A Geek's Maze

The controls of electronic devices are a rich lode of confusion and obscurity. In 1990 readers of Design News, an industrial design trade magazine, showered the publication with lists of aggravating consumer products. The most universal complaint was "the myriad of setting techniques for digital clocks, watches and VCRs." There is no better way to experience the complexity of simply trying to turn on and program an electronic device than to spend a couple of hours at A Magnolia Hi-Fi store studying the faces of stereo receivers with Chuck Cleveland, who has been an audio salesman for 20 years. "I think in a lot of cases, less is more," he tells me. "But a lot of manufacturers seem to be so proud of their technology that they feel they've got to bombard you with it." All too true. There is no standard sequence of programming moves, which frustrates even the most technically adept. Two worthy design principles are that a control ought to do just one thing, and that it should provide a visual map of what it does. A volume control, for example, is -- or should be -- a round knob with a marker on it. From our cultural experience with radios, we know that when we twist the knob halfway around, the stereo is operating at about half its maximum power. But if there's no marker on the knob, that visual "map" is gone. If there's not even a knob, just a bar to push and hold down, we have no sense of the power envelope at all. The worst case in Magnolia's showroom is a Pioneer receiver bristling with controls that control other controls -- a two-level process that's as logical as having a single pedal in your car and a switch to designate it as clutch, brake, or accelerator. Press a button labeled GUI MODE and twirl a knob beside it, and a digital readout says: SURR OFF 3ch LOGIC PROLOGIC Press another button labeled SELECT and the same knob gives you: STUDIO SIM SURR ARENA This is a geek's maze if ever there was one, and although I eventually figure it out, I don't need another such device in my collection. My home, like most, is already too full of appliances that require memorizing a process to operate them: assorted watches and clocks, calculators, radios, stereos, TVs, a VCR, microwave, thermostat, alarm, phones, cameras, personal computer, copier, printer, electronic toys, and even a damn ceiling fan. If it ain't broke Great examples of superb design are all around -- probably within reach as you're reading. They have one thing in common: The design of the object directly and thoroughly addresses the use for it. Easily the most common is the classic Gem paper clip, invented in America around 1899 (the exact date and patent holder are disputed). It practically begs to be recycled (I haven't needed a new box in 10 years), cheerfully reconfigures into different tools or playthings, and exudes a purity of form as timeless as a Roman arch. Every attempt to redesign it has failed. In 1934 a New Jersey inventor named Henry Lankenau patented a version in which the round loops at one end were squared off and the other was pointed, like a gothic window. It actually solved a functional problem -- the Gem's occasional tendency to tear paper -- but it looked contrived and self-conscious. For generations the yellow No. 2 wooden pencil seemed enshrined in the same design nirvana as the paper clip; in 1980 an Art News survey found the classic pencil to be among the most revered objects of design professionals. But today's Bic disposable mechanical pencil is an improvement. You don't need an accessory -- a sharpener -- to maintain it. Its sharpness doesn't change as you write. The point can be retracted in a quick, one-handed motion so it can go into a pocket without poking. Aesthetically it is not as clean and elegant as the wooden pencil, but it ages more gracefully: You can't gnaw it. The sea kayak has the purest, sleekest form of any man-made conveyance yet devised -- a needle to thread the water, one or two people growing organically out of it. As Seattle kayak designer Lee Moyer says, "It just looks like it belongs in its environment." That environment is always trying to ambush humans, but if they have adequate skills a kayak will transport them safely up to 20 miles in a day, leaving no pollution, waste, noise, or other environmental disturbance. Unlike a car or a powered boat, the kayak imposes a strict functional discipline on its designer -- and its form remains beautiful and efficient because of it. A Bellevue engineer proposed the unlikely Ricardo Beverly Hills vertical Pullman case as an example of superb design -- and maybe it is. Large, stable wheels and a retractable handle make it easy to trundle around sprawling airports, and an ingenious shifting divider neatly separates the dirties from the shrinking stack of clean clothes inside. I was about to reject