Getting your bagels in a muddle

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Every day we interact with dozens of objects. We turn handles, push buttons, swipe screens.

Most of these interactions happen with little or no thought. Driving seems so natural we can find ourselves at the end of familiar routes with little memory of how we got there. Our fingers find the keys to type instinctively. We change channels without looking. We open apps with muscle memory.

But now and again we encounter things that are not so intuitive. And it drives us crazy. For a few years I stayed in hotels every week as I travelled for business. They all seemed to have a different method for setting the room temperature or operating the shower.

I just wanted to turn a dial and be done with it. Instead I was presented with complex touch interfaces and indecipherable icons.

The same issue is creeping into our homes. Washing machines and microwaves come packed with buttons we never use and do not understand. Televisions have menus for menus.

A friend of mine has a car with a habit of interrupting his home phone calls by automatically connecting to bluetooth when parked outside.

We are partially responsible for these failures of design because many of us are in the habit of evaluating our purchases based on how much an item can do, rather than how well it can do it. When faced with two similarly priced toasters we are swayed by the one that can also defrost bagels.

But we should resist, because more features for the same price usually means the makers lacked focus.

It means quantity over quality. It means scorched bread and burnt bagels.

Apple famously built their reputation on offering an alternative to this.

“It just works,” was Steve Jobs famous mantra as he introduced another beautiful product made with simplicity in mind.

But simplicity requires constant vigilance, or complexity soon seeps back in.

The team in our office have found the latest Apple MacBooks come complete with a novelty Touch Bar and an endless appetite for dongles.

But at least they do not defrost bagels.

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design