The Obsession with Easy


Being involved with technology may have tainted my opinions for the past 30+ years, but it seems like now more than ever, there’s this push to make thing easier to use… maybe it’s always been this way, but the last few years (perhaps fueled by the iPhone/iPod) it’s been all about making things easier, and I find it slightly annoying.

Matt recently talked about ease of installation explaining that there may be (gasp!) 4 steps involved in installing an application. How does anyone even succeed at such a Herculean task? 4 steps! It’s a wonder we all don’t just stick our heads in the oven and turn on the gas. (There’s probably too many steps involved.)

For people that just want to “use” software, I suppose they do want it easier, I mean, who wants to spend the time to learn something when there’s cat pictures to look at.

My point is, while it’s good to simplify things, and make things easier, you may still need to do some work… and that’s OK. In fact, it’s a good thing, and should be encouraged. I wonder if brain surgeons bitch about “how hard” brain surgery is, and wish that it were easier, and someone would come up with a better way to do it that just required pushing one button or performing less than 5 steps.

I had to learn to use a lawnmower, and a screen press, and how to drive a car, and gift wrap a box (I’m still learning that one) but the point is, you still have to learn things, and if you have to learn how to use an iPhone, or an iPad, or a computer, or any piece of technology, I think that’s fine. Things will advance, but we still have to learn. Compare programming a VCR to programming a DVR. We are making progress, but yes, you still need to learn.

By the way, do schools teach kids how to learn yet?

(See Also: The Dumbing Down)

18 replies on “The Obsession with Easy”

Lets not confuse bad design with an unwillingness to learn. VCRs and Midi routing come to mind both are needlessly complex, confusing and difficult to use. Now lets take iOS my 2 year has learned how to use it.

I don’t mean to confuse the two. I remember learning how to program my first VCR. I was probably 16 at the time and *really* wanted to record stuff, so I worked through the manual, and learned how. I didn’t think it was that difficult, and I don’t think it was poorly designed. But how many people gave up because it was “too hard” to figure out.

Can your 2 year old add new apps, and delete new apps, and configure settings? Or does he just know how to tap and swipe things? Can he reboot a locked-up iOS device? There’s still complexity in things, but I think it gets ignored sometimes.

The VCR were/are poorly designed. Sure I could do it but often found it didn’t work correctly. Problem is you figure out how to use something and the results are hit and miss you tend to stop using that item. Sure when I needed it i got it to work usually.

Application installation complexity: Mac vs PC. Drag and drop vs archaic info spewed at you while pieces of paper fly from one folder to another. Is the complex one better? No. I know exactly where the Mac app is. Now I know there is more the pref and sometimes e stuff but I have easily walked non-tech people through that process then the go on to do it themselves the next time. Better design that removes needless complexity. Find me the dlls.

How many times did I show my mom how to use the VCR? Too many.

iOS. He can use some programs. The concept of adding and deleting app and such is not something that he even has a concept of.

Midi is great example. Now learning the ins and outs of eq and mic placement is crucial to making good recordings. But getting the routing for midi all set up is needlessly complex and temperamental the knowledge is useless save for midi set up.

It is also a matter of interest. How much different is it fixing a car vs a computer. Shit I rip the computer apart and slap it back together. A car? Nope, off to the shop. Why, they are both just parts and figuring out what is wrong.

I obviously can’t say without seeing your actual VCR, but I suspect if I saw it I’d call it bad design. I don’t think that’s a problem because it’s hard, but rather because it’s distracting. And it’s not really a problem that the VCR is distracting so much as everything anymore seems to be a distraction. You hinted at distractions in your reference to cat pictures, but I think you got it all wrong. It’s not that those distractions are preventing us from learning; the distractions are what we’re learning. Rather than learning to farm, we’re learning to play Farmville. I’d put opening a .dmg file on the Farmville side; it’s a distraction, not a useful skill. So I think we should avoid it. You could probably argue opening .dmg files is a skill worth learning, but you didn’t really do that here. Instead, you argued that we should be okay with learning it, regardless of how useful it is, because it’s not that hard. I disagree. We’re learning too many easy, useless skills, not too few.

