Silencing the Bells and Whistles

In a recent post at the paidContent blog, Tom Weber praises Amazon’s Kindle because it lets him return to ‘unitasking’ —  doing one thing at a time, in this case reading books, newspapers, and magazines. He writes that “Scrolling through an online newspaper or magazine can be like strolling down a state-fair midway, with dozens of options bleating for attention,” and he’s willing to pay for fewer options: “…I’ve been routinely purchasing some of these publications [on the Kindle] when I could have grabbed my laptop and read them for free on the web. In effect, I’m paying for the lack of distraction.”

Weber is highlighting how much value he gets from from using a technology that offers him fewer choices, not more. As I’ve written before, a lot of my favorite technologies have this characteristic: they present simplicity to me instead of complexity, and a small set of features instead of a large one. The iPod, Gmail, Delicious (or, as it was then known,, the Kindle and Twitter each seemed pretty straightforward to me when I started using them, and I think I kept using them in large part because of that simplicity.

Most technology developers don’t want to build swiss army knives —  products that do everything for everyone. Instead, they want to satisfy fairly tightly defined needs; they want to offer a music player, or webmail, or a book reader. So it can seem strange that we don’t come across more obviously simple products. Yet complexity, in the form of large feature sets and jam-packed user interfaces, still reigns in devices, applications, and sites.

I can think of at least three reasons why complexity in technology products is the status quo. First, technologies are not developed by normal people; they’re developed by technologists. And at the risk of oversimplifying and engaging in occupational profiling, geeks like complexity. They like the challenge of fitting a lot into a little, and they also like using the end products they and their peers at other companies come up with. It’s fun for them to learn about bells and whistles, or to master an opaque user interface (in their saddest delusion, they hope that others will find sexy their advanced tool-use abilities).

Relatively few geeks can put themselves in the shoes of a neophyte, and we really shouldn’t expect them to be able to. Very few people are able to step outside their own frames of reference and see with other eyes (in this BusinessWeek article, Google CEO Eric Schmidt talks about how important this ability is). This difficulty helps explain why tech companies have for a while now been hiring anthropologists, who are trained to observe the activities and interactions of culturally distant others and draw inferences from them.

“High tech anthropology” really started proving its value around 1981, when Xerox was trying to figure out why one of its new copiers was perceived as overly complex. Company managers blamed unsophisticated users (for neither the first nor the last time) and proposed adding more complexity to the machine in the form of a video display terminal. Berkeley graduate student Lucy Suchman managed to get one of the copiers installed at her university, and videotaped some people as they walked up to it and had a hard time figuring out how to run off a few copies. Legend has it that when they saw the tape, Xerox engineers dismissed these folk as too dumb to bother with; Suchman then identified them as a couple of the world’s foremost computer scientists. Legend further has it that this incident led to the single green ‘copy’ button that’s now standard on all Xerox copiers.

The second reason that technology products are typically so complex is that the minimum required functionality —  the smallest possible set of things that the product must do in order to be effective and popular — still seems quite large. The distinction between frivolous bells and whistles and absolutely required capabilities is not always clear up front, especially because of a very understandable tendency to conflate ‘requirements’ with ‘expectations’ and with ‘what other similar products already have.’ Email clients need folders, portable digital music players need song search capability, and PDAs need menus, don’t they? Sure they do, I thought, until the original versions of Gmail, the iPod, and the iPhone showed me that they don’t. It seems that a large part of the art of being a good technology designer is looking with fresh eyes at the idea of required functionality and being willing to leave some ‘required’ stuff out.

The third reason I can identify for tech product complexity is the hardest to address, because it seems to be rooted deep in our wiring as humans. It’s the fact that we think we like choice more than we actually do. Many people have commented on what social scientist Barry Schwartz has termed “The Paradox of Choice:” the mutually incompatible truths that we like having lots of alternatives, and yet we don’t. We crave choice while finding it paralyzing, and even disheartening.

The most powerful demonstration of this I’ve come across is a series of experiments conducted by the psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper and written up in their paper “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” I encourage you to read it (pdf here); it’s clearly written, and describes some fantastic work. Their most amazing experiment was one in which they offered one set of subjects a choice among 30 Godiva chocolates and a second set a choice among 6 of the same treats. Before choosing, after choosing, and after tasting they asked all subjects a bunch of questions.

People facing 30 chocolates reported that the process of choosing was more difficult and frustrating than did the people facing only 6. However, the people with 30 possibilities also reported that they enjoyed the decision-making process more. This finding confirms the widespread belief that we like having lots of options, even though we can find them a bit overwhelming. The punchline of the study, though, is that the people who were given fewer choices were more satisfied after they got to eat the chocolate they picked (Iyengar and Lepper took care to eliminate the possibility that this difference could have been due to the fact that all the really nasty chocolates were in the 30-choice set, but not in the 6-choice one.).

I find this study to have profound implications and a clear prescription: If we can somehow convince our target users and customers to turn away from their fondness for a proliferation of choices, we’ll leave them better off and more satisfied. But this convincing is far from easy because it runs counter to our hardwired preference for more.

Word of mouth seems particularly powerful for getting us to embrace simplicity (“You’re not using You gotta try it!” “I LOVE MY iPOD!”), as does trust in a technology provider’s brand / reputation (“I trust Google for search, so I’ll give Gmail a try.”). What else works? How have you seen technology companies (or, indeed, any companies) convince people to walk away from the complexity they desire and pick up a more limited alterntative?” Leave a comment, please, and let us know what you’ve observed.

A future post will expand on this topic and discuss how smart technologists start simple, then expand into greater complexity over time.