“Technology must be self-evident.”

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A couple weeks ago, ZDnet posted this wonderful article that perfectly describes one of the major problems with telepresence, videoconferencing, and tech in general.  Link header title? “The new reality: Technology must be self-evident.”

This means that it must be obvious a feature exists (“the product does this”) and also obvious how to use it (“I see.  I just click there where it say’s ‘click’.”)

The opposite of self-evident, of course, is that you don’t know what the product does, and having too much feature bloat likely makes it difficult to do even the basic functions.

I love my keychain swiss army knife.  With one blade, one file, scissors, a toothpick and tweezers, I know what it does and how to use it.  Look at this beauty:

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So, someone PLEASE tell me what this is for:

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It can do EVERYTHING!!! Except, I have no idea how to use it.  It’s too big to carry in my pocket, which defeats the purpose of a “pocket” knife.  It’s bulk actually makes using any tool difficult.  In fact, for “useability”, you’re better off with a toolbox filled with separate tools.  Except there’s also a bevy of hygiene implements, like the nail clipper.  Or the kitchen’s-worth of food prep tools.  So, wait-a-second then: What’s this for? (spoiler: novelty!)

There are far too many examples of poor tech design to count.  One of the biggest recent examples was Google Wave.  I’d started a post about Wave’s demise that was interrupted by other news, but I can sum up the gist here:  Cramware.  Google Wave had a ton of promise…and could potentially do everything.  The problem was, nobody really knew WHAT it did, and how best to implement it.

Now, good examples of self-evident tech are iPhones and Android-based phones.  Note that these devices are immensely complex with massive functionality:  e-readers, movie players, gaming, music players, GPS locators, etc., etc.  But there is a difference between being “complex” and being “complicated”.  That difference is DESIGN—because, as you know, many of the best tools require great amounts of complexity to be simple for the end user.  However, being “complicated”, that is, being tough to understand, is a killer.

Sometimes, like the pocket knife, there is a restricting factor on how many features you can add before a product is not just complex, but downright unusable.  In this case, a simple product elegantly designed is just as powerful.  In the device world, I would cite the Kindle or Nook (or my keychain knife).  They really only try to do one thing, but they do it well and elegantly.  Granted, the UIs of almost all e-readers need work, but I love my Kindle.

Most Google products are successful examples of this philosophy:  Chrome (it’s a browser…and it works wonderfully), Search (“google” is to “online search” what “kleenex” is to “tissue”), Mail…the list goes on.

The most frustrating programs are the ones where you know what they are used for, but you can’t figure out how to do it.  Once upon a time, Microsoft Office was so complicated you could barely do more than type into Word—anything else required studying the owners manual.  Every now and again a smartphone forgets that it’s a phone…or even a communications device.  Speaking of which…

In communications, many offerings forget that the IT department is not representative of rank-and-file end users at a company.  I hear horror stories (and have lived a few) about the new phone system that integrates with email that automatically can dial into a videoconference…if only someone can remember the 15-digit pin that resets every time someone sneezes.  Or, more specific to videoconferencing, the one where you remember after the conference was supposed to start that somebody, somewhere, needed to know the IP addresses of everybody else to initiate the call…oh, and then there were four screens of settings you had to navigate before the call (finally) started.  Or the one where no one could figure out how to maintain video presence while sharing the presentation materials.  Telepresence as a segment is one of the worst offenders.

Of course, being a video solution’s blogger means I’ll stay on my videoconferencing soapbox, but these design problems are universal in tech.  If a non-technical end user can’t make a call, see video at any time (even when sharing apps), and do this without calling IT, then something’s wrong.  This isn’t to say support questions shouldn’t come up.  Only that the basic functionality of a program should be self-evident.

Technology has reached a point where many pundits are claiming that new advances will be driven by design rather than other factors.  I agree completely, and submit this is the attempt to move products that are currently “complicated” to “complex” but simple to use.

Now, somebody, go tell the R&D departments!

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