This brings up an interesting point… I know that things like YouTube has made it easy to share videos, but I see so many poorly done videos that either have terrible sound, or terrible camera work (or both) that are painful to watch. But are they painful to watch because I know how to do it better, or because I feel like people should *learn* how to capture good quality audio, and how to light a scene. I don’t know… I’m just a curmudgeon.

Scott, I do agree that we are learning too many easy, useless skills. As for a .dmg file, I just don’t think it’s that hard. Could it be easier? Yes, but really, is it that hard? It’s like having to open any package you buy. Should I be upset that when I buy a box of cereal I have to actually open it, put the cereal in a bowl and add milk before I can eat it?

Not to steer too far in another direction, but if the promised “app store” makes it all easier, then so be it, but if it takes away freedom, or creates lock-in, I’m against it.

And yes, my VCR was probably poorly designed, but not so much that I gave up. Maybe I just found the reward it offered (programs recorded) worth the amount of effort it took to learn how to use it.

“And yes, my VCR was probably poorly designed, but not so much that I gave up. Maybe I just found the reward it offered (programs recorded) worth the amount of effort it took to learn how to use it.”

This I believe is the the crux of the whole issue. What will you put up with to get a desired result.

Right, you need to put in some effort. I know a professor who gets annoyed by those “universities” that promote the fact that they can “fast-track” your education on nights and weekends, and will be flexible and work with your schedule. Do they diminish the fact that it is hard work to get an education? I’m not suggesting that an education should not be available to everyone, but I can see the point she’s making, that “everyone wants it easy” and perhaps hard work and determination are things we don’t value as much anymore.

perhaps hard work and determination are things we don’t value as much anymore

I don’t think that’s true. It seems to me we never valued hard work, but rather the consequences of hard work, and we value that just as much as we ever did. As David put it: “What will you put up with to get a desired result.” The hard work is what you will put up with, but only for the desired result. If hard work were its own end, we’d walk everywhere (it’s not that hard, but it’s harder than riding or driving), never use restaurants (cooking isn’t that hard, but it’s harder than not cooking), and do any number of small trivial tasks we often avoid because we don’t value the results enough to do the minimal work.

So then the question turns to which results do we value, and I think this is where the real difference is, not in willingness to do work. You say opening a .dmg file isn’t that hard, but it’s enough that you wouldn’t keep doing it if at the end of the process you had nothing. So what do you actually get out of that process that makes it worth the easy work? Obviously you get an installed application, but I think you also get a level of control over your computer, and that’s something you value. The thing is, other people don’t value that control. And as long as they’re not seeing value in the task, it doesn’t matter how easy it is; an easy task that gets you nothing is still a waste of time. I agree it’s a problem most people don’t value that control. But I have no doubt they do plenty of work to get whatever they value instead.

Scott, I’m with you… it’s the result of that hard work that matters. Maybe people don’t see the value in the result. There does need to be a payoff of some sort, and I suppose the value of that payoff is different for different people. I grew up in a very DIY-inspired scene, which probably has a big influence on how I think about things.

I’m willing to do some work to maintain control over things, which is why I host my own web site rather than let someone else do it. For me the payoff (being in control of my data) is worth it to me. But I also think that (in this case) many people just choose the easiest option without thinking about the control part of it, because easy is so appealing. Why muck around with an email server when you can outsource it all to Google? You give up some things, like headaches, but you also give up a little control in the process.

Google email is, for me, a great example of these kinds of tradeoffs, since it has the extreme of something I care about a lot but gave up anyway because the work, while pretty easy, just wasn’t worth the distraction. I avoided moving email to Google for a long time, because the control there seemed very important to me. Pretty much every type of online account I have (Twitter, web hosts, bank, mortgage, even the DNS with which I switch the mail server) can be reset via email, so giving up control of email felt like giving up control of everything.

