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Almost since the invention of electricity (circa 1965, as far as I know), there’s been one amazing high tech device that embodies the perfect balance of form and function. It was so simple even a young child could operate it safely, effectively, and consistently. Using precisely measured - kinda - applications of heat and other mysterious forces over time to chemically alter the appearance, texture, and even taste of whatever was put into it, it was so technically advanced that even today it’s capabilities are impressive.

It became ubiquitous throughout American households, to the extent that it helped shape the dietary habits of the whole country. Due to a technical quirk of it’s construction, two slices became the standard breakfast allotment of toast in homes, roadside diners, and even the most elegant eating establishments across the country.

You would think that such an amazing device would require a regular rocket scientist to operate. Harnessing the forces that had the power to alter bread at the molecular level, and balancing those forces so precisely that just the right shade of golden brown was achieved every time would seem to require technical prowess beyond all but the most highly trained and educated professionals.

But in fact, the entire instruction manual is as follows. 1. Put the bread in the top. 2. Push the button (there’s only one). 3. Wait for the bread to come back out and eat it (optionally adding butter or jam to taste). The initial setup of the device had one step: plug it in.

And yet it used all the most advanced technologies that are shaping our world today. It had “electronics”… well, actually a bunch of wires that got hot when the power was turned on. It had advanced mechanical engineering elements… OK, a spring pushed the bread back up when the innards got too hot to hold it back any more. It even had Fuzzy Logic… err, well, the bread wouldn’t be exactly the same shade of golden brown every time, anyway.

I don’t make toast very often. In fact, it’s been so long since I’ve made toast that I’ve only now realized how far the modern world has left me behind sunk into a hopeless pit of gadgetry for gadgetry’s sake, of complex solutions to simple problems, of limitless options applied to straightforward tasks.

I stood facing our new “toaster”. Even the name has become more complex. It’s now a “toaster oven”. There’s no slots in the top - believe me, I looked. Now there’s a door that has to be opened and the toast put in. There’s no big springy lever on the side - again, I searched in vain. Now there’s a pair of dials and a button. It used to be, “Push here for toast. For all other options, you’re SOL. I’m a toaster, dammit, you want toast or dontchya?” Now I have to spin one dial around to either “bake” or “broil”, or “defrost”. Oh, wait, there’s the “toast” setting. Then I have to set a timer.

A #%@O%ing timer!?!? How the hell do I know how long toast takes? I’ve made toast thousands of times, even if not recently, and I still have no idea how long toast takes. It takes until the bread I put in pops back out as toast, that’s how long it takes. Not one second more or less.

And now I have to open the door again to get my toast out. And I have to reach inside the hot “oven” to get it. So now I need a potholder to pull the little shelf out. Now I’m wondering if I’ll have to stop the refrigerator from flashing “12:00” if I want to get at the butter.

OK, behind all this Luddite ranting, there’s a serious point. Modern technology is great. Apparently, our new “toaster oven” has made many of the tasks involved in this mysterious process of “making breakfast” or “making dinner” much easier and more efficient. I wouldn’t know, because Sally mercifully shields me from the deep arcana of these ancient arts, but she swears by the thing.

But there’s a trend in all this technology that needs to be addressed. It is happening in everything from computer software to cars to toasters. The problem is that designers focus on capabilities rather than on interfaces. An interface is basically the control panel, and it’s core function is to hide the complexity of the device it is controlling, to translate the complex commands needed to operate it into simple commands that can be understood by a human being.

That little scroll bar to the right, that you probably had to move to read down this far in my silly little rant? That’s an interface. You’d be simply astounded at the complexity that scrollbar hides. I know, I’ve written code that makes one of those work, and it can be thousands of individual commands to different parts of the operating system and to the computer hardware. Yet the scroll bar is completely intuitive, all you know is that when you “drag” it down, the “window” you’re reading text in moves to reveal the parts that were hidden.

If you had to issue those thousands of commands individually every time you wanted to read the rest of a blog article, you’d never read blogs at all. And that doesn’t even count the hundreds of other interface elements that you’re probably not even aware of that allow these blog articles to be posted, to allow you to find them, that allow a string of ones and zeros to look like text on the little box behind your keyboard.

