A well-designed user interface can turn what might otherwise be an bland piece of hardware into a runaway hit. It will almost always trump a competing device with more, but harder to use, features. Witness the success of the Flip video camera. Or almost anything from Apple.
That’s why I get especially frustrated when I discover a potentially winning device with a losing user interface.
Such is the situation with OfficeRunner. This new product is a wireless headset for landline phones. OfficeRunner is manufactured by Sennheiser (but sold by headsets.com), a brand I respect. So, even at a cost of $299.95, I was expecting something worthy of the price.
The idea has some intrinsic appeal for me. More specifically, for my wife. Currently, she uses a wired headset that is plugged into the earphone jack on a cordless phone (which she carries around). This allows her to talk on the phone while working in the kitchen or doing an assortment of other activities. It also means getting the cord tangled on the kitchen drawer handles, occasionally dropping the phone, or not having the hardware handy when the phone rings.
A wireless headset, looking much like the Bluetooth headsets that work with mobile phones, seemed like the ideal solution. So I gave OfficeRunner a test drive. Sadly, it soon crashed into a wall of poor user interface problems:
• Set-up. OfficeRunner’s setup instructions only cover how to connect the phone to a corded desktop telephone. Essentially, you create a wired loop where one cord runs from telephone’s handset to the OfficeRunner’s base station while a second cord goes back from the base station to the handset outlet on the base of the telephone.
Wait a minute! What if you use cordless phones? OfficeRunner makes no mention of this. Here it is 2010 and a device comes out that appears incompatible with cordless phones? Incredible.
With a bit of tinkering, I did manage to find a way to get OfficeRunner to work with our cordless phones. I plugged the OfficeRunner directly into a telephone wall outlet, bypassing any phone. I could now, with some effort, get the device to work. But the manual won’t tell you this (possibly because there are problems I did not trip over in my testing).
• Calls. Regardless of how you set up OfficeRunner, there is no direct way to make a call or even answer a call from the OfficeRunner headset itself. This is completely unlike Bluetooth headsets for mobile phones and largely defeats the whole purpose of the device.
To answer a phone call, you have to first remove the handset from the cradle of the telephone to which OfficeRunner is connected (or, in my tinkered setup, press the Talk button on a cordless phone unit). You then have to press a button on the OfficeRunner headset to activate the connection. So you’re still needing to run to the nearest phone every time a call comes in.
Worse, when the call is over, it’s not sufficient to press the button on the OfficeRunner headset. You also have to “hang up” the phone unit that you used to initially answer the call. If you don’t go back and do this, you cannot make or receive another call.
However you define the word convenient, this is an example of its opposite.
It goes without saying that there is no way to dial a number via the headset.
• Microphone. The quality of OfficeRunner’s microphone was so poor that I had to shout in order for the person on the other end to hear me. The manual explains that I can adjust the volume of the microphone. But not from the headset itself. No, I have to go back to the base unit, remove its rear cover and turn a dial. Even after turning the dial to its maximum setting, the volume was still unacceptably low.
• Lifter. Recognizing that users may balk at the whole business of having to lift a corded receiver off its hook before you can answer a call with OfficeRunner, these folks came up with a “solution.” For an additional $90, you can by the ORL 12 OfficeRunner Handset Lifter. I kid you not.
The Lifter works as its name implies. You attach the device to the base unit of your desktop telephone. It’s held in place by adhesive mounting tape — which the manual warns can only be applied once, so be sure to do it right the first time. Finally, you make adjustments to the the height of the Lifter movement, so it goes neither too high nor not high enough.
Assuming you’ve done it all correctly, when the phone rings, the sound will trigger the Lifter to raise the handset off its cradle. You can now answer the phone from the OfficeRunner without needing to attend to the phone. When you end the call, the lifter lowers the handset back down. I had to laugh at this whole idea; it seemed like some Rube Goldberg contraption that might have been advanced in 1910, but not 2010.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t test whether or not the Lifter worked as promised — because I didn’t have a phone that was compatible with the device. Our only corded phones were the old “Princess” style; the Lifter does not attach to these (or to most other styles of desktop phones, for that matter). It’s completely useless for cordless phones.
I admit that I have not compared OfficeRunner to competing devices — which may well be equally inept. But that’s not a great defense in any case. The best I can say is that the OfficeRunner system might work well enough to be practical in certain office environments that have the appropriate telephone hardware. Otherwise, OfficeRunner strikes me as a kludge that never should have been released.