Taming your tech
The simple approach to taking the bite out of unfriendly devices
Before you throw that PC out the window, Kent Norman suggests you find an old keyboard, take it into the backyard, and happily whack away. He prefers a heavy ax, but a sledgehammer will do. "We're buffeted with technology stress like never before, from the time we try to silence the alarm clock in the morning to when we struggle to set it at night," says the cognitive psychologist at the University of Maryland. It's best to vent, Norman counsels.
More and more, it seems, the same tech tools we depend on to get through the day are often the source of our frustrations. Gadgets have gotten better: They do more, are smaller, and cost less. But they don't work quite the way we want them too, do they? Text-messaging and camera-phone features that obscure access to your voice mail. Camcorder batteries that die in the middle of your sister's wedding. The sick PC that sends copies of its virus to everyone in your E-mail address book.
But there is reason for renewed hope. More companies are discovering that one key to reining in unruly tech is simplicity itself; that is, less is actually more. A few years ago, it seemed only a sprinkling of companies offered products that in their design emphasized ease of use and dependability over frilly, rarely used features. Now analysts report that whole industries--among them cellphones, consumer electronics, and, yes, even computers--seem to be shifting back to basics, with a few companies taking the lead. The downside to this switch for now is that simplicity and reliability oddly enough tend to cost extra. An Apple Macintosh, widely considered user-friendly, costs at least several hundred dollars more than a Windows-based PC. Verizon Wireless, rated by many the most reliable cellphone service, generally costs more than Sprint, Cingular, or T-Mobile. But that effective surcharge could fade if brand loyalty surges for companies that prioritize efficient, friendly design.
The myth. So how did we go from the days of small, color TV s and bricklike mobile phones to high-definition home theaters and smart phones that are too clever by half? The blame for the personal tech mess goes both ways. Companies are eager to crank out new products with new features. It's a quick way to get attention, distancing a product from competitors and dusting upstarts in a cutthroat arena. Shoppers, meanwhile, are routinely seduced by the new bells and whistles. Consumer electronics tend to be among the more expensive purchases people make during the year, so why not get the gizmo that does more? "We're all trapped in an economic myth that more is better," says John Maeda, a media arts and sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Then you get that digital camcorder home and realize the built-in still camera you paid extra for doesn't take good pictures, says Abrasha Staszewski, a San Francisco jewelry artist. His Sony videocam also comes with editing features that are too awkward to be practical. "It's like we're all learning to live with a limp," says Staszewski. "You feel like you're paying for all these things that you don't use." Or can't use because they're misbehaving. Haddon Fisher's Motorola phone locks up a couple of times a day, says the Syracuse University sophomore. He has also had to put up with a PC that would spontaneously reboot while he slept or attended class. "You learn to live with a certain level of pain," he says. Such vexations, repeated across the country, have eroded confidence in tech manufacturers. A recent survey conducted for Royal Philips Electronics found that two thirds of American consumers have lost interest in a tech product because it looks too complex--and half think the manufacturers are just guessing at what will sell, rather than listening to their customers.
That level of frustration can't be good for sales, says Andrea Ragnetti, Philips's chief marketing officer. "People are more and more critical when it comes to technology," he acknowledges. But fixing the problem is difficult and will take time. Take, for example, remote controls for televisions, which are each irksome enough with their many, tiny buttons, and more so when they vary from model to model, as they do even within a company like Philips. "It's like buying a new car and having to learn how to drive again," Ragnetti says. Philips now wants all its remotes to be consistent from TV to TV, and even from TV to DVD player, to reward customers who stay with the brand. Ragnetti warns that new consumer gear takes three or four years to develop, and parts come from multiple suppliers. Producing that sort of simplicity in something as basic as a remote, it seems, is pretty complicated.
It's hardest in the biggest companies, particularly those considering changes to what have been wildly successful products. In the case of Microsoft--which draws many complaints, partly because it's the largest player--its success is built on a legacy of products originally designed by techies for other techies, says Donald Norman, a usability consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group. But now it must retool with the nontechie in mind. Microsoft has made progress, for example, with how users navigate through Windows. The new Media Center version has an attractive and uncluttered front end, but it still suffers from the knotted inner plumbing that is Windows XP. It's hard to change the core operating system, which is installed on more than 400 million machines worldwide. "If you do, somebody screams," Norman says. It also takes money and adds risk. Microsoft managers have a keen sense of market share and make only those improvements that they feel will preserve it, says William Gribbons, founder of a design and usability center at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.
So far, it's been the exception when a simpler product holds on to the market. We applaud basic at first but soon want more, unwittingly fueling our future irritation. The Palm handheld organizer succeeded with its straightforward software and stylus controller. Nokia won an early leading market share by installing similar software--along with the basic yet addictive Snake game--in its many cellphone models, making them easier to control. But now even Palm--challenged by ever more multitasking Pocket PC s, BlackBerry pagers, and smart phones--is morphing into a do-it-all device, and Nokia's handsets are adding new features including graphics-heavy games.
