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Complexity is killing us – where is the Universal Easy Mode?

Windows 8 – the interface that needed a ‘Start Me Up’ revision. The emotion that has been unleashed by the launch of Windows 8 is fun to read about – unless you have a new computer pre-installed with it. Then you are in deep trouble – you are dealing with a mysterious user interface designed for a Windows phone that nobody will buy – nor will you – but sadly, you are running it on a computer. You cannot find the Start menu, locate a network printer, find where files are placed -- and that’s actually before you’ve done any work. The lack of a Start menu alone immediately spawned an entire software industry of add-ons! But thankfully, someone tells you about a downloadable START button – and you’ve taken one small step forward – at least until the complainers are silenced with Windows 8.1.

Smart phones – complexity gone wild.  You know that even the engineers see what their feature fanaticism hath wrought when they ship the Samsung Galaxy S4 with ‘Standard Mode’ and ‘Easy Mode.’  Ah, the irony, unintentionally noted in this review: "While it may be a bit of a task for the non-tech-savvy people to get to that feature in the first place, the world becomes a much better place once you do!" So now you know, before you get to the store, that the phone does not default to Easy Mode. In fact, it barely defaults to anything – it has a setting for every occasion, every whim, every mode -- it's a user-configurable paradise of choice. Why, you might ask? Because it is feasible, it shall be so. As feature creep continues -- and smart phones will default to telling your friends where you are, popping you into group chats, pinning and tagging your picture on sites you never visit and didn't know existed -- let us hope for other modes, HIDE ME UNLESS I SAY SO, THE SECRET TO SETTINGS, and SUPER DUPER EASY MODE.

Your rental car user experience – some training required. So you get off the plane and are whisked off to the car rental counter – your record is retrieved and you are shown your car, which is much newer than the one you left at home. You walk around to make sure there are no scratches, say goodbye to the friendly agent.  Now it is time to start the tech-laden car and turn on the radio. Oops. When the Volvo CEO says that cars today are too complicated for the consumer – maybe he’d driven a Ford Escape lately – always take a passenger with you when renting a car if you want to change the volume or the radio station.  Also, let’s remember that sometimes cars are rented in unfamiliar locations – so just getting around is difficult enough. Trust me, drive in silence until you have help or are parked.

Setting up a home web camera is incredibly easy – says Wired. We all know that the home care market is booming, some might say at the expense of the assisted living industry.  But it is no easy task to manage home care delivery as this adult son noted in a Times article: “He once came home to find a caregiver’s handgun, carried for self-defense when working in rough neighborhoods, sitting on a table and easily reachable by his mother.” Under such worrisome circumstances, wouldn’t it make sense to see greater adoption of web cameras in home care (living room or kitchen) used simply as a reminder to workers and a reassurance to family members? Putting aside the objections of care providers for the moment, what if you want to put one in? Well, it is incredibly easy if you already know what you are doing. Hopefully the home to be monitored is already replete with a home network. “After the first 2-3 days of connection hiccups, it ran pretty stable for the next several days and continues to do so now.” Right.



Great post and couldn't agree more. Simplicity and user experience is what we obsess about everyday in designing and building Lively. It is so needed for our market.


Great points, as always, Laurie. Absolutely love your suggestions for other smart phone modes!

Apple stormed the mobile phone biz by coming out with a phone, not that had more bells and whistles than the others on the market, but by coming out with one that users found easier to use. Likewise, many scoffed at the idea of the iPad as a netbook without a keyboard or serious productivity applications like Word or Excel. Yet it too stormed the industry, causing a tectonic shift in the existing PC market. Why? Because it offered a user experience that people found easy to use.

So design matters. User experience matters. Gone are the days when people will buy a PC because it has more jiga-hertz or jiga-bytes. Today it's about user experience.

But simplicity isn't the entire story. A light switch (at least the most common ones) are exceedingly simple devices, but their function is rather limited. Great design goes beyond simplicity and creates function and an experience that people enjoy, and feels like a natural extension of who they are. Why else do luxury cars like Lexus and Mercedes sell? Why are there travel features like First Class. After all if you want to get from point A to point B, there is no difference, nor much difference in the level of simplicity. So why are people willing to pay more? It's the experience.

Steve Jobs understood this very well (and that was even acknowledged by his friend and rival, Bill Gates). When he introduced the iPad, he walked over, sat down in a big comfy leather chair, and talked about how great the experience was. He used words like "magical" rather than "processor speed" or "gigabytes". He used terms that relate to aesthetic features.

But something aesthetically beautiful isn't necessarily easy to use. It takes a craftsman to blend form and function.

This is why user experience design is the highest priority for my company (as well as our biggest challenge), and explains a lot about why we don't already have robots beyond toys and gadgets in our homes today. Function/benefit at a reasonable price is important, but not without an interface that is well-crafted.

Thank you for compiling examples of over-complicated GUIs. I think car controls example is important: you have no sense of where you are on a touch screen. If you need to take your eyes of the road to figure out the controls, then the design purpose has failed. What about the 50-75 age demographic who are buying luxury cars? Are car manufacturers addressing the needs of this consumer group? I'm sure car manufacturers would be surprised at how many customers would prefer using tactile dials or physical buttons to control the A/C, radio, etc.

President & Director at Integrated Tracking Technologies Inc.

Being able to add endless features to a gadget is like knowing your kid can stay up late and not be cranky the next day: The question is not "can they," the question is "should they." Interfaces in products for all ages, but especially new users (stop calling them "naive") and older uses, should start at the "easy" level. Then, if they feel they have mastered a function, they can progress to greater complexity voluntarily. It's called "mastery" and it works great for learning things like math. All we're doing now is making people feel dumb and that, as Microsoft discovered in terms of sales and reputation, is not a good thing.

It's technology's job to make things easier, not harder.

The trouble with a lot of engineering is it's done by very technical people - almost by definition.

The challenge is to focus the technology on being more consumer-centric and wrestling the technology away from the technologists.

Great article.

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