Scott Kirsner

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As technology advances, new products keep growing more complex

San Jose Mercury News, January 7, 2007

- Scott Kirsner

On the eve of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, which begins tomorrow in Las Vegas, I've been thinking about the first television remote control I ever used, in the late 1970s. It operated the television at my grandparents' house, and the face of it featured three ramp-shaped buttons. Each one produced a loud click when pressed. As I recall it, one button turned the television on and off, and the other two tuned the channels up or down.

The remote control in my living room today seems to have sufficient buttons to write a novel in Cambodian, solve a few differential equations, and, using the directional arrows, fly a gasoline-powered model helicopter. It operates not only the television, but also a DVD player and TiVo digital video recorder.

As we expect more from the technology we use - and as consumer electronics companies try to persuade us to upgrade to newer, more powerful products - it grows ever more complex. At the Consumer Electronics Show this year, companies will introduce video-playing cell phones, Internet-connected cars, and new computer operating systems that will require hours of trial-and-error, Talmudic knowledge of the instruction manual, and a deep and supportive relationship with the customer support corps in India to master. Professional product demonstrators - don't try this at home - will be on hand to surf through dozens of menus, making everything seem easy.

But simplicity has become the lost lodestone of the technology world. Despite the triumph of a few elegant and easy-to-use products and services in the marketplace- among them Google's homepage, Apple's iPod, Netflix DVD rental, the Craigslist network of online bulletin boards, and Research In Motion's BlackBerry - most tech companies undervalue simplicity. In a race to add features and buttons, get the most from every microchip, and make the wired wireless, they've forgotten (or are ignoring) the great dictum from 20th century industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who designed cars, trains, the Coke bottle, logos, and refrigerators: "The main goal is not to complicate the already difficult life of the consumer."

Five forces conspire against simplicity.

1. Simplicity requires discipline (and a benevolent despot doesn't hurt)

Every whiteboard at every company in Silicon Valley is crammed with good ideas for the next version of the product. Culling the excellent ones and leaving behind the merely good ones requires discipline - and it can disappoint the smart people whose suggestions don't make the cut.

At Google, vice president Marissa Mayer makes sure nothing extraneous ends up on the site's homepage. "I'm the gatekeeper," she told Fast Company magazine in 2005. "I have to say no to a lot of people."

Apple's benevolent despot, Steve Jobs, cracked the whip to make sure that the iPod was simpler (and more fun to use) than the digital music players that preceded it. The company now dominates the market, with 62 percent market share, according to the research firm NPD Group. At Craigslist, founder Craig Newmark and CEO Jim Buckmaster note that they've never added a single graphic element to the site: everything, except for the photos that users post, is plain text divided into neat columns and rows, which makes Craigslist easy to navigate, even with a dial-up Internet link.

2. Constantly shifting standards

Technology standards used to last for decades. Think of the little springy plastic nubbin at the end of a phone cord (known to wonks as the RJ11 jack), and how long it has been in your life. Now think of how many different power adapters and accessories you've owned, in the past five years, for your family's mobile phones, digital cameras, and laptops. Every time technology takes a baby step forward, a new standard is created, rendering almost everything before it outmoded. Backwards compatibility - the ability for the new standard to work with all of our older stuff - is usually the lowest item on the developer's priority list.

At the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, Google co-founder Larry Page made the case for devices that could talk to one another, and share accessories and power supplies. " I'm going to just plead with all of you," he told the audience at the Las Vegas Hilton Theater, where Elvis once performed, "let's get the power supply problems fixed, or let's get all these devices talking together. I think we'll get just amazing innovation, things we just totally can't predict happening, and also all of you as consumers will be a lot happier. ...This is a really important thing to get done."

One year later, there hasn't been much progress to report. Even Apple disappoints; the new generation of MacBook Pro laptops won't accept batteries or power adapters from earlier Apple products - and they've abandoned the gold old RJ11 input that used to allow you to connect to the Internet via dial-up, when traveling in the sticks.

3. More features must be better

Marketing executives at technology companies often focus on adding new features in order to differentiate their product from a rival's, even if the accumulation of features ends up obscuring what the product was originally intended to do. And often, in order to sell a software upgrade, or convince us to part with an older piece of hardware, they're compelled to rattle of a list of ways that Version 5.0 is better than Version 4.9.