it because the fabric looks cheap and thin -- until I realized that a thief would pass on it for the same reason. In the human-designed world, as in nature, survival is the finest virtue of all. Chris Wichterman, a Snoqualmie Pass ambulance driver, was waiting at an accident scene last month while a cop set up road flares to divert traffic. The passing cars kept churning up wind and tipping over the flares, and every few moments the cop would have to walk back to reset them. Wichterman remembers wondering, "Why don't they make them like triangles so they won't blow over?" Lynn Koopmans, a Bellevue nurse, trundled her table lamp to an Eastside Eagle Hardware one recent morning in need of expert help to replace the halogen bulb. "It just had these two prongs, and it looked very simple," she says. "But I'd already broken two replacements at $4 a pop, so I wanted somebody at the store to do it. One girl at the lighting counter tried, and she couldn't. Finally this guy managed. "But then my other lamp, which was identical, burned out, and I took it to a lighting store. They tried and broke another bulb. What was the manufacturer thinking -- that when the bulb burned out, you'd just come to the store and buy another lamp?" Donald Fels, a Fall City artist, had used a Pentax 35mm camera in his work for 20 years. When it finally died, a saleswoman in a photo store talked him into a new Canon Elan II with autofocus and a constellation of "modes" for exposure and creative lighting. He's learned just enough to use it at a minimal level, and has stopped there. "It makes me feel stupid," he admits. "But my real frustration is not that I can't use it adequately, but that I ended up having to spend a lot of money for features I can't use."Why doesn't everything just work the way it's supposed to, simply and logically? Why does a zipper inhale the fabric flap beside it and jam? Why does a bathroom door lock itself by accident? Why does a Coke machine reject a perfectly good dollar and refuse to give up a Coke? Why can't we set an alarm clock or reprogram a phone without instructions? Why doesn't the Help button in a computer application ever give real help? In an ordinary day, you and I encounter and use several hundred ordinary objects, from paper clips to personal computers, zippers to escalators, car stereos to freeway signs. Most of them work adequately most of the time. A few offer sensual pleasure because of their exceptional beauty or excellent functionality. But a lot of ordinary things increasingly aggravate and frustrate us because they are foolishly designed, or because their unnecessary complexity makes them hard to use. It seems as if the trend should be tilting in the other direction, that life ought to be getting better because of the rapidly advancing technology and art of design. And in certain ways it is. A cordless electric screwdriver is a decided improvement over the hand-twisted model, and a basic PC running Microsoft Word will do hundreds of things that a typewriter never dreamed of. But the frustrations are piling up because the number of things we're employing to make life "better" is increasing, and their complexity is outrunning our capacity to digest the instructions. In his book The Design of Everyday Things, psychologist Donald Norman estimated that we're likely to encounter about 20,000 "everyday things." Larry Stapleton, senior director of client services for the Redmond office of Walter Dorwin Teague Associates, a famed industrial design firm, says that we're falling behind technology: Its development curve is steeper than our learning curve. Stapleton feels it personally. He's 35, has a degree in mechanical engineering, and can talk about design issues such as "cognitive ergonomics" with intimate understanding. But he can't program his Motorola cellular phone. Stapleton's certainly no Luddite, and he's not dumb, so what's wrong? Might it be the phone? Yes, it might. The phone, in fact, is the perfect illustration of designed-in difficulties in everyday objects. The more it's asked to do, the more difficult it becomes to use, and the less success industrial designers are having in keeping it simple, trouble-free, and intuitive. Last year I worked in a Seattle office whose phone system had about 40 extensions and a typical phalanx of functions such as call waiting, call forwarding, voice mail, and remote message retrieval. To do anything other than pick up the receiver and say "Hello?" required a seance with the instruction manual, and the instructions were never clear. After wasting 20 minutes trying to program my voice mail I finally gave up, asked the office's alpha nerd to do it for me, and prepared to don the mantle of house doofus. But then I asked around, and discovered that hardly anybody understood the system. Confided one co-worker, "I feel