Replying to LO28324 --
Richard I understand that you don't post articles but this one is so
relevant to the Mastery Thread as well as the complexity discussion I hope
you will reconsider. I assume that we have people on this list who design
Ray Evans Harrell
April 28, 2002
Comforts of Home Yield to Tyranny of Digital Gizmos
By KATIE HAFNER
Last Christmas Eve, just as Lynne Bowman was preheating her oven to roast
a turkey for 15 guests, her daughter accidentally brushed against one of
the new oven's many digital controls.
"We heard this `beep beep beep,' " recalled Ms. Bowman, a 56-year-old
freelance creative director who lives in Pescadero, Calif., "and no more
oven. After that, we couldn't get it to work."
Ms. Bowman's husband, an engineer, was unable to fix the problem. Nor were
any of the assembled guests, half of whom were also engineers.
Desperate, Ms. Bowman resorted to the small, simple 1970's-vintage Tappan
electric oven in the guest house, which worked like a charm.
Of all the forces that permeate daily life, perhaps nothing has become
more of a tyranny than the bits and pieces of technology that are meant to
help one get through the day more easily, but instead are a source of
Relatively simple devices that were once controlled by twisting a knob or
pushing a button are now endowed with digital commands that can take hours
Many televisions, inextricably joined with the VCR, DVD player and
500-channel receiver, are now impossible to turn on or off without first
scanning a cryptic array of choices on any of several remote control
If a newer car's "check engine" light suddenly goes on, no longer can a
mechanically minded car owner simply pop the hood and have a look. A
special-purpose computer is needed to make a diagnosis.
To some extent, consumers have only themselves to blame, said Dr. Edward
Tenner, the author of "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of
Unintended Consequences" (Vintage Books, 1997), and a visiting scholar at
"Things are so needlessly complex because featuritis sells products," Dr.
Tenner said. "People buy them for a feeling of control, then complain that
they are so hard to manage. But show them something simple and rugged, and
most of them will call it boring."
Consider the recent "spring forward" for daylight saving time. That Sunday
morning, households throughout the nation set about changing the time on
their digital timepieces, VCR's, car clocks, oven clocks and other
devices. Many people have more than a dozen, and few are set in quite the
The tyranny of the digital control is perhaps at its most conspicuous in
BMW's new luxury sedan, the 745i.
The car has a premium stereo system with crystalline sound quality. But
try turning the radio on and tuning it to a favorite station and the owner
is in for a lengthy session with the instruction manual.
Storing that station for future quick access is another multistep ordeal
that requires pulling a joystick-like knob on the center console, which is
part of a system called the iDrive, to the radio portion of the
entertainment function, then twisting it to select either FM or AM, then
scrolling through commands to turn the iDrive knob into a tuner, then
finding the station, then assigning a permanent spot to the station in the
In the course of a 15-minute crash tutorial on operating the 745i
preceding the test drive, Mike Fritz, a sales manager at a BMW dealership
in Berkeley, Calif., proudly pointed out that the iDrive had some 700
functions. At the same time, he conceded that most drivers would use only
a small fraction of those functions.
Part of the problem could be generational. Consumers in their teens and
20's seem to have a more instinctive feel for how to conquer complex
gadgetry than their elders. Yet they, too, can grow impatient.
Marc Laitin, 28, a teacher in Washington, said he had no particular
problem figuring out how to operate the various gadgets in his life, but
frustration set in when he was forced to deal with the learning curve
presented by gadgets owned by friends and relatives.
When Mr. Laitin visits his parents in Menlo Park, Calif., he quickly grows
annoyed by the multiple remote controls governing the various
entertainment devices. "You have to hit 15 buttons in sequence on three
different remotes to watch TV," he said.
And when Mr. Laitin's 92-year-old grandfather visits Menlo Park from
Brooklyn, leaving him at home for too long can be a mistake. "It takes 15
minutes to unravel what he does to the TV," Mr. Laitin said. This despite
color-coded dots that the family has put on each of the remote controls.