But despite my strong interest in control of email, over the years I’ve gradually moved every email address I use to Google hosting. I kept the last one on another email server for a couple years, but finally gave it up a few months ago. The reason I gave it up was very simple: SPAM. Both receiving SPAM and risking being an open relay for sending SPAM added up to more trouble than the control was worth to me. Deleting SPAM is incredibly easy, literally just one keystroke. But it adds up really quick and in the end the collective cost of time and worry was greater than even my strong interest in control.

So some random person at Google could pretty easily make my life a mess now, but I also don’t have to worry very much about SPAM. And after thinking about it a lot, I’m okay with that tradeoff. I’m sure you’re right that most people make that kind of decision without thinking about it much at all. But since they come to the same conclusion, I’m not sure all my thinking about it was even a better path.

Spam would probably be my number one complaint about doing my own email… I do get a lot of it, even though I’ve worked hard over the years to prevent it, it can be a losing battle. It perhaps does make sense to outsource email, but I still have not done it for various reasons.

But again, you give up some control. For most of us this may not be a big deal, but what if you’re company was a competitor to Google (and they do so much, that seems fairly possible) would you still use Gmail?

When I think about how the Internet *should* work, it reminds me of this:

Which also gets into some of my concerns about The Cloud™.

(And this is where we get to decide if people are freedom advocates or crackpots.)

I work with pathologists, not brain surgeons, but hells yeah – I’d rather they spent their time discovering new and better ways to treat cancer than trying to figure out how to use technology.

Susan, would you consider that along the lines of “Let people do what they are experts at?” I mean, I’m fine with a doctor doing what they do, or a mechanic doing what they do, and I’m not about to pretend I can do those things… so why are so many people under the impression they they can do *anything* involving computers? As a web developer, nothing makes me more batty than someone saying “Well, my friend|cousin|spouse is good with computers, they can build my web site.” Yeah, because it’s always just that easy. I mean, I’ve got a scalpel, I can probably cut you open and muck around a bit and make you feel better, right?

so why are so many people under the impression they they can do *anything* involving computers?

In my experience, they’re not under that impression at all. People almost universally under-estimate their own abilities when using computers, very rarely over-estimate. The example you gave is of a person thinking someone *else* can do anything with computers, which is very different. If you talk directly to the friend|cousin|spouse, they’ll probably tell you they can’t really do much. But because they can do one thing their friend|cousin|spouse can’t (or more likely thinks they can’t), that person thinks they’re amazing.

Really, you probably *can* cut me open and make me feel better. I’m not willing to take the risk now, but if you spent some time learning and practicing relevant skills, I expect you could become a surgeon I’d hire. My point being: I think viewing expertise as unattainable is a problem beyond technology.

Scott, my example may have been a poor one. I run across people all the time who think that they can do what I do professionally with little to no experience, whether it’s web development, photography, audio/video production, whatever. The tools are cheap and abundant now, so obviously once you have the tools you can just “figure out” how to do something. Maybe people don’t feel that they need to invest the time into really learning about things before they think they can do them.

And this is where my brain gets really confused, because I’ve been a promoter of DIY for over 20 years, and while I believe strongly that people *can* learn to do things, I guess I still feel like there should be respect for people who know a lot more about a subject than you do…

Yeah, there’s a weird contradiction there. I think maybe people don’t value varying skill levels enough on the same activity; we think of it as either you can do something or you can’t. So when we can do something, we talk like we’re just as skilled as professionals. And when we can’t, we talk like it’s completely impossible we’d ever be able to do it.

It’s easy to catch myself doing the same thing. For example, I know very little about design, but I spend enough time around designers to know more than many people, so it’s easy to start thinking I’m much closer to being a designer than I really am. On the other side, I don’t know anything about what astronauts do, so it seems like a completely foreign set of skills, but I could probably get a lot closer than I imagine to gaining those skills.

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