victimized by it." Casting the question afield, I found that few of my acquaintances anywhere understood their office phone systems.In the early modern era of product design -- roughly the 1920s through the '60s -- manufacturers hooked consumers mainly through styling and symbolic manipulation. In the '30s, for example, streamlining captured the public imagination, so radios and toasters became aerodynamic. (Good idea; they performed nicely when thrown at the dog.) Now, in the era of the personal computer, the design paradigm is something Norman calls "creeping featurism." To distinguish itself from the competition, a radio or toaster must now attempt to do more. The result is frequently either confusing or ludicrous. Lee Moyer, a Seattle kayak designer, told me how he recently came to buy a new car stereo with, of all things, a remote control. "I was stupid enough," he says, "to think that if I paid $300 for a stereo it would be better than the $200 model. But all it is, is more controls. All I did was spend money on gimmicks that don't have anything to do with fidelity." But if featurism is creeping up on us, then foresight about how to use those features is screaming to a halt. Manufacturers don't anticipate or don't care about the difficulties that arise in real-world use. For our part, consumers get spending fever and neglect to spool through the mental movie of how all the bells and whistles are going to work. It's much easier to be swept up in a rip tide of promised features -- even if most of them are frivolous or difficult to use. The culture of manufacturing consumer products today focuses on selling them, not on consumers' eventual use of them. For example, I recently rented a Dodge Neon in Los Angeles. While driving on the Santa Monica Freeway, I tried to adjust the stereo. There were no bass and treble controls, but eventually I found a BB-sized button labeled AUD. Pressing it summoned a menu on the radio's miniature liquid-crystal screen, and after several experimental pushes it read BASS. Then what? There were several other buttons on the radio's busy fascia that conceivably controlled the bass level, but I was beginning to realize the folly of fooling with the damn thing at 70 mph on the country's busiest freeway, so I turned it off. My own 1991 Acura Integra is in most respects a well-thought-out car, as Honda products generally are. But one niggling design flaw has always annoyed me because it's so willfully perverse. At night, most of the instrument panel controls are illuminated, as they should be. Just one is not: the thumbwheel that controls the brightness of the instrument panel lighting, the one control you always need to find in the dark. I grope, even after living with the car for six years. Last year I bought a low-tech push mower because I have a minimalist yard and don't need the commotion of an engine. Thoughtfully, the designer mounted the front wheels and plastic grass catcher ahead of the blade, making it impossible to mow up to the edge of a porch or flower bed. I also own a Casablanca ceiling fan. Aesthetically it is a design of unusual beauty; functionally it's a textbook example of how to torture a simple set of operations into a needlessly complex matrix of controls. Instead of a round knob that you can use to turn it on and select one of its five forward and reverse speeds, it has something called an IntelilTouchª panel complete with a memory for my favorite setting and a beeper to indicate the speed I select when I hold down the FAN button. When I get up at 2 am to turn off the fan, it beeps so I will know the command has been accepted, and wakes up my wife. And of course, when the power goes off, it has to be reprogrammed.Yet such oversights could easily be considered best-case scenarios in our rapid-fire demand for new products. Because of the competitive pressures to hustle high-tech products onto the market, a great many things arrive in a state of -- let's be gracious -- half-baked development, a trend exemplified by Microsoft's habit of releasing software replete with a hive of bugs -- and sitting back while the customers wade through the stings. Some items wait to snag the unwary buyer on a Spartan budget: a $12 steel teapot whose lid will fall off when the pouring angle reaches about 70 degrees. A doodad to secure the lid would have cost, what, another 50 cents? But more money doesn't necessarily buy better design: Calphalon's professional-quality pots and pans offer user-unfriendly handles that dig painfully into a cook's palm. Some things make you wonder on which distant planet the designer parked his brain: a $60 Sony clock radio whose digital timepiece is on the front panel, the radio tuning dial on the top, and the tuning knob on the back. An ideal bedside companion for a mutant squid whose eyes reside on the