Alan Cooper, whose consulting firm, Cooper, in Palo Alto, Calif., helps
companies make their technical products easier to use, said the profusion
of digital options often creates what he calls "mode confusion." This
syndrome is known to afflict pilots who become dangerously befuddled by
on-board automation, where a single control or sign could do or mean two
Mr. Cooper, formerly a programmer, recounted having been a passenger one
night recently in the sleek Mercedes that belongs to his wife, Sue. In the
process of seeking the map light, he inadvertently switched on the dome
light overhead, blinding his wife as she drove.
"You have this assortment of controls which somebody really put an
enormous amount of thought and design into making beautifully and
sensually curved," Mr. Cooper said. "But the amount of thought that went
into how they behave is ridiculously amateurish and silly."
Mr. Cooper recently purchased a new $600 Nikon Coolpix 885 digital camera
that came with a 205-page instruction booklet. The camera has some 200
functions, Mr. Cooper said, yet it lacks the ability to rotate an image 90
One challenge, Dr. Tenner said, is in the multiplicity of products,
sometimes with different control conventions, which can receive and
misinterpret others' signals if kept near one another.
"When I point the remote of my Toshiba TV in a certain direction while
ending the mute command, for instance, I also turn on my Cambridge
Soundworks table radio nearby at full volume," Dr. Tenner said. "Yet I've
found nothing on the TV remote that will turn the radio off or make it do
A popular Sony product is its $150 universal remote. "It's supposed to be
programmable for most equipment," Dr. Tenner said. "But even if it is, the
consumer has some work to do before it's fully usable."
Carol Chapman, a writer in Austin, Tex., is often unpleasantly surprised
to find that formerly simple things in her life have suddenly become more
complicated. Ms. Chapman said she and her husband recently bought a small
digitally controlled bathroom HeatSafe space heater, which works on a
"It's like a VCR," she said. "I used to be able to go in the bathroom in
the morning and turn on the heater. But with the new one, which we've lost
the instructions to, there are all these buttons to push, in some
arbitrary, mysterious order." More often than not, Ms. Chapman said, she
gives up and takes a shower in a cold bathroom.
Some consumer electronics companies are noticing some resentment of gadget
complexity, and building products accordingly, in a vein similar to the
re-emergence of single-speed fat-tire bicycles and crock pots, now called
Teac, the Japanese consumer electronics company best known for cassette
decks, carries a "Nostalgia" line of stereo systems, the PT Cruisers of
the audio world. Some of Teac's retro radios feature the curves of the
1930's while others have the chrome-plated grilles of their counterparts
from the 1950's. All have simple knobs for analog tuning, complete with
the static between stations.
Joe D'Angelo, hi-fi group manager for Teac America Inc., called the
Nostalgia products "a rip-roaring, unbelievable success."
"They've touched a nerve," Mr. D'Angelo said, "and it has to do with the
desire to have products that do the things you want them to do without
being overwhelmingly technological."
Some consumers manage to hold onto their old ways in spite of the
complexity built into new products. Eighteen months ago, Dorothy Berson,
who lives in Oakland, Calif., bought a Frigidaire washing machine with at
least a dozen possible permutations on the typical wash cycle. But Ms.
Berson ignores most of the machine's buttons and stubbornly sticks to the
same simple wash-and-rinse cycle she has been using for decades.
"I put all my clothes in and put it to the one setting and that's the end
of it," she said.
Four months after Christmas, meanwhile, Ms. Bowman is still without a
functioning oven, as her husband remains convinced that he can fix it.
"Here we have this modern, shiny oven, and it's just taking up space," she
While she waits, she has turned her attention to the microwave, and has
expanded her repertory of stove-top dishes. The electronic ignition for
the burners gave out months before the oven did, Ms. Bowman said. She
lights them with a match.
"Ray Evans Harrell" <email@example.com>
Learning-org -- Hosted by Rick Karash <Richard@Karash.com> Public Dialog on Learning Organizations -- <http://www.learning-org.com>
"Learning-org" and the format of our message identifiers (LO1234, etc.) are trademarks of Richard Karash.