The other day I was talking about Automagic Shock (Automagically), the sudden realisation that you have no idea how the device you are using actually works. The flip side of this is, in many ways, the situations where we miss the realisation of how making something slightly less complicated might make it better.
I have had much experience, and I’m sure many engineers and software developers are the same, that releasing something that kind of works is very dangerous. Because if you release something before it is ready then it can be the hardest thing in the world to convince people to upgrade to the new thing once you’ve fixed it. This is not the same if the new thing is just the same design but faster or cheaper, in those cases people will happily upgrade. This is specifically in the case where there is a barrier to them getting the new thing.
For example: Consider a toaster. It is very simple but it has problems. What if you want four slices cooking at the same time (then get a four slice toaster), what if you only want to cook two slices once you have a four slice toaster. Or if you have an uneven number of slices. You will no doubt have experienced that if you have only one slice of toast in a toaster then it doesn’t really work as well. Only one side of the toast seems to get cooked. Also we know that when we’re making toast to be buttered, the second slice of toast gets cold while we’re buttering the first slice. The bread is often a different size than the size of the toaster. The bread is often too thin or thick and it’s difficult to quantify before you’ve cooked some what the thickness means in terms of the number on the dial. What about the different needs of different toast eaters – some like lightly brown some burnt. And what about that second set of toast that comes after you’ve already done one set. The first set needs more time than any of the others because you’re heating up the element too.
I’m sure all of these problems and more have been solved in different toasters on the market (I know that there is even a toaster that delays the cooking time of the second slice of toast specifically so that it will finish toasting just after you’ve finished buttering the first one). But the problem is that people in general think that toast is kind of fine. It’s sorted really. And because people want a non-complicated life the maximum complexity that a toaster has is the dial on the front. And maybe the humble toaster doesn’t need to get fixed but if it doesn’t need to be fixed then why do people keep designing a new toaster?
I didn’t know how rubbish my video recorder was until I had a PVR. Once I could simply navigate the television programs and press record and series link I realised how easy the thing was, but before then I always looked down my nose slightly at people who couldn’t program the video recorder because to me it seemed like it was so easy that they weren’t even trying.
If it had been up to me the video recorder technology would have probably stayed the same forever. But now it’s been fixed I love it and realise what an idiot I was being. This problem was solved because real users kept complaining that it was too complicated for long enough. It’s very rare that we should require users to come to us, we should always go to them.
All of those people who are designing new toasters are doing it because as geeks they can see an inefficiency. Something that is broken as far as they are concerned. And it doesn’t matter to them if something gets more complicated, they just want it to work. The video recorder worked for geeks, they understood it, and there wasn’t a single program they couldn’t record. But to most real people the situation was the other way around. The toaster is fine, the video recorder is broken.
So what’s the next thing that’s broken I wonder?