Opinion: The ever-present need for simplicity in tech

Bob O'Donnell

Posts: 16   +1
Staff member
Editor's take: As someone who spends his life reading, writing, and talking about technology products, industry trends, and tech companies, I’ve endured my fair share of product user interfaces, marketing messages, and company strategies that are—how can I say this politely—stupendously bad.

Early on, some of this could be at least partially explained by the relative immaturity of the industry, the “newness” of the technology and/or the fact that certain products or solutions were specifically targeted toward a very small, technically 'sophisticated' audience.

But those days are long gone. Now, with technology products and companies getting further embedded into the general population and the overall economy, there’s simply no excuse for the ongoing confusion and lack of clarity around critical technology products and trends that we’re all forced to endure.

I certainly understand that things like cloud computing and all its variants, 5G, and other wireless technologies, smart home-focused developments, digital security, artificial intelligence and machine learning, among many others, are complex and can be difficult to explain (let alone use!). In addition, it’s certainly fair to argue that most people don’t care about the details of how these technologies work. But when a significant portion of people—even those who work in the tech industry—can’t even partially explain what they are, well, that seems like a big problem.

Like many others, throughout the years as I’ve seen or heard these types of marketing messages, used the products, or tried to decipher the strategies, I have often blamed myself when I didn’t really understand what was being said or how something functioned. I figured it was just too complex or challenging a subject to easily understand.

Technology products and services, and the trends that drive them, are simply far too important to our society for them to remain shrouded in mystery.

At this point, however, I realize the problem isn’t with me—it’s with the people who created the message or designed the product or came up with the strategy. Yes, it can be incredibly hard to do, but people who make the extra effort to explain difficult concepts in meaningful ways—like great teachers—can make an extraordinary impact. In fact, I’d argue that they can make an essential difference. People who don’t put in the necessary effort, however, are not only breeding confusion, they are actually contributing to what could prove to be even bigger problems.

Technology products and services, and the trends that drive them, are simply far too important to our society for them to remain shrouded in mystery. Sure, I might not ever fully understand all the details of how a technology works, but if you’re not able to explain—in layman’s terms—the basic principles of what something is, what it does, and why I should care, then you need to go back to the drawing board. To put it bluntly, falling back on complexity is a lazy excuse. As more and more aspects of our lives, both personal and professional, are digitized, it’s not just modestly useful to be able to clarify important tech concepts, it’s absolutely necessary.

A big part of the problem is that most people leave out the context for how a strategy or technology trend, or even a specific product, fits in with other ones. I find that making analogies to better-known concepts or ideas can make a huge difference here, but it takes creative thinking to come up with comparisons that are meaningful.

Even an example that isn’t a perfect match for how something works can still be incredibly useful if it gets the basic gist of an idea across in an easier and simpler way. Too often, people get caught up in the minutiae of technical exactness and, in the process, lose the opportunity to explain a basic, core principle. Also, bear in mind that context setting may only take a sentence or two to explain—but it can make all the difference. Think of it like knowing where a journey starts and ends and not just a detailed description of everything in between.

It’s much worse to presume that people know too much, than that they know too little. Plus, even experts in a field will appreciate a good analogy or clever context setting that helps to better explain concepts they live and breathe every day.

In addition, the number of assumptions and presumptions that get made about what people believe others already know (or should) leads to huge information gaps and misunderstandings as well. While I certainly understand why people want to avoid trying to insult the intelligence of their potential audience, experience has shown me time and time again that the idea of oversimplification is a false narrative. Even among what might seem to be a technically sophisticated audience, the amount of confusion or lack of knowledge that exists on what some believe to be relatively straightforward topics is much higher than most recognize.

Bottom line? It’s much worse to presume that people know too much, than that they know too little. Plus, even experts in a field will appreciate a good analogy or clever context setting that helps to better explain concepts they live and breathe every day.

Similarly, while I fully admit to being someone who actually likes to read owner’s manuals, the operation of most devices and applications shouldn’t require one. If people can’t even get started with a gadget, program, or service without a manual, it’s clearly time to start over again. Yes, good user interface design is incredibly challenging—it’s clearly as much art as science, if not more—but it’s also tremendously important. Unfortunately, from my vantage point, there continues to be significantly more focus placed on functionality than ease of operation these days. As tech devices and services get further ingrained into our increasingly digital lives, this de-emphasis on simplicity has already started to create gaps between people—notably between those who understand and those who don’t—and as time goes on, the problem is likely to get much worse.

