18 December 2006

Design simplicity

There’s an article by Donald Norman that has been stirring up controversy online. Whereas last time I thought he was wrong, this time I think he’s right—mostly.

In general, he’s correct that people don’t buy the simple, well-designed stuff. Instead, they buy the stuff that looks like it has the most features; and they tell what that is by looking at how many settings and controls it has.

Not always, though. The best exception that proves the rule is the now almost ubiquitous iPod.

It’s hard to remember now, but when the iPod was launched most people thought it was a joke. Four plain buttons and a wheel to control it? Where were the up/down/left/right arrow keys? Where was the graphic equalizer? No volume control on the side, what were they thinking?

Even today, people criticize the iPod for lacking an FM receiver. I’m sure if you did market research, it would tell you that everyone wants to be able to listen to FM radio on their MP3 players. Marketing would probably also tell you to add satellite radio, a slot for more memory, multiple cool blue LEDs, and to make it record as well as play.

And you’d end up with something like the Zune, the feature-packed smooth brown turd which Microsoft launched with a splash, only to see it disappear around the U-bend and end up selling worse than the iPod, the Creative Zen Vision, and even various SanDisk MP3 players.

At this point, it seems that the iPod has managed to become so entrenched that people understand that they don’t need all the unnecessary features. If you’d sold them the Zune 3 or 4 years ago, they’d have loved it, but now it’s a different story.

There are a couple of other markets where the same dynamic happens. One is mobile phones. There’s now a big market for phones that don’t do much, but are easy to use. Yes, there are plenty of gadget fans who like a phone with a web browser, MP3 player, camera, movie player, online gaming and so on—but the new trend is simplicity.

The Motorola RAZR is actually an example of the trend, to my mind. Yes, theoretically it’s packed with sophisticated features—but the Motorola interface is so awful you’ll be lucky to find them. I’ve never seen anyone using their RAZR as anything other than a phone, whereas I see lots of people using Sony Ericsson phones as cameras, games, and so on.

The RAZR looks dead simple, it’s thin enough to put in a pocket, and it has good reception. Most people who have one probably don’t know any more about it than that.

But the really big example of where Donald Norman’s “people buy unnecessary features” thesis falls down isn’t phones—it’s hi fi.

Years ago, I noticed something interesting about audio equipment. The cheap stuff would be very simple—a cheap cassette deck would have a record level control, a couple of tape type selectors, the basic transport controls, and a couple of level meters.

Then as you started to go up in price, you’d hit the AIWA tape decks, and the number of controls, switches and sockets would gradually increase. You’d have connections and controls for synchronizing recording with your CD player, fine controls for adjusting tape bias, rewind memory, track search, fluorescent meters, peak level hold, and so on.

Then, as you continued to increase the price, something interesting happened. Suddenly all the controls would start to vanish again as you ascended through Harman Kardon and NAD towards the really high end stuff, or took a detour towards the form-over-function high expense aesthetics of Bang & Olufsen.

So I think it’s inaccurate to say there’s no market for simplicity. There is a market, and if you can reach it, it’s a market prepared to pay higher prices. However, it’s generally not the mass market, iPods excepted.

© mathew 2017