Saturday, November 22, 2008

Faux simplicity

It's finally gotten cold enough here in North Carolina (it's 24 degrees outside right now) that I climbed up in the attic and got out our space heater for the kids' playroom. In doing so, it reminded me of one of my least favorite design techniques - what I call "faux simplicity". Take a look at the control panel for the heater:

Wow... it's soooooo simple that it only has ONE button! They even advertise the "1 Touch" interface below the panel. What could be simpler than one button?

How do you turn it on? You click the button.

How do you turn it up to the next degree setting? You click the button and the temperature goes up one setting.

How do you switch it from high to low? You keep clicking the button as it toggles through the high and low temperature settings.

How do you set it be always-on? You click the button until none of the temperatures are lit up.

How do you turn it off? You click the button and hold it down until it powers off.

SIMPLE! One button!

As a real life example, I usually have it set to Hi and 75 degrees. My kids wake up and they're cold so they click it twice (once to Hi/80 then to Hi/Always-on). Then I walk in, irritated, and tell them that the heater doesn't get any hotter just because it's set to always on (they think 75 degree is the temperature that the heater is running at, not the temperature that it shuts down automatically). So I want to switch it back to Hi/75. By clicking the button TEN TIMES.

1. Lo/60
2. Lo/65
3. Lo/70
4. Lo/75
5. Lo/80
6. Lo/Always-on
7. Hi/60
8. Hi/65
9. Hi/70
10. Hi/75

Woops... I clicked too fast and ended up on Hi/80. Now I need to click 11 more times to move it down one degree setting.

By having a single button, they didn't make it simpler, they made it more complex. They didn't simplify the feature set, only the interface, by overloading their single button with a bunch of different capabilities. The interface would be much simpler with an on/off button, "temp up" and "temp down" buttons, and an "always on/temp control" toggle. In this case, 4 buttons is simpler than 1.

The iPod has a similar example of this - the fact that you need to turn the iPod off by clicking and holding down the Pause button. This annoys me everytime. Please, people, On/Off buttons do not add unnecessary complexity in items that are turned on and off repeatedly!

We experienced this in one of our products a few years ago. Customers were complaining that our install was too difficult. At the time, our install process accomplished two things: it asked the few standard, necessary questions so we could put the product onto the machine (install directory, etc.), and a few questions that were required as "pre-configuration" so that the product would work the first time you used it (to our credit, we had reduced this set down to a bare minimum). So what was the proposal to simplify install? Simple! We'll separate the install into two parts! One part is the normal install that you see for every product and the second is a post-installation configuration wizard. By pulling the configuration out of the install, we'll make install way simpler!!

Of course, that's not simpler at all. From the customer's point of view, "install" translates to "all the crap I need to do before I can get the product running", including the post-installation/pre-configuration stuff.

We began referring to this as "small i" install and "big I" Install. Small i install is the "putting the bits on the box" process, and big I Install is the whole enchilada for completing and managing the installation. And we were able to successfully make the point that shifted some complexity from one place to another within the Big I Install is not simplifying anything for the customer, it's just changing where they encounter the complexity.

As discussed previously, "simplicity" is not a valid goal... it's a distraction.


Anonymous said...

I have this very heater and have often thought the same thing.


laura noonan said...

Absolutely loved your post on "faux simplicity". You so nailed it!

Where I work, we are all about user experience so I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the irony of this very visual post. Totally going to share with my co-workers.

And will def bookmark your blog and be back to read more. Tremendous!

Jeff Cross said...

The biggest offender in Faux Simplicity is microwave manufacturers. One microwave at the office makes it difficult to just enter a cooking time in, because they want you to tell it what type of food you're cooking and how much it weighs. The funny part is, there are 6 random types of food to choose from: Fish, meat, popcorn, pizza...can't remember the last two.

If that's the way you want to build a microwave, at least put a scale in there...