Monday, August 13, 2007

What is simple???

Read an essay "Simplicity is Highly Overrated" ( simplicity_is_highly.html) by Norman and penned down my thoughts. Would like to know your thoughts as well

Norman writes: "Make it simple and people won’t buy. Given a choice, they will take the item that does more. Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity."

Is this true of the iPod? The iMac?

Going way back, Apple/Mac users have been willing to pay more for simplicity and elegance. Before the iPod, Mac users were a relatively small, niche community with unusual brand loyalty. But the simplicity/elegance /design approach has caught on in a much bigger way with the iPod.

Norman opens up an interesting debate, but he has mostly passed over thorny issues such as: design values across cultures (say, Korea vs. U.S. vs. Scandinavia) ; and whether consumers in fact don't use the features that initially attract them (it sounds like that's what Don Norman believes).

I believe Norman is mixing complexity with features. More features don’t mean complex designs. Designs can be simple even for a product with numerous features. They do not need to be intimidating to the users. Elegance and aesthetics do not mean fewer features.

Features and functionalities could be either placed on the skin or could be embedded in the product using the graphical interface. If a designer wished, he could embed all the features in the soft graphical interface instead of physical interface (on product’s skin) but this would make the interaction very frustrating for the user. The decision on how many feature to be made physically available and how many virtually is very critical to the product’s success. Some of the deciding factors that I could think of are:

- Criticality
- Frequency of Usage
- Ease of Usage
- Context of Usage

Criticality: Critical features such as “emergency stop”, “on”, “off”, etc. need to be easily accessible and should be made available on the surface of the product. Embedding them into virtual interface is not certainly a good idea. An example could be a digital SLR where all the features are made available physically for quick access. Mining for a feature in a digital SLR would result in losing a great shot. Similar example is the easy access camera button for mobiles for the same reason. Imagine designing a trigger of a gun using a virtual interface. Sounds stupid? Right, because it is a highly critical feature of the product. In such cases even if the product looks intimidating designers cannot embed the features in virtual interface because these features are critical.

Frequency of Usage: If a feature or function is to be used frequently, it is better to bring it to the top or make it a default. It is advantageous to give such features some physical form for easy access and manipulation. For e.g. when you roll over your finger on ipod it decreases or increases the volume by default because it is the frequently used feature and hence pushed up the feature list. Another example is the scroll wheel of blackberry to scroll through the inbox and mails. Since the primary feature of blackberry is to provide quick access to mails for executives on the move who keep getting hundreds mails a day – checking and replying to messages – imagine their life without the scroll wheel. The reason is the frequency of usage of the feature.

Ease of Usage: Some feature controls are easier to use in one form than the other. What is easier – scrolling down with stylus or a wheel? What if we replaced scroll wheel by a physical slider in a phone. Sony P990i has stylus and virtual scroll bar which is touch sensitive but I use physical scroll-wheel because of the ease of use. Same logic applies to volume control, using the wheel which is easier to hold and control. I have seen my friends with touch sensitive phones to make use of physical keypad and avoiding the virtual one until really needed. I think the reason for this is again the ease of use and haptic response which makes the user comfortable. Similarly, most of the laptops have volume control buttons made available upfront on the keyboard though it is neither a critical feature nor a very high frequency task in most of the cases.

Context of Usage: Products used in situations which demand quick action by the user have to have most of the features designed in physical form (even intimidating) . Products which we use for leisure can be made aesthetically appealing by embedding the functionality in the virtual interface of the product because the user has all the time to mine in for the features.

Underwater diving equipments or devices for astronauts should have large buttons to take care of the heavy gloves and cumbersome clothing. Also the access to the features cannot be buried inside the interface. It should be made readily available to the users.

Based on the factors described above I guess designers can segregate the features which they want to embed physically or virtually in the product. A right balance of both is a definite success of the product. It is not just about more features that prompt the user to buy in; it has other parameters as well.

1 comment:

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