Consumers can be complicit, too, in the contest to add unnecessary features, sometimes using the length of a feature list to gauge a product's value. A camcorder that also takes snapshots, automatically stabilizes shaky images, sees in the dark, can add special effects, and comes with a remote control, though it may require a month-long vacation to master, must logically be better than the "Point & Shoot" camcorder from Pure Digital, a $129 device that does just two things: records 30 minutes of video, and allows you to transfer it to a PC or replay it on a television.

When the price of two products is comparable, writes Donald Norman, "...People are not willing to pay for a system that looks simpler because it looks less capable." Norman is a cognitive scientist who is also co-founder of Nielsen Norman, a design consulting firm.

Norman's point is often true, but there are so few elegantly-designed products (at affordable prices) on the market, that a passage from John Maeda's recent book, "The Laws of Simplicity," may override it. Maeda writes, "The more complexity there is in the market, the more that something simpler stands out. And because technology will only continue to grow in complexity, there is a clear economic beneŞt to adopting a strategy of simplicity that will help set your product apart."

New features, of course, can make products more useful - but only when they're well-explained, easy to access, and solve actual problems that actual consumers have.

4. The need for security and authentication

For some reason, linking my Bluetooth headset to my mobile phone requires a password. Responding to an e-mail sometimes involves typing in a meaningless sequence of letters, to prove that I'm human, and not a spambot. Thanks to digital rights management software that protects content owners from rampant piracy, it can be difficult or impossible to make a song or movie play on more than one device. According to a 2002 survey by NTA Monitor, the typical information technology professional had, at that time, 21 passwords to remember, and some heavy users had to keep track of as many as 70. That number has likely grown in the last four years, and in 2005 the research firm Gartner estimated that 30 percent of all calls to a company's help-desk involve resetting passwords.

We'd all benefit from a password "decoder ring" that would prove we are who we are, enabling our music collections to play anywhere, and granting us access to all the WiFi wireless networks that were supposed to welcome us. Microsoft tried several years ago to solve this problem and make our lives simpler, with Microsoft Passport, which would log users into Web sites as soon as they'd logged on to Windows. But Bill Gates and Co. weren't perceived by consumers to be trustworthy enough to manage their passwords, and the service failed to take off.

In a world full of would-be identity thieves and scammers, we all benefit from security and authentication. But all of the sign-ons required of us could be made much simpler.

5. Tech-centricity

People employed at technology companies are so conversant with complicated technology - working, as they do, with intricate chip designs, Linux command lines, and cryptic software code -- that their sense of what's simple is often askew. (Even the smallest tech start-up usually employs enough engineers with advanced degrees to field an all-PhD softball team. If, that is, you could drag them out into the sunlight.) They underestimate the need for presenting choices and options in a logical way, and providing clear instructions. If they can puzzle something out, the user will have no problem. Often, their employers neglect to bring in typical users for testing until very late in the development process, when most variables and assumptions are already set in stone, and changes are expensive.

This tech-centricity is especially prevalent in Silicon Valley, where an early release of a complex and opaque product can generate positive buzz at conferences and on blogs - all of the reviews hailing from other techies who are comfortable using technology that still sports lots of rough edges. With that positive reinforcement, it's easy to lose sight that the bulk of users require something much simpler, with training wheels.

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Although those five forces nudge companies and consumers toward complexity. simplicity is a goal worth pursuing.

Simple devices, easily mastered without reference to the online support site, make their users feel smart and efficient. They make us feel like our time is valuable, and that we're doing what we want to be doing - rather than fussing with the technology. For the companies that produce them, they can lead to lower support costs, not to mention attracting a cult of loyal followers.

Some companies have made simplicity a rallying cry, like Chicago-based 37Signals, which says on its site that it is "committed to building the best Web-based software products possible with the least number of features necessary. Our products do less than the competition - intentionally."

In the 2001 book "The Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do For Us," the late MIT researcher Michael Dertouzos wrote, "We have already gone so far down the road of serving computers that we've come to accept our servitude as necessary. It isn't. It is time for us to rise up with a profound demand: 'Make our computers simpler to use!'" (Interestingly, a blurb from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates appeared on the book's cover.)

Despite all the hype that will surround the new gadgets and services debuting at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, that rallying cry has not yet been heard.

SCOTT KIRSNER edits the blog CinemaTech, and is the author of the recent book "The Future of Web Video." He wrote this article for Perspective.