Too Simple to Sell

Blinking 12:00. You know what I’m referring to, don’t you? Yes, your parents’ VCR. You know what it’s a metaphor for too,Blinking 12:00 right? Devices too complicated to use properly. In some businesses, as the feature set of a new product begins to grow, someone will remind the design group of the Blinking 12:00, there will be some discussion of of how the consumer is really after simplicity, and the duly chastened group will pare the product down.

It turns out that we don’t want simple products after all. In a recent article posted to his Web site, Don Norman describes a complex $250 toaster and Korean SUVs with a forest of controls on their steering wheels. He asks,

Why such expensive toasters? Why all the buttons and controls on steering wheels and rear-view mirrors? Because they appear to add features that people want to have. They make a difference at the time of sale, which is when it matters most.

Why is this? Why do we deliberately build things that confuse the people who use them?

Answer: Because the people want the features. Because simplicity is a myth whose time has past [sic], if it ever existed.

He goes on to describe how people will believe that a product that looks more complex – a lot of buttons, knobs, and levers – will be perceived to be better than a more powerful, simple version, even if the power of the simple version is explained to the consumer. While the same consumer may curse the difficulty of use of the product after purchase, it’s too late, he owns it now. This means that even fully automated products need some controls to be desirable. (Joel Spolsky has the software take on this.)

The design challenge then, becomes one of creating powerful products, with obvious features, yet are easy to use. That’s a pretty tall order, but some products do seem to be moving in that direction. Think of digital cameras. When I bought my digital camera, I read the manual, looked through the on-screen menu, fiddled with the f-stop and shutter speed, then promptly dialed up “Auto,” and have rarely changed it since. Unfortunately that auto setting isn’t the best for the action shots I usually take, but it’s really just too complicated for me to figure out what is, so….

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