Thoughts on Bluetooth 5 and the device pairing user experience

I’ll go as far as to say that I hate Bluetooth device pairing!

The new Bluetooth 5 specification promises “4x range, 2x speed, and 8x broadcasting message capacity” in low energy modes. However, the specification for the wireless protocol still hasn’t provided manufacturers and ultimately consumers with any unified user experience to go with the protocol.

I can’t pick up a Bluetooth enabled device of any kind and intuitively know how to make it work. Some devices require you to pull out the battery and reinsert it while pressing a button. Others require you to hold your hand above them or shake them while clicking a button. Maybe there is a small hole where I should insert a pin.

The pairing button or hole may or may not have the Bluetooth icon embossed on or near them. Oh, I need to keep both mouse buttons pressed while removing the battery, and then it will go into pairing mode when I reinsert the battery? How am I to know? Every Bluetooth enabled device behaves differently.

When I’ve finally managed to get the device into pairing mode; I can’t be sure that I’ve correctly put it into pairing mode. I wasn’t sure on the process to get it into the mode in the first place. Now, I’ve got a quickly flashing blue LED the device. That must be good, right? Another device may give you a sequence of three rapid flashes when you turn it but wouldn’t enter pairing mode; just to let you know it can do that. Some devices even beep or vibrate, but I still can’t tell for sure what it wants to tell me. Again, every Bluetooth enabled device behaves differently.

I pull up my phone, and try to search for the new device. It will usually be named as a MAC address, before being renamed with a random string or brand name. The list of nearby and forgotten devices that I’ve listed on my phone reshuffles and resorts itself by nobody-knows-what-parameter every few seconds. By the process of elimination and guesswork, I identify the correct device and click pair. Nothing happens. The LED on my Bluetooth device stops flashing and pulsates slowly a few times before going dark. I still don’t know whether it worked or not, because every Bluetooth enabled device behaves differently.

Fast-forward two hours, and I’ll want to use my device with my laptop instead of my phone. Do I have to unpair it before I can re-pair it with a new device? Do I need to press a button? pop out the batteries? or what is the unpairing sequence for this device? Can I pair it with two devices at the same time and switch device by holding the pairing button? I don’t know and I doubt anyone else would know either as every Bluetooth enabled device behaves differently.

Funnily enough, the Bluetooth specification refers to the pairing [authentication] method behind the screenless-interactions described above as “Just Works”. Unironically!

I can’t call upon prior experiences with Bluetooth pairing to aid me; the interaction is so varied from device to device that all I associate with the process is a level of frustration.

I’ve skimmed through the Bluetooth 5 Core Specification, and there’s very little there about user interactions and experience. It’s left entirely up to the implementer! There’s no specification for how the user experience should be, and a combination of carelessness and laziness have produced an ecosystem of devices where all devices are technically capable of pairing with each other. Yet, each device requires unique knowledge and training/trial-and-error to make it work with any of the others.

Bluetooth 5 didn’t need to get faster, use less energy, or be more friendly to tracking people around in meatspace. It needed to lay down the law for how devices should behave to ensure a consistent and pleasant user experience. The members of the Bluetooth SIG missed the opportunity to address this in Bluetooth 5. We can only hope they’ll address this longstanding issue for their next major milestone.

—and yes, I understand their members probably aren’t all that interested in formal design requirements from the Bluetooth Core Specification. However, users are for damned sure interested in not having to deal with so much variety in how they pair their devices!

I avoid Bluetooth devices and stick with wired accessories when possible. Wired headphones, keyboard, and mice aren’t as sexy as their wireless counterparts, but they “just work” where Bluetooth is more often than not “just a whole lot of extra work.”.