tips of its tentacles, perhaps, but hardly one optimized for human use. The Pilot 5000 electronic notebook is, in theory, a good idea: Scribble notes on it during a brainstorm or meeting, then spill the file into a personal computer to edit it and produce a neatly typed hard copy. But the Pilot's memory is too small to deal with all the variations that human handwriting can throw at it, so the user has to learn a whole new language -- a simplified script -- to communicate with it. "I think we're in a transitional state of technology with things like this right now," says Jim Pridgeon, a Seattle sculptor who nourishes a fascination with technology and its philosophy. To illustrate this idea, Pridgeon and I compare the respective appointment books we've brought to our meeting. In mine, an ordinary datebook, I've scribbled street directions to the day's appointments. In his, a Sharp Wizard electronic organizer, "That much detail would push the limits of the system's capabilities. And it would be so much trouble to enter on this tiny keyboard that I probably wouldn't even try." In another five to ten years, voice-recognition circuitry may allow us to speak notes and directions into a pocket assistant. But for now, the "transitional" technology is more toy than real assistance.So why do we need an electronic organizer at all when pencil and paper will do? Why does a ceiling fan need a memory whose programming sequence I'll have to memorize? The overarching premise of more and more complexity isn't being questioned, and it should be. Our interaction with everyday devices is increasingly designed to give the illusion of more control and higher tech, but at the expense of logic and clarity. We're willing to buy all kinds of things we don't need if the design convinces us that we do. Unless industry continually sprinkles the marketplace with products that appear to provide new and improved experiences -- even if they don't, in reality -- we won't be stimulated to buy them. Raymond Loewy, the path-breaking industrial designer whose credits included the revolutionary Studebaker Avanti, once let the truth slip: Great product design, he wrote in 1945, "consists of a beautiful sales curve shooting upwards." In Loewy's time it was a matter of style; today it is the idea of completeness. We seem to be craving complete control over our environment, and devices that address this, such as a ceiling fan with a memory (and a remote control, preferably), are therefore essential. Carrying a pen and notebook into a meeting marks one with the scarlet C (for Caveperson); packing an electronic assistant is the sign of a forward thinker -- despite the evidence that the pen and notebook are, for the moment, the better-designed objects. Says Pridgeon, "There's a lot of intrinsic stress in our lives that derives from all these programming decisions to make. It's like junk mail: We're just flooded with the stuff." But we bring on the flood ourselves. Moyer, who describes himself as a "recovering Boeing engineer," sees it all the time. The kayaks he now designs are elegantly simple objects whose operating environment, the sea and wind, strictly dictates their form. The sea will not welcome an overly clever kayak. Yet, says Moyer, customers frequently beg him for just that. "The public wants gadgets," he says. "People who've been paddling for a couple of years will come in and ask me, 'What should I add to my boat?' I'll ask them, 'What do you want to fix?' They'll say, 'Well, nothing needs fixing, but what should I have?' My answer, great businessman that I am: On a kayak, you shouldn't have anything you don't need." Consumers crave gimmickry, Moyer believes, because Western culture has come to emphasize being over doing. Design expresses lifestyle, and frequently fictionalizes it. A kayak with an illuminated compass, for example, makes a statement about the boat's owner: "I'm advanced enough to make open-water crossings at night." This is usually a monumental fib. Subaru capitalized smartly on the same impulse when it redesigned its Legacy station wagon into the Outback by raising the car two inches on its suspension and mounting saucer-size driving lights in the front bumper. Consumer Reports points out that nothing has changed functionally except that the taller Outback handles a little sloppier because of its higher center of gravity. But its butch looks hint that its buyers are into backwoods adventure, and it has become Subaru's best-selling car.Image aside, why isn't the wizardry working better? "I think manufacturers are attempting to address intuitive design," says Teague's Larry Stapleton. "But products are evolving so quickly, and the number of functions that can be packed into something has multiplied so rapidly, that designers are continually playing catch-up. Because of the pace of