What I mean is that capabilities are useless without an effective interface. A long list of options is pointless if it’s more trouble to understand how to invoke them than it’s worth to have them available. And an option that is superfluous to the purpose at hand is not an option, it’s an obstacle.

Interfaces are about limiting options. The interface must match the purpose, otherwise the subset of options given will be too large or too small. No matter how you slice it, making toast requires a very small subset of whatever options might be available on the device. In fact, it requires one option: “make toast now”. Before we had the technology to cook a Thanksgiving turkey in a toaster, the interface matched the purpose perfectly because it wasn’t technically feasible, or even possible for it not to.

Cars used to have a simple interface: three pedals, a big wheel for turning, a gearshift, and an on-off switch. One of the landmark technological achievements of the twentieth century was the elimination of one of those interface elements, a reduction in the number of the options available to the driver. The automatic transmission took one of the pedals away.

The beauty of modern technology is that it allows a choice of interfaces. At the time the product is being designed, the manufacturer has many options for creating the interface they want to provide, and they can even provide the user with a choice of interfaces to use for various tasks.

The problem is that now they think that the way to make a product everyone will want is to add to it every capability imaginable, or at least technically achievable, and along with it every possible interface. The choice to do this usually means that the interface will have so many controls on it that any individual task requires the user to select his own subset of interfaces to use. This flies in the face of hiding complexity, in fact it foists a good part of the complexity back onto the user.

Some designers are starting to see this. Now that the novelty of limitless capabilities and options is wearing off, people are deciding that they just want to get some work done, and that time spent ga-ga-ing over some whiz-bang new feature set is time not spent getting work done. Apple is one. Look at the front of an iPod. You want to know why it has been so astoundingly successful? Compare it to the “advanced” control panels of all the other music players that it has left in the dust sales-wise. Hopefully, the future of technology is the quest for interfaces that match function, with no more and no less than is necessary.

So here’s my request for all you toaster-oven designers out there. I want two slots and a big springy lever, with nothing more required to make toast. You can have all the twiddly dials and buttons you want for baking apple pie and achieving nuclear fission on a kitchen countertop, but so long as I can ignore them and just use my “toast” button, we’ll all get along just fine. I can tell you when everything started to go to hell… it was the four slot-toaster. That was just uncalled-for, and you should have known better. Let that be a lesson to you.


Aw hell, I'll buy you a toaster if that's what this is really about.
You chose to buy the more complex device; it needs more complex controls.
I think comparing an Ipod to other mp3 players is the wrong comparison; that would be the equivalent of toaster vs. toaster, not toaster vs. toaster-oven. Compare the Ipod to a MacBook (or whatever they're called; I'm not a Mac owner), they both play Itunes, but the Mac Book will have more complex controls because it it does more than play mp3s.

Posted by RobP at Saturday, February 09, 2008 07:57 PM

Rob, you shouldn't ought to have ducked when you did, the point flew right over your head.

Yes, the Macbook does more than an mp3 player. But it does roughly the same thing as a Dell laptop with Windows on it, yet has different interfaces, both in software and hardware. And it's not just aesthetic. Sure, they both have windows and scrollbars and the like, but in many ways, they have very different kinds of controls. Why is that?

They both sought out human interfaces that they thought provided the best abstraction of the technical complexity. They found different solutions.

The point is that feature complexity does not, and should not lead to interface complexity. More features are good - more controls are generally not, at least not for a given task.

It's true that most users only use 20% of the features of a piece of software, and different users use different 20% subsets. The same concept, with different numbers, applies to other kinds of products as well. The answer is not to only provide 20% of the features, but to provide interfaces that only expose ~20% of the features, and to provide as many interfaces are necessary to satisfy all the users.

My ideal toaster oven would have a single button for toast (and slots on the top if technically feasible - I've seen ones that do have this) for me, and all the controls needed for cooking other food for Sally, presented in a way that we can each ignore the other interface that we don't need.

Posted by kylben at Saturday, February 09, 2008 08:15 PM

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