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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Why are we obsessed with complex gadgets?

February 19, 2007

Why can't products be easier to use, simpler and with fewer gadgets? Why do we have so many features we never get around to using? Buttons and dials on car radios are proliferating, and even metastasizing to the steering wheel. There are so many switches in new cars that some of them go forever unused, simply because we can't remember what they do. Cell phones are sprouting menus within menus. Even refrigerators are getting computerized controls with a television in the door, and clothes dryers might have been designed for use on the space station.

Despite our complaints and laments, it keeps happening to us. Watches get more buttons. Kitchen appliances get more settings. My stove has two broiler settings now. I use one, as I always have: high. In the office, copiers have more than a dozen screens, software has a whole menu for "tools," and lighting levels are often controlled from multi-button stations. To my knowledge, no one ever calls the lighting, stove or copier people and pleads for more interface clutter.

In my work, I'm constantly pushing back against programmers and engineers who delight in adding features. To my surprise, I'm often pushing back, too, against executives who want to add gadgetry to Web sites and other places where simplicity would seem preferable to complexity, and where users' complaints are easily predictable. The same guy who can't figure out how to set his watch for daylight-saving time wants me to add to a Web site five links that all do exactly the same thing.

Don Norman, a guru's guru of usability, thinks he knows the answer to this mystery (www.jnd.org). The desire for simplicity, he says, is a myth. As with dieting and peace negotiations, we say one thing and do another. When it comes time to write a check, people buy complex devices. Complexity is a sign of power and capability. Lots of dials means lots of functionality.

It's the cockpit syndrome-all those switches must be good for something. Pilots must be smart people, because they work amid acres of rocker switches. Norman points out that simple little devices, like toasters with just a knob and a lever, don't sell for as much, or often in as large quantities, as the high-end toasters with sensors and motors in addition to the knob and lever. Presumably, the complicated toasters are more profitable, too.

He also observes that more controls under our fingers give the illusion of more control over the device. Even if you're irked about having to pick from a halfdozen spin cycles, it tickles your vanity to think that you're the Laundry God, in command of the gadget, rather than the other way around. If Frankenstein's monster had featured a keyboard, a line of push buttons ranging from "charming" to "gruff" to "killing machine," and a bright red emergency stop button, he just wouldn't have seemed as horrifying.

If true, this makes us lousy shoppers. Complexity makes for a good sale, but not for a good long-range user experience. We tend to use one or two of the dozen buttons on the dryer. We pick a toaster setting and let it be. We figure out the three or four things we need to do on the desk phone and forget the others. If we have to reset the entertainment center clock, we struggle with the overstuffed interface and curse the engineers. The very same thing that makes us impressed enough to buy makes us confused and baffled later. What works doesn't sell, and what sells doesn't work.

It's apparently some kind of wacky psychological economics. Creating a fully automated device with one or two basic controls would be expensive, and you'd have to charge more for it. Put that in the store alongside less expensive things with more buttons, and what do you think people will buy?

Microsoft apparently learned this lesson early, too. Cynics maintain that Microsoft could never sell an upgrade without upwardly spiraling feature bloat, but apparently Microsoft knows what it's doing. People will buy buggy software with more features, rather than more stable software with fewer features.

Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek Software (www.joelonsoftware.com) echoes the Microsoft strategy in his own little company. He says that nothing boosts the sales of his shrink-wrapped, commercial products any better than adding new features, even if the chances they'll be used are pretty small.

The takeaway from this is that we need to use first, then buy, but that's not likely to happen if we're psychologically driven toward shiny, complicated items. The best we can hope for is that when it comes time to use them, the buttons we need will be the ones easiest to push.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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