Replies from the Ergonomics vs. Performance poll

Yesterday, I posed the following question and asked for your input:

“Which aspect of a QRP radio holds more importance for you: its ergonomics (ease of use, comfort, display, size, etc.) or its performance (receiver test data, dynamic range, etc.)?” 

Thank you to everyone who participated in my recent quickie poll, which has now closed. There were so many interesting points in the feedback. Here are the results from the 252 votes cast within a 20-hour window:

In essence, a slight majority preferred ergonomics, with 57.1% of respondents indicating it as more important, while 42.9% favored performance.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m well aware that this question paints with broad brush strokes. There’s not a give-and-take between the two: an investment in the user interface typically doesn’t mean performance is going to suffer. Indeed, I would say most of our modern transceivers sport decent ergonomics and decent performance.

If anything, the relationship between price and performance plays a proper tug of war. Even that’s nuanced, though!

I also received a number of comments and messages from readers who pointed out that my survey was flawed because it didn’t define what I meant by ergonomics and performance carefully enough. I agree that this wasn’t a carefully considered and properly worded poll.

That said, the way I wanted to present this was more like an informal raise of hands–something I often ask for during radio club presentations.

Selection of Comments

The comments from readers were excellent and what I would expect to hear from people who’d raised their hands in a club meeting.

Here are snippets from a few of them, (for all of the comments, click here):

From Scott (KK4Z):

A tricky question. I actually prefer a balance between ergonomics and performance. If you have a good performing radio with mediocre ergonomics, it might not be used to its full potential. A radio with good ergonomics and mediocre performance might be used to its full potential which may be above a good radio with poor ergonomics.

From Mark (NA4O):

My assumption is that performance would have to be good enough for the radio to be in the running. Likewise, ergonomics would have to be good enough for it to be considered usable.

From Nick (KC0MYW):

As I consider the radios that I have and have used and which ones I like better and why, I think that the performance of the radio can almost be considered an ergonomic characteristic with regard to how comfortable and easy the radio is to operate. While a radio with poor ergonomics is not a lot of fun to operate, a lower noise floor and smoother QSK can add as much to the enjoyment level as an easy to access RIT control.

From William (KR8L):

Difficult to say… Since my field operations are very casual affairs I suppose performance is a secondary consideration, although I don’t think I’d enjoy doing a POTA activation with my HW-8.

Ergonomics can be very important — for example, although my FT-817 performs well enough, the number of button pushes and knob twists required to change the keyer speed (or just about any other setting) can be very annoying.

The well thought out controls of my KX2 make it my favorite for field operating, but then it’s a good performer too.

From Brian (K3ES):

Tough question. I will say ergonomics, but what I really mean is easy access to the features I need. I don’t necessarily need contest grade performance, but I do rely on features like a tuner, cw speed adjustment, vfo, etc.

From Emily Clark:

I pick performance for a few reasons: I do contest QRP at times (most recently ARRL RTTY Roundup). I like the filtering, the clarity of the screen, the true FSK for RTTY, and the ability to put an IF spectrum out into N1MM+. I only have wire antennas, and with the AH-705 I virtually do entire contests on my 80m OCFD.

From Michael (N7CCD):

If taken to the extreme on both options, I think I would have to choose performance. I would rather operate a radio that can handle QRM (overloaded front end, etc.) with confusing menus, than the opposite. If not taken to the extreme, then I may choose ergonomics…

From Mark (W8EWH):

Ergonomics for me because I, like many, have many field portable radios and as I cycle between them I need to be able to use them without the need to consult a user manual or waste time fumbling around a menu system looking for a particular feature or setting.

From Shawn (WS0SWV):

Performance! As a retired design engineer, I learned that good design addresses the performance needs of the user(s) in an intuitive manner. If it is cumbersome or overly complex then users will tend to migrate away from it. Some communities have specific ergonomic requirements and for QRP field radios I would argue the primary ones are size, weight, current consumption there are others depending on mode of operation like keyer memories and narrow filters for CW but those are the big ones.

From Wlod (US7IGN):

Different people have different preferences and ideas about ergonomics and performance. It’s important to find a balance, or better yet, have different radios for different tasks.

From Andrew:

Ergonomics is nice, but without performance … it has no use, imagine a coffee mug; it may be hyperergonomical, but then it has a hole at the bottom…

From Dick (K7ULM):

Interesting question. It is interesting how the ergonomics of the KH1 over shadows the performance of the KX2 for some use cases. In some uses the KH1 is definitely the the choice due to its ergonomics. For other radios of its size it will be chosen because of performance and ergonomics. The specific use case is the controling factor IMHO. Performance slightly over ergonomics, generally for me, kind of?

My thoughts?

If there was one comment that reflected my thoughts most closely, it would be this one from John (AE5X):

There’s a lot of overlap between these two characteristics. Too little of one undoes the effectiveness of the other.