There has never been a product that is too easy to use or an explanation that is too easy to understand.

These principles go beyond individual products and applications as well. In fact, you could probably make an argument that the ease-of-use for individual products and services has actually been improving.

The big problem is that we’re all using a lot more of them and in a lot more combinations. In the gaps between all of these products is where the biggest potential issues exist. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way to address these concerns—though better interoperability standards for both hardware and software can clearly help—but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be receiving a great deal of attention.

Planning, building, and marketing tech-related products and services is an incredibly important, but also very challenging task. The topics and concepts they involve can indeed be exceedingly complex. But the goals of simplifying both how things work and how to explain them continue to be incredibly important ones that product designers, strategists, and marketers need to keep at the forefront of their minds.

Remember this: there has never been a product that is too easy to use or an explanation that is too easy to understand.

Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter .

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Uncle Al

Posts: 8,001   +6,775
BRAVO!!! A very real world article that tells it like it is. I have managed dozens of projects for the pharmaceutical industry using various HMI interfaces through a variety of different software's. The single greatest mistake I see and often have to fix is this "desire" to make the software look highly technical by making it far too difficult to use. The operators on the factory floor want something simple enough to use that doesn't put them in a position to have to guess. And how would you know? You go down to the factory and talk to them!!! Invite them to come up and test the software, then give you ALL their comments. That is the single best formula for success ......
 

psycros

Posts: 3,401   +3,896
User interface design has suffered greatly during the recent trend towards "minimalism" (I.e. lazy design) in recent years. Only Apple seems to still care very much about the most fundamental aspect of effective technology, but if you go with their solutions you have to accept whatever limits they place on their ecosystem as well as a huge premium for integrating anything beyond an iPhone.
 

terzaerian

Posts: 795   +1,122
While I can agree that making tech obfuscated and arcane for the sake of making it obfuscated and arcane (I'm looking at you, Linux) isn't a good thing, I distrust equally calls for it to be simplified, because no matter how well-intentioned that call may be, it inevitably comes off of the factory floor as cutting off features in the "long tail" and giving users less control over their own tech and fewer options to configure it.

This is a saga we actually got to see play out with the Opera browser: up to version 12, Opera was a powerful, highly configurable and customizable browser, but after switching the engine over to Chromium, it became little more than just another Chrome clone, even though it was now "simpler" and "didn't require a manual." Thankfully, Opera's original founder pulled together a team to make Vivaldi, which is arguably a better browser now than Opera used to be.
 

rrwards

Posts: 164   +270
BRAVO!!! A very real world article that tells it like it is. I have managed dozens of projects for the pharmaceutical industry using various HMI interfaces through a variety of different software's. The single greatest mistake I see and often have to fix is this "desire" to make the software look highly technical by making it far too difficult to use. The operators on the factory floor want something simple enough to use that doesn't put them in a position to have to guess. And how would you know? You go down to the factory and talk to them!!! Invite them to come up and test the software, then give you ALL their comments. That is the single best formula for success ......

Full agree here. I've got almost a decade of process troubleshooting and auditing experience and it never ceases to amaze me how many clients scoff at the idea of asking their grunt-level factory employees how they'd improve something.
 

Avro Arrow

Posts: 1,137   +1,267
TechSpot Elite
Full agree here. I've got almost a decade of process troubleshooting and auditing experience and it never ceases to amaze me how many clients scoff at the idea of asking their grunt-level factory employees how they'd improve something.
Yeah, they scoff because they're all-too-aware that if it were known just how much MORE that the grunt-level factory employees know than they do, they'd be out of a job. That's why it's called "Head Office", because it's full of rooster-suckers. :D
 

p51d007

Posts: 2,687   +2,023
I've worked on office machines most of my adult life. Every time I go to a new machine school, I always say if you want to beta test something...for functionality and ease of use, put it in a school or hospital.
If they can't tear it up or tell you how to make it easier...no one will.
 

Knot Schure

Posts: 347   +161
I say it all the time, "I'm in IT let me see if I can make this as complicated as possible!

