Design for People -- Not

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 1999

It was a conference session on design of products for people.  A questioner from the audience objected that there were different kinds of people.  After all, design for Europeans or Asians wouldn’t be the same as design for Americans, would it?  What kind of people did the panelists have in mind?

The moderator looked down at the audience.  “What I meant was design for people, as opposed to design for, uh, llamas,” he replied disdainfully.

Well, frankly I’ve been wondering whom they design these things for.  This explains it.  I envision a race of intelligent llamas that know how to work all these gadgets that defy human understanding.  Like the infamous Far Side cartoon featuring intelligent cows, I see the brainy llamas prancing about the fields, or whatever it is that llamas do, until the people quit watching.  Then secretively they pull out their VCRs and digital watches that we humans have discarded in disgust, and begin practicing their programming of functions.

For the llamas it’s probably trivial, but for us humans the beginning or ending of daylight savings time constitutes a menace similar to the dire predictions for Y2K.  It is dangerous to be in a car the morning of time change, because the other drivers aren’t watching the road.  Instead, their attention is riveted on the buttons of the instrument panel, trying fruitlessly to discover the devious combination of button pushes that will reset the dashboard clock.  Rental cars, of course, will not be reset for another month or so.

I take great pride in my knowledge of the secret for resetting my car’s clock.  However, I have this digital wristwatch that I rather liked, and the recent conversion to daylight savings time caused its demise.  Oh, I knew how to change the time, and I did this adroitly.  However, I must have inadvertently pushed some mysterious sequence in the process, because the watch began to chime on every hour afterwards.  I hate this.  Of course, I have lost the tissue-thin scrap of paper with the microdot that contains the instructions.  I mean, who keeps these things anyway?

Afterwards I wasted a lot of time trying every possible sequence of pushing buttons, holding them down, simultaneous pushes, etc.  Finally I cast the useless watch in a drawer.  Sometimes in the middle of the night I still hear its muffled chime in the darkness across the room.  Hopefully the battery will soon wear out from all these chimes, and I will no longer be reminded of my ineptitude.  Somewhere the llamas are probably laughing at me.

The other day I decided that I should check the oil in my new car.  I was baffled as to how to raise the hood, and as a last resort, I got out my owner’s manual.  To my great surprise, I discovered that it is possible to read the oil level from within the car electronically.  This is neat.  All that is necessary to do is to turn the car off, wait for the oil to settle, turn the ignition switch two notches to the right, wait five seconds, and then within one second press the odometer reset button twice.  The oil level appears on the message display.  Obvious, isn’t it?  I wonder how many owners of this car know about this?  I can see the llamas grinning now.

The product that somehow epitomizes all this needless complexity is Microsoft Word.  It seems that every meeting I attend someone complains about it, and then everyone shakes their heads in agreement that this is feature-bloat gone amuck.  I don’t mean to pick on Microsoft, should that even be theoretically possible, but this immensely popular product serves as an ikon for the industry.  At one meeting a couple of years ago I heard a presentation by someone with a startup company that had a product that would automatically create a summary of a document.  I thought that was pretty clever myself, but there was a Microsoft employee in the audience who said that this was already a feature in Word.  I was amazed, and I polled the audience as to how many people there knew about this feature of Word.  Of an audience of about a hundred, the Microsoft employee was the sole person who knew about this feature.

I often reflect on this paradox.  While everyone seems to agree that there are too many features, and hence too much complexity, in Word, we all keep buying the latest versions containing more and more obscure features.  None of has any idea what all these features are, and no one reads the manual.  Maybe the llamas do, but not real people.

So I worry: who is responsible for this numbing complexity?  Is it Microsoft with a devious plot to sell progressive upgrades?  Or is it we, demanding more and more features?  Frankly, I don’t know.

In a fantasy designed to answer this question I imagine Microsoft coming out with a series of downgrades to Word, each successive release containing fewer and fewer features.  “Newly downgraded to eliminate grammar-checking!” would be the banner of the advertisements for the latest version.  There would be an accompanying box showing checkmarks for a feature comparison with competing word-processing software.  The reader’s attention would be called to the fact that there were fewer checkmarks on the right side of the box for the “good” Microsoft product, as opposed to the “bad” competing product.

So, the question is whether I would buy the simplified versions.  I’m not sure, but I definitely would pay to have the paperclip feature destroyed (not merely disabled).  “I see you’re trying to write a letter,” it says.  Enough already.  I’m just afraid that the way they are presently going with releases, future versions of the paperclip will become ever more intrusive.  “I see you are trying unsuccessfully to write a humorous essay,” it might say.  What I want to say back to it is unprintable.  I would prefer, short of annihilation, that future versions promise fewer interventions.  “The paperclip will no longer do the following,” begins the appealing advertisement.

Alas, this is only in my dreams.  I know the reality: life will be ever more complex.  Obscurity will reign supreme, and useless features will proliferate.  Somewhere out in the fields the llamas will be gloating -- only when we’re not watching, of course.


Robert W. Lucky