Simple Technology

Note: This has been sitting around in my drafts for ages, I consider it unfinished but that’s never stopped me from posting something before…

A while ago Adrian mused (lusted?) over Apple TV sets and in the comment to that post, he rightly states that

“Technology should serve it’s purpose and technology should be as simple as it can be without breaking it’s purpose.”

Now, before I go any further I will confirm that what Adrian was really saying was that

“Technology should serve it’s purpose and technology should be as USABLE as it can be without breaking it’s purpose.”

Which is very different from “technology should be simple”. After all, it takes a long time for technology to evolve to a point where it’s considered “simple”. Or maybe it’s the other way around, maybe it’s the time it takes the population to get to grips with a new technology that defines whether something is considered simple, or not.

Anyway, let’s go with the opening statement(s); technology should be simple, it should be open to all who want to use it and should be designed to be usable by whoever buys it.

Nothing much of contention there. Or is there?

By it’s nature, modern consumer technology (and I’m referring directly to the underlying workings of the myriad of electronic gadgets you have in your house) is hugely complex, and I’d suggest that the internals of most of these are both highly technical and likely quite scarily off-putting if presented to the layman. Of course that doesn’t really matter these days as most consumer electrics are considered to be throw away items. That computer printer that isn’t working anymore? Just go and get a new one, they are only £30… that broken DVD player? £25 for a new one, so why bother trying to get the case open to check if there is a loose wire? Technology has shrunk so much that unless you are happy working on tiny circuit boards you are unlikely to even bother trying to fix anything. At that level, the technicality of the product is a barrier that is deemed acceptable by most, a line across which the general punter won’t even consider stepping across.

Ohh and to all my lovely readers who are shaking their heads at this point, remember, you are not a ‘general punter’. You are most likely a geek and bemoan the fact that, these days, most electronic gadgets are completely sealed and glued shut, I hear you, I feel your pain.

At that technical level, most of us are happy to ignore the technology completely. If it’s broken it’s either someone else’s problem, or we replace it. Simple.

The real problems start when technology isn’t designed around the customer, isn’t designed with the user in mind, and that is when the statement that Adrian made – Technology should serve it’s purpose – needs to be revisited. Quite simply a lot of everyday technology isn’t designed with the main purpose in mind. Let’s take an everyday example.

My TV has an internal signal regulator switch which allows it to handle multiple inputs of an Audio/Video nature. It’s smart enough to detect when one of the inputs is turned on, and switches itself to the correct channel to show whatever it is receiving from that input. I can then, with the push of a button, change which input I am viewing. Simple. One little button.

Ohh I’m sorry, too technical? Right, if I’m watching Sky and I turn on my DVD player, the TV switches over to the DVD player, but if I want I can switch back to Sky with the push of a button.

And what is that button called, the one that lets me switch between Sky and my DVD player? If you are lucky it’s usually labelled “A/V”. Well I say lucky, but it’s not hugely obvious what that means, is it? Not to a lot of people at least. Sure you can learn what it means, but ultimately you’ll store that information as “pushing that button changes between Sky and my DVD player”. You may remember that it means Audio/Video, but why should you have to? Re-labelling this as “Switch Inputs” would be best but that’s a bit cumbersome for a remote control, but even S/I might be better? I don’t have a good answer for this but A/V just isn’t right… but mind you, the weird symbol I have on my TV isn’t right either, in fact it’s so wrong I had to check the documentation to find out what it meant!

But, just to flip this all on it’s head, maybe, just maybe, A/V IS the right label for that button.

I suggested, in a comment to Adrian’s post, that perhaps technology needed to retain some barriers in an effort to minimise the impact of unleashing technology on non-techie type people. Gosh, how horrible am I. How exculsive. What a techno-snob!

Let me be slightly more specific then, I think in certain instances, barriers are required and should remain long past the ‘early adopter’ stages and into the life of a technology. A good example, in my opinion, is the trend towards convergence shown by most of the large ‘gadget’ manufacturers over the past few years. Do I really need a kettle that can talk to my fridge, and a fridge that can re-ordered milk when my supplies run low (ok, the latter might be useful, I’m always forgetting to remember the milk… I should really note that down in my to do list you know…)

During the life of most technologies a central equilibrium is found and that will suit the majority of consumers (even if it isn’t the ‘best’ technology). The most obvious example is the, now ubiquitous, iPod. It is not as feature rich as other MP3 players but being well-designed (and well marketed) it is usually what most consumers think of when you say “MP3 player” (remember, dearest blog reader, that you are probably more technically aware than most). The very fact that the iPod DOESN’T have a radio, and DOESN’T let you record are barriers. Adding those features would raise the technical level for usage to a point that, I can only presume, Apple aren’t comfortable with. OK, maybe it’s just because it doesn’t fit with their business plan for the iPod.