Why?!

Job Security!"

(I've gotten too good at saying it with a straight face, wife say I need to cue that I'm being sarcastic...)

See Ciena's WaveLogic for a perfect example of this.

EDIT: Cisco's IOS and its cli environment would come second.
 
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BobHome

Posts: 96   +44
Don't forget the other end of this spectrum: I don't want to know how it works, I just want to use it!

Being in IT >30 years taught me to minimalize how things, mainly office software, work and just show them the 5-10 things they only want to do.
 

AudoBell

Posts: 15   +7
I say it all the time, "I'm in IT let me see if I can make this as complicated as possible!

Why?!

Job Security!"

(I've gotten too good at saying it with a straight face, wife say I need to cue that I'm being sarcastic...)

Funny but at the same time this reason is behind a lot of the complexity...
 

arrowflash

Posts: 327   +337
While I can agree that making tech obfuscated and arcane for the sake of making it obfuscated and arcane (I'm looking at you, Linux) isn't a good thing, I distrust equally calls for it to be simplified, because no matter how well-intentioned that call may be, it inevitably comes off of the factory floor as cutting off features in the "long tail" and giving users less control over their own tech and fewer options to configure it.

This is a saga we actually got to see play out with the Opera browser: up to version 12, Opera was a powerful, highly configurable and customizable browser, but after switching the engine over to Chromium, it became little more than just another Chrome clone, even though it was now "simpler" and "didn't require a manual." Thankfully, Opera's original founder pulled together a team to make Vivaldi, which is arguably a better browser now than Opera used to be.

Yeah. I'm not sure I resonate with this article and Bob O'Donnell's thoughts. While unnecessarily overcomplicated and arcane software do exist, a much more serious and prevalent issue in software nowadays is catering to the lowest common denominator, oversimplifying things and removing choice and features from power users. Out of these two extremes I'd say arcane and complicated is the lesser evil, assuming the program is that way because it's powerful and rich with features.

As for Vivaldi, I admit I have never tried it, but I have always assumed it to be just another me-too Chromium clone with some extra bells and whistles, exactly like current day Opera. Vivaldi does use the Chromium rendering engine, is compatible with Chrome extensions, and uses Chromium as its browser id - so pardon me if I'm a little skeptical of your praise, but I didn't know it was made by the original Opera browser creator. I think I'll give it a try.
 

terzaerian

Posts: 795   +1,122
As for Vivaldi, I admit I have never tried it, but I have always assumed it to be just another me-too Chromium clone with some extra bells and whistles, exactly like current day Opera. Vivaldi does use the Chromium rendering engine, is compatible with Chrome extensions, and uses Chromium as its browser id - so pardon me if I'm a little skeptical of your praise, but I didn't know it was made by the original Opera browser creator. I think I'll give it a try.
It's unfortunate that Chromium has virtually become the one and only engine in the present day and age, but Vivaldi gives you a lot of options in that engine that nobody else sees fit to give you, if you have the patience to plumb the depths of its settings. I've used it as my primary browser on all my PCs since alpha in 2015 and on my phone the hot second they put out an Android release.

I know Firefox is on a technically different engine but seeing as their CEO and leadership have been preaching how 'even deplatforming isn't enough for thoughtcrime,' I don't trust them at all, and I don't see how their regime won't eventually percolate through to the forks, so I'm going to be bidding that browser farewell.
 

bobc4012

Posts: 136   +53
I agree on how some S/W products intended to be used by an average, non-technical person can be too complex, but more often than not, that can be made easier by recognizing what is the primary function (exclusive of any "bells & whistles") and providing a few basic, easily understood examples of how to achieve it. Later examples can be used to explain the the more complex stuff. Yes, I know, this does not work for everything, but "not everything" isn't intended to be used by the average non-technical worker, which in that case, you are developing the wrong product for the wrong user.

