Complexity is a sign of progress, but keep devices simple

Thomas R. Temin

From a user's standpoint, computing and communications should be getting more powerful and simpler. Power is on the rise, but unfortunately, so is complexity.

Simplifying computing tasks shouldn't be mistaken for making computing somehow less complex.

It's axiomatic that the more labor-saving a device is, the more internally complex it is. Think broom vs. vacuum cleaner. A Model T Ford was a far simpler machine than the average runabout today, but which is easier to use?

Think about it

It's been said that one sign of a mature mind is the ability to handle complexity. That's true enough. The question is, what type of complexity do you want to spend your brainpower on?

Recently I bought a Sony videocassette recorder. Remember the early VCRs that could be programmed to record only one TV show up to 24 hours in advance? Primitive by today's standards, but, boy, were they easy to use. My new one practically stands up and whistles Dixie, but I have neither the time nor the patience to plow through its thick user's manual to figure out why there's a blinking red circle on the panel.

Of course I could master this machine, but its complexity, reinforced by the ridiculous array of decidedly unergonomic buttons on its remote control, irritates me. The machine is a marvel of engineering but also of operational opacity.

All too often, the functionality of new commercial or custom software comes with added complexity.

People will always need training, but let's face it: Too much rigmarole for users is the result of sloppy or nonexistent usability testing, poor documentation and just plain bad design.

Another form of complexity that irritates users is the multiplicity of communications devices people need to get through a day in the office or on the road. People carry pagers, wireless phones, notebook computers and personal digital assistants.

No one would give up the functionality of any of these devices, but wouldn't it be nice to have them bundled into one easy-to-use unit?

To some degree that is happening, as our story on Web-enabled phones on Page 27 of this issue of GCN/Shopper points out.

Wireless telecommunications, PDAs and computers move data to and from your briefcase via entirely dissimilar technologies.

Each uses different protocols developed independently.

Let's talk about it

But now, these segments of the communications industry are starting to talk to one another.

People love cell phones and PDAs, in part because they're so easy to use. Let's hope that in combining them, manufacturers don't create a synergy of complexity that takes away their appeal.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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