I find that most radios do have “good enough” performance (barring an outright flaw or deviation from legal requirements), therefore I pay attention to ergonomics more than to lab numbers of dynamic range and other electronic specs…if I need lab equipment to discern whether or not my radio’s performance is acceptable, it’s acceptable. I don’t like buried menus for commonly-used features.

John’s right. We’re lucky these days in that most of our modern QRP field radios have acceptable performance for our field activities like POTA, SOTA, IOTA, QRP Contests, and some even have the chops for the RF density of, say, Field Day.

If performance is acceptable, I tend to give more weight to ergonomics because it’s important to me that the radio be fun to use.

What makes this show of hands a hot mess, when we look at it under the microscope, is the fact that both ergonomics and performance are nuanced. Herein lies the challenge I find in writing radio reviews: I believe it’s important to explore those nuances so that the review can inform a potential buyer (who might not share my same point of view) in a meaningful way. Sometimes it’s difficult to do that within a print publication’s word count.

Closing thoughts…

As we often say, there is no “perfect” radio that will please everyone, so I think it’s important before we make a purchase decision that we’re realistic with ourselves and understand what we actually value.

Here’s one real-life example–outside the world of QRP transceivers–I’ll share from a friend who, sadly, is now Silent Key. Since I can’t ask for his permission, I won’t mention his name.

Back in 2010, he came to me for advice on buying an SDR (Software Defined Radio)–a PC-connected black box receiver.

Even though not that long ago, keep in mind this was still during the infancy of modern, high-performance, SDRs and most of the options were going to set you back $1,000 or much more. In other words, a substantial investment.

This friend was an avid SWL DXer and was considering an SDR that, at the time, had a slight performance edge over popular SDR models from manufacturers like Microtelecom, RF Space, and WinRadio. I’m not going to call out this SDR by name either, but I’m sure some of you can guess which one I’m referencing.

This particular SDR had fabulous receiver characteristics on paper, but it was well known that the proprietary PC application that controlled it was a bit of a nightmare to use.

My friend purchased it. I tried to help him set this SDR up and learn how to use some of the basic functions and features, but we both found it a struggle. The GUI (graphic user interface), one could tell, was likely designed by the hardware engineer, not someone with experience creating usable software applications, also, unlikely someone who was a DXer or SWL.

He ended up selling this SDR after having owned it for less than a month. He agreed that the performance was brilliant, but hated using the app that controlled it. In the end, he purchased the venerable Microtelecom Perseus and absolutely loved it.

Rob’s advice

This topic of our personal preferences is such a deep one; I think I might put together a club presentation, exploring some of the nuances.

Speaking of presentations, if you’ve never seen Rob Sherwood’s excellent presentation exploring transceiver performance, I highly recommend you check this one out. Rob will be the first to tell you that modern transceivers tend to perform so well that the operator should give weight to ergonomics and usability.

Also, consider listening to this episode of the Ham Radio Workbench podcast when Rob was the guest.

6 thoughts on “Replies from the Ergonomics vs. Performance poll”

  1. This has been very interesting, and the comments have been outstanding! It seems to me that we don’t all have exactly the same concept of what is meant by “ergonomics” or “performance”. That makes sense to me since how we each interact with and react to our radios is very much a personal thing. To one ham, ergonomics might mean that the radio will fit in a pocket, while to another it might mean “more knobs, fewer menus”.

    That just goes to show what a complicated subject this is and how difficult it can be to address it when doing reviews!

  2. Thomas – you know how to get hams going….
    -my basic position is that “if you can’t hear them, you can’t work them.”
    73 de K4RLC Bob

  3. QRP radios that we have available now spoil us. The receivers and filters matched with a good antenna provide amazing performance. Our greatest concern is, which kit do I feel like taking today? A major portion of the is deciding each of the components of the kit for the day. I recently packed a K1 into the field with two 28.5 foot pieces of wire thrown over a pile of brush. It was like spending the day with a best friend that I hadn’t seen for ten years. Absolutely delightful.

  4. I forgot to mention a very important thing. We get used to the controls and menu so ergonomics is a subjective factor, but increasing performance or adding new functions or bands usually is much more difficult.

  5. Overall, I agree with John, and you.
    Whatever radio you like that works for you and makes QSOs is the right one!
    I thought the questions were properly worded enough to be sufficiently clear for the purpose; it is, after all, “nuanced”! In any group of (say) 6 hams, there will be a minimum of 7 opinions on any topic.
    I didn’t have to think about my answer for any great length of time; I had no doubt about which category I was in.

  6. Like most other designers, I imagine radio designers are from several engineering disciplines and are probably 50\50 HAM/Muggle. Unlikely any of us could afford a radio that received a full ergonomics study. Fun following the comments though.

    73 WS0SWV

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.