TCS Daily

Product Designers with a Clue

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 25, 2005 12:00 AM

I've written in the past about two problems: bad product design, and the tendency of companies to change user interfaces for no particular reason, leading to a phenomenon that I call "version fatigue" which sets in when you just can't bring yourself to learn the ins and outs of yet another program or gadget when you know that you'll be replacing it, and having to learn an entirely new set of ins and outs, within a year or two.

These problems overlap, of course, and they have gotten worse as the technology has gotten better: Back in the old days of the Motorola "brick" cellphone, it would have been impossible to include a digital camera, PDA, video games, and MP3 player in each one, since those things didn't exist. But at least if you had done so, there would have been room for nice, clear, easy-to-use controls.


Image from the film Wall Street  (1987) 20th Century Fox Film Corp.


Now that cellphones are smaller than a pack of cigarettes, manufacturers are trying to include all those features, and users have to navigate them through a bewildering -- or at least annoying -- array of tiny buttons and stacked menus. Lots of people are complaining.


Day By Day
cartoons courtesy of Chris Muir.


But now somebody's bucking the trend, and I think that's going to be a trend in itself. The BBC reports:


Vodafone is launching a back-to-basics mobile phone in response to customer demand for simplicity.


Vodafone Simply will be available in two handsets offering just voice and text services.


Both phones have a large screen with legible text and symbols, and three dedicated buttons for direct access to the main screen, contacts and messages.


The pared down phones represents a backlash against the drive to create more and more advanced services.


The article notes that older users are more vehement about wanting a simpler interface, but that makes sense -- it's not age, exactly, but history. If you're 55 now, you've lived through 30 years of consumer electronics, and the thrill of learning all the intricacies of the newest one has worn off. If you're 15, on the other hand, it probably hasn't -- and if you're 15, you probably have enough time to fiddle with it until you've learned them all.


I suspect, though, that with todays proliferation of devices and software those 15-year-olds will reach the stage of advanced version fatigue far faster than their elders, and that the pressure on manufacturers to come up with simple, easy-to-use interfaces will grow. (Just look at the success of the iPod, and iTunes, both of which are, in my opinion, successful largely because of their user interfaces.) I also predict that nested menus will become less common, and simpler devices with knobs and buttons moreso, as products mature. That's based on my own experience with sound equipment, particularly keyboards and synthesizers, which has undergone a similar evolution over the past few decades, but which is always a few steps ahead of consumer-level electronics.


When synthesizers, effects processors, etc., first appeared, they had knobs, because they didn't do much. Then the knobs tended to disappear, replaced by nested menus and scroll buttons. There were reasons for this change -- you could shrink the device a lot, and save a lot of money, by eliminating all those knobs and buttons. And to many design engineers, the nested-menu approach seemed more logical. My Roland Juno synthesizer is thus mostly menu-driven. (Picture here). That seemed high-tech at the time.


The musicians and sound engineers who used the products, however, were less enthused, especially as such devices proliferated. Once you know what a resonant filter, or a low-frequency oscillator, you can use it on any device. But with non-standard menus, you have to spend precious time finding, and remembering, how to actually get to it on every new device you use. On the other hand, a set of knobs is always a set of knobs. That makes going from one device to another, or using multiple different devices at once, a lot easier. And you see this reflected on many new devices. Even the at-first-glance-bewildering array of knobs on the Alesis Andromeda synthesizer, to name just one leader in the buttons-and-knobs renaissance, is actually easier for an experienced user to navigate than a series of nested menus. Add to this that most people (though not, apparently, most design engineers) are tactile-and-spatially oriented, and this approach seems to work better.


I think we'll see something similar with regard to cellphones and other consumer gadgets soon. Features are nice, but most people don't use even a fraction of the features offered by their gadgets. And as gadgets proliferate, simplicity and low mental overhead are becoming more important all the time. Let's hope that the designers continue to take the hint.


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