Culture of Complexity

My presentation last week about software simplicity reminded me of how far we are from simplifying our world through technology. I’m constantly turned off by technology because it serves to complicate rather than simplify our lives.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to assault the gadgets I use because they’re such a hassle to manage – and I’m a techie, so I’m supposed to know how to deal with them all. God help the rest of the population!

For example:

  • My computer is way too complicated and unreliable
  • My home entertainment center is almost as hard to manage and configure as a PC (I’m the only one in my family who knows how to use it)
  • My cell phone is a usability nightmare (that’s why I was excited by the iPhone)
  • My digital camera has far too many options that I’ll never use
  • Even my lowly digital watch stumps me with its assortment of buttons

And on, and on, and on. The more technology we add to our lives, the more complicated our lives become. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t those of us in the tech world be working harder (a lot harder) to make our stuff simpler to use?

10 thoughts on “Culture of Complexity

  1. There’s one problem standing in the way of all else: the belief that “more features = better”.
    That’s wrong. The correct belief, if there is such a thing, is that “the right features, correctly presented, and with sensible defaults and fall-back behaviors = better”. But it’s harder to get that message through as bullets on a shrinkwrapped box, and it’s several science fields unto itself, so it’s way harder to understand to begin with.

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  2. Since you mentioned the iPhone, I have to say that this is one area where Apple has been pretty consistently doing exactly the right thing. I’m new to the Apple world, just bought my first Mac in January, and I’ve been very impressed so far. The integration of all of the software and devices is beautifully simple and zero maintenance. The first time I docked my iPhone I just told it what things I wanted to sync from my Mac and *poof* – I had contacts, e-mail, photos, music, videos and calendars all on my phone exactly as they are on the mac with no manual setup. The first time I turned on my iPhone and used it all that stuff was there and ready to view/use. When I plug in my camera’s memory card iPhoto says “ready to import X items”, I click one button and it’s done. My photo collection is well organized by date and I don’t have to mess with it. (It obviously can’t know who’s in the picture and other things that I’d have to manually tag, but you can’t have everything.)
    Everybody could learn some lessons from Apple. Many people have tried but nobody’s doing it nearly as well yet.

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  3. Jesper – You also have the problem that when you ask people, “Would you like a product that does 5 things for $20 or would you like one that does 10 things for $25?”, people almost always choose the latter, even if they would never use those extra 5 functions. Studies prove this again and again. So making products that do only what people need right now might make their lives less complex, most people won’t buy it because it does less and they think they might want the other features in the future.

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  4. I think that’s another thing Apple’s doing right (sorry if I’m starting to sound like a fanboy): they don’t do bullet point marketing. You can find all the specs and feature lists and stuff on their website if you look around, but their ads are about the experience, not X number of bullet points versus some competitor’s bullet points.

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  5. Peter: Yes, exactly. That falls directly out of the “more features = better” – since that’s the golden rule, “more features per buck” is a corollary.
    I could have said “Apple” like everyone else in the thread. I believe myself in every point that’s been made about Apple so far, and I am writing this on a MacBook, but by constantly affixing Apple to this notion you could end up ruining it. Large chunks of the computer industry, for example, has a history of deriding devotees as madmen and cult members.
    That said, I do believe in highlighting these companies that usually get this right. Aside of Apple, I’d like to also nominate Toyota and Nintendo.

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  6. Jesper, while I agree that too many features is a big reason why technology is so complicated, I think an even bigger reason is poor organization of features.
    This was one of the subjects of my presentation last week. As much as developers would like to keep their feature sets small, we have to add new features at some point or else people will stop buying/upgrading our software.
    But adding features doesn’t have to increase complexity if we do a decent job exposing only those features that the majority of our customers will use, then “hiding” other features (ie: making them less obvious).
    I wrote about this last year, too:
    http://nick.typepad.com/blog/2006/12/simplicity_aint.html

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  7. Do you buy dreams or improve on what you have? exciting vs boring.
    Because you’ll always want something new, you’re adding complexity. Buying things that make what you already do a lot easier removes complexity. But if you’re already doing it, why buy anything?
    People think in opportunities and wishes, progress and innovation will always present something new. I guess it makes people look forward to the next thing.
    If we’re smart we’d buy boring things, or make something that’s so good people wouldn’t buy our next big thing. But where’s the money in that?
    So this free flow of thought seems to suggest both consumers and developers are better off making things more complex. and if you’re good, you’re making something new and do it well.

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  8. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I assess every purchase based not on features but on the maintenance required to own something. I’m willing to miss out on certain nice-to-have features on one product versus another if the simpler product can be used with fewer hassles. I’m even willing to live without certain products altogether, no matter how appealing some of their features might seem, if they will likely require more fiddling or upkeep in the long run.
    For example, when I shopped for a DVD player, a large part of the purchase decision was based on the simplicity or logical layout of the remote control. That’s the one item you spend the most time with, so it should suit your needs, not the manufacturer’s marketing department. I’ll even go out of my way to buy a single-disc player, verses one that can feed in five or more, because it will probably last longer and be more efficient in terms of ‘keystrokes’ required for playing a single DVD, which is what you do 90% of the time.
    When deciding whether to buy a certain software package, versus using what came bundled with the computer (again, in this case, a Mac), the third-party vendor has to convince me that the benefits of their package are worth the extra installation and update hassles, including troubleshooting conflicts if/when they arrise. This unfortunately tilts the playing field away from third-party development, but for me they have to satisfy the entire ownership experience from installation to eventual removal (if it comes to that) and not just the immediate benefits provided from using the software for its specific task. Some software saddles the user with an onerous one-way installer that is very good at smearing files all across you hard disk, but becomes a nightmare if you want to get rid of it (I’m looking at YOU, Adobe.) The best-designed software can be simply dragged off a disk image and then dragged to the trash if you no longer use it. This assumes, by the way, that it is well-written software in the first place.

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  9. I guess that as long as we are referring to knowledge intensive goods, with a wealth of information comes a poverty of attention, to quote Herbert Simon. The paradox is, the more we seem to delegate agency to gadgets and computers to do stuff, the more the learning curve increases. Multiply that with the multitude of gadgets we already have, plus the ones we would like to have but still don’t, and I guess one can see why things seem complex.
    So to say, are things indeed complex, or did technology causes us some sort of ADD that reduces our utility from it?

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