I notice some comments about using browsers built on the Chromium engine. I use PaleMoon, a fork from the older Firefox browser. So far, it hasn't resorted to the Chromium engine. It uses less memory and still supports many of the old Add-ons that Firefox used to support. I was using Opera for a while, but stopped using it when they sold it and it also uses the Chromium engine now. I've tried Vivaldi and many others and most of them seem to rely on the Chromium engine. On occasion, I have also resorted to SeaMonkey, while limited, it comes up fast and allows me to do a few quick things - if it supported a few more Add-ons that I like, I would use it more often.
 

arrowflash

Posts: 327   +337
I know Firefox is on a technically different engine but seeing as their CEO and leadership have been preaching how 'even deplatforming isn't enough for thoughtcrime,' I don't trust them at all, and I don't see how their regime won't eventually percolate through to the forks, so I'm going to be bidding that browser farewell.

Yes, it's sad how far Firefox has fallen in all aspects. I still keep it installed as a second option because of its engine, but it feels more and more insignificant. There's Waterfox, but sadly it's a pretty janky fork - I encountered quite a few glitches, bugs, incompatibilities and even a couple of crashes when I tried it. I wonder if there's a better and more stable Firefox fork.

I notice some comments about using browsers built on the Chromium engine. I use PaleMoon, a fork from the older Firefox browser. So far, it hasn't resorted to the Chromium engine. It uses less memory and still supports many of the old Add-ons that Firefox used to support. I was using Opera for a while, but stopped using it when they sold it and it also uses the Chromium engine now. I've tried Vivaldi and many others and most of them seem to rely on the Chromium engine. On occasion, I have also resorted to SeaMonkey, while limited, it comes up fast and allows me to do a few quick things - if it supported a few more Add-ons that I like, I would use it more often.

I know about Pale Moon, it is a decent browser and I do keep it installed as a second or third option. If I'm not mistaken it uses a custom tweaked, modernized version of classic Firefox's Gecko rendering engine, so it's perhaps the only indie browser that we can say uses its own engine.

One of my main problems with Pale Moon is that I have always disliked the way it renders fonts. It's the main reason I don't use it more and always keep it as a backup option.
 

mrvco

Posts: 122   +117
As someone that is tech literate and has made a career of working for and with technology companies, there is a lot of technology empire building, or 'technology for technology's sake', that goes on now. Whether it be for myself, my family or friends... when they come to me for technical support or recommendations, I spend more time now asking them 'why' they need or want something and suggesting less tech-dependent alternatives or more straight-forward solutions to get the desired outcomes.

This is of course a bit self-serving since going forward I'll of course be the one responsible for supporting whatever I recommend or 'fix' for them, but the reality is, I have another box sitting here full of good ideas headed to the local Good Will or electronics recycler as well as a whole bunch of unused and uninstalled software and apps across multiple platforms that seemed like a great idea when I procured them, but really only ended up increasing complexity and headaches.
 

Wrinkle

Posts: 40   +33
Just throwing some things out there:

I think, as tech professionals, we should admit that technology is advancing at such a high rate that it's nigh on impossible to understand every aspect of (IT-related) technology. To make an analogy, more than a decade ago a company/institution would have had a number of system administrators who would maintain an entire IT ecosystem. Nowadays we have, among others, DevOps, network engineers, cloud engineers and all sorts of "data" people. The way we use technology has drastically changed and expanded and even experts don't understand each other.

Another big issue is that in any field you've got a number of competing technologies that basically deliver the same experience but work quite differently. These distinct technologies are championed by different parties and implementation varies heavily. This complicates things a great deal and available knowledge expands significantly.

My pet peeve is that the entire tech consumer industry couldn't create a standard or implement it correctly if their lives depended on it. It's 2021 and people are still having issues with HDMI-CEC when they're using appliances from different vendors. Meanwhile my "smart appliances" in turn tell me to hook them up to LG ThinQ, Samsung Smartthings, Google Assistant, TPlink Kasa and what have you. It's a mess both technically and regarding privacy.

Edit: I could go on and on about different issues, eg the role of software development and the way it's organised within companies. Or even consumers themselves who will just spout bullshit about any given technology.

My takeaway: technology has become so complex that even tech companies themselves can't understand the bigger picture, let alone explain them to the general public.
 
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BadThad

Posts: 449   +418
HAHAHA...GREAT article!

I've been a scientist in industry for over 33 years - I know all to well what you are saying. I tend to over-simplify my explanations or I'm met with glossed-over eyes. On the positive side, I try to make complex things easier to use for lower level employees. If they can't figure it out, they can't get me results. The greatest tool in the world is worthless if people can't use it.