By Terry Sullivan
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: Uncomplicated Technology, and Why It’s Always Worth Your Money
My daughter Liz loves gadgets. She even recently reviewed one: the WobbleWorks 3Doodler Create+, a device that’s part pen, part 3-D printer. (Here she is giving a demo of it.) What struck me most is because it’s designed as a toy, it slips past our notice as a “gadget.” Yet it most certainly is, letting you create objects in the same manner (and using many of the same materials) as a regular, complicated 3-D printer. As my daughter said, it’s “3-D printing in real time.” But the pen is fun to use and a great example of “uncomplicated” tech. There’s no byzantine software to learn. In fact, you don’t need a computer to use it, and you can get up-and-running quickly. In many ways, it’s a model of how all consumer technology should be, and what sets the tech that stands the test of time from the gear that’s forgotten in a year or two: It’s uncomplicated.
What “Uncomplicated Technology” Looks Like
It reminded me of two other products: First, Pure Digital’s point-and-shoot video camcorder, the Flip pocket cam, which was reviewed in The Times in 2008. I nearly refused to review it then because, as I told my editor, it was too simplistic and couldn’t compete with full-size camcorders. But when I did test it, I was impressed, at least with how easy it was to use. I wrote back then, “Just press the red button to start and stop recording. Delete what you don’t want. Play back what you want to review. What could be simpler?” I remember a good friend looking at the back of the Flip and saying, “Oh, just press the big red button to record, right?” That’s intuitive design. The second product is Apple’s GarageBand, a music creation mobile app for the iPad and iPhone. Before it came out, I’d been working hard to learn full-featured but poorly designed digital audio workstation software programs on my PC, and I was incredibly frustrated. I’d spend months to master a technique, only to lose heart and give up. When Apple introduced GarageBand, I produced a full song, start to finish, in hours instead of weeks or months. In particular I admired how, in the iPad version, when you tap a question mark icon, precise text descriptions appear all over the screen, annotating key features. As an amateur musician, tips and help guides like this are essential to the user experience.
Simpler and Easier-to-Use Tech Wins Every Time
But oftentimes consumer technology is just the opposite: It’s too complicated. I asked Jeffrey Zeldman, a web designer, author and entrepreneur, why this is the case. In part, he explained, it’s because tech has a legacy of being complicated. “When I started in web design, computers were for nerds, and people took pride in how difficult everything was,” Mr. Zeldman said. Those in technology in the late 1980s and early 1990s were familiar with the following scenario: An engineer makes a product, and then adds features that a manager said their customers wanted. It worked, but it was almost impossible to figure it out intuitively. In other words, “Nobody was really thinking about what the consumer needs,” Mr. Zeldman said. But Mr. Zeldman said that in the past 20 years, there has been a shift. The products that have been most successful, particularly digital products and services, “haven’t been the most advanced, sophisticated or beautiful, necessarily,” he explained, “but they were the ones that understood what consumers wanted to do and enabled them to do it.” This is what made Amazon, Google and Apple so powerful. This notion can also be used to discover why products fail. Take Microsoft’s misstep in redesigning the Windows 8 operating system: The move was almost universally panned for removing the hallmark “Start” button users had come to rely on. The new “Metro” tiled interface was certainly sophisticated and attractive, reflected how the market was changing, and incorporated mobile-friendly design elements. But it misunderstood what consumers wanted — namely a consistent starting point.
How to Identify Tech That’s Worth Using, or Will Last
The key to determining whether some new piece of technology, whether it’s a gadget, app or website, will work for you — and better yet, stand the test of time — is how uncomplicated it is, and how easy it is to do what the product is designed to do. Here are a few factors to help you evaluate before you sign up, or spend your money.
Look for simple, clear designs.
Before you buy something, it should be pretty obvious what it does and, generally, how it works. “When a consumer is frustrated on a website,” Mr. Zeldman said, “that means a designer didn’t do their job.” Which means designers don’t always do a good job. It’s not your fault. Product designs should make your experience simple and clear. This can be expanded to any tech product, from desktop computers and TVs to wearable fitness trackers and apps. If you’re looking to buy a wireless speaker but the controls aren’t clearly labeled and it’s complicated to pair with your mobile device, then consider another — there are many to choose from.
Avoid devices or services that confuse you.
Inkjet printers have some impressive features, but the ink cartridges they require infuriate me because it’s as if they’ve been intentionally designed to confuse you. Over the years, most printers I’ve owned will indicate that a cartridge will need to be replaced, even though I can still print pages of text. The settings offer no truly accurate measurement of how much ink is left, even though I can print many pages. That means if I throw my ink cartridge out too early, I’m essentially throwing money away. That’s just poor, confusing product design — or, even worse, purposely vague product design to get you to needlessly spend money.
Be self-aware of how you learn about and use technology.
For most things, you may only need a very simple product or app. Those who may want more sophistication will have to spend time finding a full-featured alternative. “If there’s a learning curve,” Mr. Zeldman said, “does it teach you a new way to think about that subject and make you better at what you do?” If so, that product might be worth it. If you buy a high-end camera, you can learn how to shoot a vast array of creative photos. But if you’re just shooting simple selfies, you might be wasting your money.
Read reviews, then try it out.
“If I’m downloading an app from Apple’s app store, I read the reviews first. I study the screenshots there, since they’re representative of the app,” Mr. Zeldman said. “Maybe I’m interested in downloading a photo app, but if the filters are ugly in the screenshot, I know it’s not for me.” It’s also O.K. to stop using a cheap or inexpensive app after you’ve downloaded it. “One of the great things about apps is that you can also try out a limited-feature version (only certain elements of the app are turned on), and see if it works for you before you decide to pay for the full product,” Mr. Zeldman said. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to try out hardware like a camera or speaker. See if you can borrow a friend’s device to try it out. Or try renting one. With a large item, like a TV, visit a friend who has bought the same (or similar) product and see how it works.
Read the product’s manual or help guides.
As a teacher, I find this to be a valuable gauge of how much the company really cares. A stand-alone scanner I once bought had a manual that stopped midway through the instructions — not surprisingly, I rarely used that scanner. Conversely, a digital camera I once reviewed had a number of simple, well-illustrated tip sections built right into the camera menu, which were invaluable to a novice and even helpful for experienced shooters.
Don’t be afraid to walk away or return your product.
Obviously, this is easier if you’re not out a lot of money. “If an app isn’t helping me,” Mr. Zeldman said, “I just wipe it off my phone and don’t give it another thought.” The reviews might be good and it might be well regarded, but don’t bother with it if it doesn’t suit your needs. As for pricey gadgets, you’ll want to do research beforehand. However, the same philosophy applies: After you’ve done your research, if the product in question doesn’t suit your needs or budget, walk away. Return it or, better yet, sell it.
Stay up-to-date on technology that’s important to you.
If you’re looking for tech that’s uncomplicated, you can’t really make an assessment if you don’t know what’s available or what’s changed. If you were looking for a high-end camera 10 years ago, the best viewfinders were through-the-lens viewfinders found on digital single-lens reflex cameras. At the time, electronic viewfinders were mediocre, grainy and inferior. Today’s electronic viewfinders, though are just about as clear and sharp.