The mad scientist persona on my Facebook author page (shown above) is somewhat appropriate because, besides being a full-time radical malcontent, my “day job” is an an engineer. A recent article by Thomas Sowell prompted me to respond from an engineer’s perspective.
I’m a great admirer of Mr. Sowell; he’s a brilliant thinker and a great writer. To be a black conservative in this country takes a special kind of courage, and he was on the right before it was fashionable. His recent article, which appeared on January 5th on numerous websites, about the deficiencies in modern product engineering.
In general, I agree with his comments. Many if not most electronic products are over-complicated. In my defense, it’s not just a software problem. Even the labels on an over-the-counter medicine bottles are too complex. The critical information on dosage and frequency is lost in a thousand words of fine-print warnings and disclosures. Why should I have to dig out my reading glasses to find out how long I can go between doses? A similar issue applies to appliance manuals. They’re printed in three to ten languages with at least a dozen pages of warnings that no one but an imbecile should need. I’m not sure it’s due to government or to multi-cultural correctness, but this so-called “internationalization” is the impetus behind the babel of languages and the widespread use of non-textual hieroglyphic’s that Sowell detests so much.
Safety regulations make for some especially idiotic designs. You can’t buy a simple gasoline container any more, there are locks on the caps and baffles in the spout. Environmental rules can be even worse. A few months ago, when Arlys and I bought a new washing machine, we discovered that government “water conservation” regulations had rendered it almost unusable. You’re no longer allowed to choose your own water level. The machine figures that out, adding time to the cycle, and if it screws up, your clothes don’t get clean. We returned the new machine and had our old one repaired.
Though government is, as usual, our biggest nemesis, it’s not our only one. One of my mantras as a software engineer has been that a properly designed interface should be so intuitive that it shouldn’t require one. Sadly, that seldom happens. Creating a good interface costs money, something the folks in accounting don’t always appreciate. Being tangible, the hardware usually gets more attention. Yet it’s a mistake to neglect the software to save a few bucks. Ease of use can make or break a product.
Another temptation for manufacturers is to save design effort by relying on the Internet. Even if the product’s interface is too difficult for the average person to figure out, some 15-year old genius will do it, and publish how-to instructions on You-tube for free. Though streaming video is a powerful tool, I really don’t want to watch a 20-minute video by some pimply faced kid so I can work my toaster. We should save that option for more complicated products, like the cell phones Sowell complains about.
Though corporate stinginess is a problem, it’s also possible to make a bad interface by going overboard on the design. One company that puts a lot of resources into the interface design is Apple, which explains the popularity of its products. At the very least, they’re pretty, but that doesn’t guarantee ease of use. The philosophy of simplicity for its own sake can sacrifice usability. (Why a one-button mouse?) For the product to look slim and elegant in the ad is everything. In particular, the ability to repair, maintain or upgrade Apple devices (consider the I-Phone’s non-removable battery) goes out the window.
By the way, I share Sowell’s frustration with needlessly complex cell phone interfaces. Perhaps if the author gig doesn’t work out I’ll create my own Android distribution, and it will actually make sense. Any suggestions?