading to the Accounts Office upstairs. The grocer put your money and his handwritten bill into a canister; he then placed it into the tube and pulled on a heavy mahogany handle. Off whisked the canister with a soft sighing sound. A minute or so later, another canister returned with your change, making a sort of farting noise as it arrived.

Other shops had a cashier sitting in a little booth inside the shop, where you queued up to pay for your groceries, somewhat reminiscent of shops in communist Russia. The grocer who served you never handled money; instead, the cashier sat behind an enormous polished brass and wooden till with huge mechanical keys. She (always a woman) pressed the keys with both hands stretched across them in a sort of forerunner to resetting the PRAM’s Command-Option-P-R. In a horizontal window at the top of the till, numbers on little metal plates flagged up the total Pounds-Shillings-Pence.

How different it is at supermarkets nowadays. Stores spend tens of thousands designing their decor. Experts in retailing make sure the lighting above the meat counter makes everything look fresh. The smell of fresh baked bread wafts toward you from the back of the shop, sometimes as an artificial perfume, although they’d hate you to know that. The position of every product is determined so that, for example, newspapers, sweets, and convenience items are at the front of the shop to entice passersby. Fruit and vegetables are always near the door to encourage the feeling of being in a country market. Staffers have tasteful and stylish uniforms, with even the managers wearing the same haircut and design of suits.

So why is it that these expensive experts make the bar code scanners at the checkouts beep at such an annoying pitch?

Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s major supermarket chains, has such an irritating beep as every item is passed across the scanning head that it actively discourages me from using the stores. The beeps seem to have a smug, self-satisfied tone that reflects the advertising of the stores. Down the road, the Waitrose chain has got its beeps just about right. The stores are supposed to be the best grocers, and their beeps reflect this with a sort of sophisticated and slickly subdued notification that an item’s price has been accepted at the till. Plus, the volume is controllable by the operators, who all seem to have it set to the lowest (and the store’s parent company sells Macs).

It is not just limited to supermarkets; just about everything seems to be designed with a beep. I bought a new cooker hob for my kitchen recently, a ceramic induction version. What I didn’t know is that every control beeps as it is operated, and at a pitch and volume meant to be heard above the noise of the kitchen. I hesitate to say “pressed” because the controls are etched onto the ceramic top and don’t actually need to be touched to be used, unless, that is, you have wet hands when nothing in the world will turn down the pot that is boiling over. Our new washing machine/tumble dryer has a complicated panel that has to be programmed for each task. It is as incomprehensible to me as my cooker hob is to my wife, with this annoyingly complex device beeping every time a button is pressed. One can’t even use a telephone without it emitting a cacophony of discords for every number.

Very often it is possible to turn the beep off, as long as you can work out how to do so. Usually one or two buttons are designed to operate the whole device and have to be in the right mode to do the task. Why are modern devices so buttonly challenged? Surely it is not going to add a huge amount to the cost to add one control on a DVD recorder that says “Record” or “Set Start Time” and so on? After all, a whole QWERTY keyboard costs just a few pounds/dollars nowadays. And come to that, why are hand controllers so complicated? Thank goodness for the likes of Sony, whose reassuringly expensive products are at least designed to be relatively easy to use.

The worst culprits for beeping must be computer keyboards. What is the point of issuing a beep when it’s obvious to anyone that a key has been pressed, especially since behind the beep is the clatter of the key? Some nasty, cheap keyboards come with a nasty, cheap beep and a nasty, cheap rattle. Apple at least designs keyboards with squidy keys that avoid the plastic on plastic click others seem to have.

In fact, why doesn’t Apple turn its attention to the thing it is best at, interface design? Apple would soon clear the world of beeps or at least make them user selectable from a well-chosen range designed to appeal to everyone. Occasionally, controls need an audible feedback, and Apple encompasses this with its usual tasteful style. The Mighty Mouse, for example, has a scroll ball, which on other mice would be a wheel that clicks as a piece of plastic flicks past a cogwheel. Apple’s solution was inspired; it put in a tiny piezo speaker instead, which very quietly “clicks” as the scroll ball is scrolled.

If Apple were to get its hands on user interfaces, at last I would be able to use my DVD recorder, mobile phone, washing machine, car radio, TV, cooker hob, digital receiver, and all those other things that, like me, the majority of the world’s population finds a beeping mystery.

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Reader Comments (2)

Carla Hufstedler · September 30, 2006 - 12:44 EST #1
I solved a teeny part of this problem wrt thanks to the Unix say command: explanation.
Mark Tennent (ATPM Staff) · September 30, 2006 - 15:42 EST #2
Hmmmm. Then everything will talk as well as beep? I think I'll skip that one, thanks. Nice idea for Mail but funnily enough, I turned off all the noises it makes only last week.

Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams have explored the idea and shown where it will end up, with the executives of the Sirius Cybernetics Corp being the first against the wall when the revolution came. :-)

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