Thursday, December 23, 2004


John Maeda of the MIT Media Lab is studying SIMPLICITY
"In regards to how complex gadgets are today
such that we find ourselves fiddling with objects
that even an MIT engineer can't operate."
He also has a blog: Maeda's SIMPLICITY.

We just bought what used to be called a clock radio—only now it also plays CD's. It has the standard anti-simplicity problems: poorly written manual (why should it need a manual at all?!), tiny buttons, confusing or uninformative labels on the buttons, buttons that you have to hold down while pressing other buttons, buttons that you have to press within a certain amount of time after pressing two other buttons simultaneously, etc.

But the real problem is not the manual dexterity required. The real problem is that you get no help in understanding the conceptual model you are manipulating. Imagine having to drive a car and being told the angle (in degrees or perhaps in radians) that you should turn the steering wheel. I think it was Karl Polanyi who talked about how a blind man senses the world around him through his cane. I can't find a reference; Google has failed me.) He doesn't think about how the cane touches various areas of his hand. He uses the cane to touch the world with its tip.

Device makers should understand that users don't want to manipulate buttons; we want to make something happen in terms of a conceptual model we understand about the device. The buttons are just the stick in our hands that allow us to have the real effect we want.

The first task in designing a simple interface is to design the conceptual model you want the user to understand. The second step is to communicate that model to the user. Only then do you want to tell the user about the buttons that are available to help him control the (simple) model that he should by now understand.

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