Thursday, October 01, 2009

Simple as a Fridge

A response to Bruce's entry at the Shuttle on A Dad's Point of View that would take up too much space in the comment box.

So from the title here why can't everything be as simple as fridge? Both buying and using any item in this particular case what might be termed 'high' technology. I'll start with something I tell anyone who comes to me for help with their computer, phone, or latest gizmo who then mutters something about why they can't make these things easier - "The more things something can do, the more things that can go wrong with them" to mangle that I can produce the tautology "The more things something can do, the more complex it is".

Now I'm certainly not one to praise the user-interfaces on a lot of devices, but I ask those who come to me to think about what their gizmos do and can do and how they would create an interface. Beyond a magic mind-reading button there's not much of an answer.

The next thing to ponder is why we consider a fridge to be both easy to buy and use. In theory when shopping for one all we're looking for is an enclosed box that'll keep things cold; by that reckoning we should simply buy the first one we see when we go shopping; so why don't we? Because it's more complex than that.

What size is it, how much power does it use, is it just a refrigerator or is it a freezer too, does it make ice-cubes, what are the gasp between the shelves, what's the door shelf like? These are all the equivalent questions that can be asked when buying a computer, phone or whatever; the big difference is that all the questions about the fridge can be physically grasped - I can see how big it is and the shelf spacing, but how big is 3Gb of RAM and is a 160Gb hard drive the right size? Same complexity, but virtual. The answers are the same - it depends on what you want to do with it.

But using a fridge is easy and using a gizmo can be hair-pullingly annoying. Well yes but ask what it is you want the fridge to do, and we're back to complexity again. The most I want out of a fridge is for it to keep things cold and for the door to open when I want it to, my gizmo on the other hand I want to talk to other people, take photos, email them, connect to the internet, type my letters, do my finances, make my videos, and then entertain me with a selection of games.

So not much we can do on the usage front, what about the buying? Well a lot of that is down to terminology, and the trick is to translate the virtual terms into physical ones.

So let's say advice on buying a computer for a novice. The first question is the same as that for the fridge - what do you want to be able to do with it? This is the equivalent point of size, ice-maker etc. and just as turning to a white goods salesman and answering "Well pretty much everything" or "Dunno" is about as useful to me as it is to him.

Next is to turn those virtual terms into physical ones. Hard-drive, that's your filing cabinet, RAM is your desk size, the CPU is you shuffling the paperwork, and the GPU is the wattage of the bulb in your lamp. Just like buying a fridge balance requirements against price.


Dan H said...

About buying computers, I think it doesn't help that so much software tries to dumb everything down. If your computer hides from you how much RAM your programs are using, and how much disk space files and programs take up, you have no way of knowing what you need. Imagine trying to buy a fridge if you didn't know how big a bottle of milk is!

I make sure my computer doesn't hide from me how much of it things use. That way I find it easier to make informed decisions about, say, the min specs of games than the power consumption of fridges, and it means that I find it just as easy to buy a new hard disk and know how large it has to be as I do to buy a bookcase or a box of cereal.

FlipC said...

But isn't the reason that the computer tries to hide so much is because they're trying to make it look simpler? There does seem to be a trend, rather than educate, to dumb down possibly from calls as to "Why is it so complicated?".

After my "this is your desk" analogy the consistent reply has been along the lines of "Well that makes sense" which suggest the dumb-down approach is the wrong tack to take.