Initially attractive to shoppers, the new add-ons seem to drag down performance and ease of use. Two Nokia models finished at the bottom in a recent test of 10 handsets from various makers, says Scott Weiss, principal of Usable Products Co., which tests cellphones. It took twice as long--about six minutes more--to download and install a ringtone on Cingular's Nokia 6620 as it did on Sprint's Samsung SPH-A680. Translation: You buy the phone because it can play "Lose My Breath" by Destiny's Child every time that special someone calls, but you're annoyed with how long it takes to install the ditty.
So you'd be less likely to bother with that hip feature, and that's forcing wireless carriers to get creative about how to sell these new services without sacrificing friendliness. Traditionally, manufacturers like Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola designed phones and the software that made them work, then sold them to wireless carriers like Verizon, Sprint, and Nextel. Now Verizon has designed its own software for cellphones--and will offer customers only the models that run it. The upside to this trend is that a new Verizon phone will hold fewer surprises for current customers, and that familiarity should cut down on support calls and canceled accounts, says Lowell McAdam, the company's chief operating officer.
Stifling. Carriers still must overcome the reluctance of handset makers, who worry that standardized software will stifle their innovation. But "when you buy 21 million handsets a year, they tend to support your initiatives," McAdam says. Verizon also is slower to adopt some of the latest handsets, saying it's more focused on making sure phones work on its network.
That insistence reinforces Verizon's much-advertised "Can you hear me now?" claim to be the most reliable wireless system, which is largely substantiated by independent surveys run by outfits like Consumer Reports magazine. As smug as those commercials may be, they nail another tech frustration: In addition to being overcomplicated, products are often undependable.
Verizon's emphasis on a reliable network illustrates what it takes to ensure gadgets work in real-life conditions. That geek walking in the company's ads actually drives a white Chevy TrailBlazer, at least in St. Louis. Soft-spoken and taciturn, engineer Jerry Wildermuth is one of about 60 people who regularly test Verizon's system. He spends about three of every four weeks alone in his truck, with two metal boxes in the back that hold 14 handsets. Special setups have the phones dialing all day, most connecting and disconnecting for brief, nonsensical conversations like: "These days, the chicken leg is a rare dish." and "A saw is a tool for making boards." Two laptops monitor the signal strengths of Verizon and its competitors, scoring voice chats on a scale of 1 to 5. In customer satisfaction surveys, Verizon usually rates at least incrementally better than its competitors. But consumers also grade wireless carriers as a group 39th among 40 industries in customer satisfaction, according to a University of Michigan survey. Nonetheless, Verizon is able to charge more for its service and still gain customers.
Mac attack. Apple Computer, whose desktop PC s have long been more elegant than anything in the Windows world, also has charged more--while steadily losing market share, now at about 2 percent of new computers sold. In a user-friendly move, Apple has recently made it easier to switch to a Mac, having introduced a model that costs as little as $500 if it's replacing a Windows computer. And Macs would seem a good choice for many home users--especially those frustrated with hacker-vulnerable and harder-to-use Windows PC s. "Apple tends to minimize the number of steps to do things and is more consistent than Windows," says John Rizzo, an author of books on both Windows and Macs. (Macs aren't perfect: Rizzo's latest book is Mac Annoyances .) But it's tough to overcome Microsoft's market dominance and the perception that Windows PC s can do more while costing less.
It's in newer gear like music players that Apple's design acumen triumphs, like its iPod players sweeping the market. The simple wheel used for navigating the iPod was a break from the competition, whose devices often befuddled users with many buttons. Interestingly, Apple is said to operate with no internal user-design team, says usability expert Norman. It can do so for two reasons. Good design has been ingrained in the company's culture since the early 1980s. Apple also remained small enough to operate with a chief executive, Steve Jobs, who can tightly steer the process. "It takes a designer with a vision and who is a dictator like Jobs," says Norman. "Luckily for Apple, he also has pretty good taste."
Healing PCs. Apple's success with the iPod echoes changes across the tech industry, as what are essentially small computers move into devices all around us, hidden behind a few buttons and knobs. It's starting to happen as embedded computers make it easier to zap food in the microwave or set the washing machine. In a bit of irony, it's even happening to PC s. IBM has implanted a second, healing computer of sorts in its highly rated ThinkPad line of laptop computers. When Windows fails, perhaps from a virus, a set of special chips and a secure corner of the hard drive can help restore the computer to an earlier, working state. Or the notebook boots a second, stripped-down version of Windows to rescue crucial files from the hard drive and connect to the Internet. And yes, IBM gets a premium for this hardware.
It's important nevertheless to remember how far tech has come, says Bentley College's Gribbons. He recalls the green, flashing cursors of early computers that only engineers could master. Even they were a huge improvement over writing a long paper on IBM Selectric typewriters. "It could've involved electric shock, and I still would've chosen the computer," Gribbons says.
Syracuse University's Fisher might disagree, after he had to nurse his ailing PC through final exams. But once the semester was over, he opened the case and ripped the PC to pieces, a la Norman's advice. "And then I scattered its parts in the four corners of a dark basement."
This story appears in the March 14, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.