Saturday, October 07, 2006

When Less Is More

I am sick to death of bloatware.

I was trying to explain to a novice user how to use Microsoft Word for creating tables of contents and indexes. To create a table of contents - it's fairly simple - just assign styles to your headings (using the styles "Heading 1", "Heading 2", etc) and then click to generate a table of contents. Easy, right?


If you use styles, there are approximately 15,000 settings you can use to control every single aspect of the paragraph, hot keys, leading, kerning, borders, shading flow control, bullets and numbering, alignment, space before, space after, line spacing, hanging indents, font, size, character spacing, text effects, indents, outline level, line breaks, page breaks, widow control, hypenation, languages, spell checking, dictionaries to use, and about 80 other settings - PER STYLE.

To a novice user - this is... hmmmm... overwhelming at best. To someone that is a professional writer, author or has to format loads of documents in a consistent way - it's really a godsend. To everyone else (98%?) - it's just plain overkill. The "average" user (myself included) will probably use about 5% - 10% of that functionality (on a really complex document). The rest is a waste of programming, documentation and adds un-needed complexity to an already-complex piece of software.

This is why people use Notepad and WordPad. A lot.

I think you can say the same thing about most of the software and hardware you buy today. I bought a cheap digital watch for my son the other day, and there was a 12 PAGE instruction booklet on how to set the date, time and use the chronograph functions. Talk about convoluted! There are only 4 buttons on the damn thing and to get anything done I had to do a virtual ballet of pressing, holding, tapping and pushing to work through all the various settings. I mean it's a damn WATCH for goodness sake!

All those extra features are nice, mind you - but I'm just trying to see what time it is. I'm not programming an Altair!

All this from someone that uses technology for a living. I mean, I'm fairly comfortable with software, hardware, gadgets, etc. and STILL most things are such a hassle, I don't bother with them. God forbid if I ever lose the instructions on how to setup that watch!

Thankfully, there are some pieces of software and hardware in my life that are so easy to use AND useful, that I can't imagine my life without them. They solve a real problem without being cumbersome. They have a function and do one thing really well. They are easy to setup and use, and that makes me want to use them more.

A couple of examples are the iPod, my DVR (Digital Video Recorder), my text editor, and my... gulp... iMac.

Two out of the four are from a single company. Apple.

They "get it" (most of the time). They have pretty, simple, easy-to-use products and the marketing budget to make them "cool." The iPod player is not the most full-featured MP3 player on the market, the iMac still uses a PowerPC chip (until the dual cores start shipping soon) that isn't as fast as the Intel chips in my Dell, iTunes isn't the biggest online music source (or the least expensive). It's all about the simplicity. The attention to detail.

The text editor I use is TextPad. It's like Notepad, but with a spell checker. It has basic text entry, word count, good search/replace features and it's inexpensive. I use it a lot. In fact, most of the time. Like now, writing this Bob's World column.

But if I had to pick a single product that is the one that I use the most - I would have to say it's my Digital Video Recorder (DVR). Gone are the days of clunky programming with a remote, flashing "12:00" timestamps, forgetting to put in a VHS tape or taping over the twin's birthday party with an episode of Lost.

Point, click, record. Choose to record a series with two clicks. Set and forget. Done.

Watch two shows while recording another - check. Block content so if the kids get up early they aren't "accidentally" watching the latest Chris Rock special on HBO? Check. Record movies from HBO that are on in the middle of the night? Check. Browse by show category or title - so I can record a special show while on the road? Check.

Most of the time - I think more features isn't better, it's worse. People are just trying to get their damn work done so they can call it quits and go home. Period. Less is more - especially when it comes to "everyday" hardware and software.

If less is MORE, why don't more companies do it? Two reasons: Easy is hard; and adding 1,000 features has always been the way (in the marketer's mind) to get people to upgrade/switch/buy.

Easy is good because people are less confused. People who are less confused have a better experience with the product and are able to more quickly get something accomplished - which is what they were hoping for when they bought the product in the first place. Engineering "easy" is hard. Executing "easy" on a consistent basis and remaning "flexible" is hard. Making "easy" look good is hard. Convincing engineers not to add complexity while increasing functionality is hard.

Hard but possible.

Hard but necessary.

Customers vote with dollars. When it comes to useability and getting something done - easy is better.

Note to self: May I help to do for software what the iPod did for music.

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