Machines Don’t Get Simpler

The UI designer’s hardest task is to create an interface that is at once simple and powerful, which says “come play with me” to the beginner while offering maximum power to the sophisticated.

Here’s an object lesson: I’ve had the same little microwave oven for a decade. It has exactly one control — a dial for cook time. You close the door and turn the dial to the time you want. You don’t even press start.

The dial is trivially easy to use because it represents time with rotational distance. It’s based on an analog, organic, functional metaphor, which a child could learn in a few seconds.

This microwave died recently and I replaced it with its modern equivalent, from the same manufacturer. The guts seem to be the same. But the control panel now features a total of nineteen buttons, four of which serve multiple functions. It is impossible to use this thing without referencing the manual, which I now have to keep handy.

Does it do more? Yes and no. The old one didn’t allow you to set a power level. That was okay with me because it was only used to heat things up and didn’t have much power anyway. But mainly, what all those buttons do is make the thing look cool.

For example, there’s now a dedicated “popcorn” button. But it doesn’t change much. With either microwave, you’ll initially have to do a bit of experimentation to find the right setting for your brand. With the old oven that setting was a number — how many minutes you want to cook. With the new one, it’s also a number — how many times you hit the popcorn button! But you’ll have to remember that every additional punch of the button reduces cooking time rather than adding to it.

For me, the new oven is not much more capable, but far more complicated, than the old. Maybe that’s a principle of UI design — complexity accretes like barnacles and doesn’t go away until you blow everything up and start over.

We just don’t spend money on simplicity. We spend it on the impression of power and complexity. We want to know that our tiny little microwave can make a souffle, even if all we ever do with it is heat up leftovers.

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One Comment on “Machines Don’t Get Simpler”

  1. Drive66 Says:

    It reminds me of my Dad and our TV remote. Our first remote was for a Zenith and it had 4 buttons. My dad always complained that that was the best remote he ever had and he hated getting a new TV because he had to figure out a new one.


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