evolution, designers are having difficulty anticipating where the misperceptions about the products are going to occur." Let's explain. The art of designing everyday objects is increasingly about averting mistakes in their use. A personal computer's power switch is located inconveniently on the back so you won't switch it off by accident. A VCR remote's controls are arranged so that you can't press the buttons in an incorrect sequence -- wait, that's the advance that nobody's made yet. A designer should be able to anticipate all the ways that we can misuse an object and make it either illogical or impossible to do so. In olden times -- say, 10 or 20 years ago -- a few dozen prototypes would go out to selected consumers for testing. They would fumble around and uncover the flaws, and the product would return to the lab for tweaking. According to Stapleton, that isn't done much anymore. "Product development has been so speeded up that companies can't afford to product-test in the traditional ways. It simply takes too long, and with the cost committed, there's no turning back once you've reached the prototype stage." What Teague and other design firms frequently now do is called "virtual prototyping." Elaborate images of a product are created on a computer, and focus groups are assembled to react to a video of it. Stapleton insists this not only gives the manufacturer enough information to fix problems, but also allows total redesign at the conceptual stage if the whole premise of the product seems to be misguided. But he also allows that there is still plenty of room for error. "I've been in meetings," says Stapleton, "where we're sitting around a table with the president, the vice president of engineering, and the product manager, and somebody will say something like 'I wonder if this product ought to have an alarm on it to tell you when it's done?' "And somebody'll say, 'Naaah.' It gets zero thought, and the group doesn't appreciate the importance of the decision they just made." But sometimes we can't blame it on the manufacturer. User psychology also squelches proper design -- we refuse to use a good idea. Fernd van Engelen, another Teague designer, has spent years working on cell phones and was aware long before the recent flare of publicity that they're a hazard on the road. Hands-free phones with the microphone and speaker mounted in the car were developed a long time ago, van Engelen says, but they landed in the marketplace with a dull thud. "What we found out was that there's a big psychological barrier to using them. Someone's sitting in the car by himself, talking, and he's very aware of people looking at him." There's a positive side to this coin, though: Devices we use in public have to be simple and logical, or we won't use them -- and this keeps designers under control. We would never tolerate the complexity in an elevator control panel that we do in our stereo and TV remotes because we'd have to look dumb in a small, crowded room, and probably deliver that crowd to the 40th floor instead of the intended 14th. Yet sometimes even the pressure of public performance doesn't discipline designers sufficiently. Pridgeon recalls watching a man hurry toward a glass door in a commercial building -- and run straight through it because he guessed wrong about which way the door would open. There was, he says, a lot of blood. A well-designed door handle gives you a visual cue to grasp it if the door is to open toward you, and to push it with the palm if it opens the other way. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the quirky but profound philosophical epic of the 1970s, Robert Pirsig tried to explain the malfunctions of everyday life in terms of the growing chasm between classical and romantic perceptions of the designed world. The classical view appreciates and understands the underlying form and intrinsic quality of an object; it cherishes rationality above all else. The romantic looks at the surface, the emotional statement it makes. The "classic culture and romantic counterculture," Pirsig wrote in 1974, are "two worlds growingly alienated and hateful toward each other." That alienation has indeed grown in the ensuing years, only now the classical view is the counterculture, the oddity. My counterculture believes that well-designed objects are those that celebrate the essence of whatever it is they are supposed to do; that their form is inevitable rather than contrived; and that simple things, like a ceiling fan, gain nothing from being made to look more complex. A riotous century of technology and marketing has passed since the great American architect Louis Sullivan came up with four simple words to express a universal truth, but nothing has served to change them: Form ever follows function.


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