I guess what I’m really arguing here is that early adopters are good things, and that products don’t (shouldn’t?) always have to be simple and usable until they reach a critical mass.

I could also say that I’m arguing that product design should be left to designers, not techies, but that to get a product to the point of being easily accepted then sometimes it’s good to have a few barriers in the way, then once the kinks are ironed out THEN it can become a consumer product??

Of course it all really depends on what you class as technology.

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The very fact that the iPod DOESN’T have a radio, and DOESN’T let you record are barriers. Adding those features would raise the technical level for usage to a point that, I can only presume, Apple aren’t comfortable with.

[Insert Family Fortunes uh-uhhh negatory sound here]

When DVD players were released, they came in Read Only mode and there was no record function. Was this because the technology wasn’t available? No. PC based DVD-burners came out long before domestic standalone recorders were generally available. Was it because DVD player manufacturers weren’t comfortable with people being able to record as well as watch? Highly unlikely. Then what’s the reason?

Well, in all things business (and crime) look to where the money is.

The reason that recordable DVDs appeared so much later than the players was to get people to buy them twice. People buy a player but still have a video too. A couple of years later, you’ll probably be able to sell them a DVD recorder because by now they’ve replaced most of their VHS cassettes with DVDs and would get rid of the VCR totally if it wasn’t for the fact that they still used it to record stuff off the telly. Congratulations, you’ve sold someone two units when they only needed one.

My bet is that Apple will release version 2.0 of the iPod with recording and radio before long. I mean, you can already watch video, play games and listen to podcasts on them. Do you seriously think that Apple are thinking “Sure people can handle listening to music AND watch videos AND watch AND play games but we’d better not give them a radio because that’ll make it TOO complicated”?

OK, I was discounting business reasons, this was supposed to be a purely design ethic led discussion!! 😉

As to iPods with radio, I doubt they’ll ever do it with an analog receiver, DAB maybe. But, as they haven’t yet, I’ve no indication to think that they will in the future… As you say, they’ve got everything else on the iPod, but not radio. There MUST be a good reason for that. Other than Steve Jobs doesn’t listen to the radio…

Want to listen to FM radio on your iPod, buy the accessory now from your genuine Apple dealer! Now, there MUST be a good reason why it’s not integrated mustn’t there. Mustn’t there?

Does “let’s not bother” count as a good reason?

I’m also not sure that you can remove business reasons from a discussion of this sort. Way back when I was doing Design & Tech A-Levels (many, many moons ago), we had a discussion about Planned Obsolescence and it’s role in design. For example, it might be possible to build the “perfect” car at the moment but no company would do it because it would hamper future sales of new cars. If you want a pure design ethic question, you’ll have to avoid asking questions about real world situations because they won’t be based on design principles alone.

I’ll address your points about barriers/simplicity/usability later when I can be arsed.

Gosh, I’m hugely tempted to suggest you lighten up but, dammit, you’ve got me bang to rights.

I KNOW you can’t remove business decisions from this discussion, I know that money makes the world go round, whether we like that fact or not.

But as you say, I was really focussing more on the barriers/simplicity/usability side of things, so I do hope you can be “as arsed” as you were about picking up my flawed argument!! 😉

When you talk about “simple technology” I’m assuming you mean “simple to use technology”. With all the electronics and computer chips and what-not, an iPod could never be called ‘simple’ (unlike, for instance, a pencil), but it could be called ‘simple to use’.

mum says:

I’m so glad even someone as ‘clued up’ techno-wise has problems deciding what the symbols on the buttons mean, I thought it was just me. Of course when you add failing eyesight and loss of dexterity it’s no wonder us oldies give up. There’s also the problem of the fact that the symbols on the ‘most used’ buttons start to wear off after a while – is that built in obso….whatsit too?

Look at apples remotes. Very simple. I bet you no one has any issues figuring out them.

Look at any other tv remote and even I can’t figure out half the buttons.

I reckon apple has in past years proved that you can design almost anything better than it is now.

Koih Vin linked to an article on how user research shows they want features but ethongraphic studies shows they don’t use them, and good design companies do well by ignoring what users ask for a lot of the time.

The iPod radio is a good example. If it was that much in demand, the iPod radio accessories would be selling in closer to 1:1 rations but they’re not. I’ve tried radio on the move. It sucks. I landed up sitting my my arm in the ear to try pick up anything half way decent.

(nice article BTW)

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