Feature Creep: Why do we need a clock on our dishwasher?

First, a comic from xkcd:

Tech Support Cheet Sheet by xkcd

I think one of the reasons “not computer people” get so confused is that there is a mystifying array of choices in most applications and operating systems. Most people use only a handful of programs (a word processor, a web browser, maybe an email client) and a tiny fraction of the computing power with which their machines are equipped. This overwhelming complexity of computers is part of a long trend of “feature creep” in electronics and home appliances.

You probably have stuff like this in your house:

  • a microwave with 10 power settings that also can be programmed to defrost 1.3 pounds of pork or pop a bag of popcorn;
  • a dishwasher that can be programmed to clean pots and pans, or just regular dishes, or just the top rack, with or without drying;
  • three or four remote controls for your “home entertainment system.” (Here’s a tip for dealing with that.)


Photo Nicolas Zurcher, source: designinginteractions.com

Most of these objects probably have programmable clocks, too.

Do we really need this stuff? No. But it costs practically nothing to add all these unwanted features, and manufacturers presume — often correctly — that consumers will think these bells and whistles add value.

Back to the “not computer people.” I think the best computer programs and operating systems are the ones that get out of the way of the user. In web browsers, Google Chrome wins the austerity award. The iPhone’s success is evidence that users prefer devices that can be controlled with an index finger. (Just ask my two-year-old.) When it comes to operating systems for desktops and laptops, the two biggest players —  Mac OSX and Windows fill-in-the-blank — each have strengths and weaknesses.

Mac OSX is wonderful but still gets in the way of the user at times. For example, the Finder really doesn’t want you to select and drag files from one window to another. That would be too Microsoft-y, I guess. (Although I’m sure Apple invented the concept.) Instead OSX forces you to view file structures in an endless series of hierarchical menus. It looks elegant onscreen but does not work intuitively.

Many of the problems on Windows machines stem from the bloatware that comes preinstalled. I always do my own OS installs, but most users take what they get, straight out of the box, because they don’t realize they have any choice in the matter. So they get crappy, resource-sucking antivirus programs, trial versions of software they will never use, browser toolbars loaded with advertising, and more. And this is how most users experience computers every day. No wonder they are confused.


(Source: PC Decrapifier)

Before the computer age, you had to pay more for extra features on, say, a vacuum cleaner or an ironing board (it folds up — oooooh!). Now, paradoxically, it’s frequently cheaper to buy the machine loaded with extra features, like the average Wintel laptop at Best Buy. You have to pay more for the less-bloated Mac. (Or the sleek Dyson vacuum.) As for software, although there are free and cheap alternatives to Microsoft products, you need the time and technical aptitude to seek, download and install them. (Same goes for all the flavors of Linux; maybe Ubuntu is the perfect OS, but grandma’s not going to adopt it because there is no multimillion-dollar marketing campaign shoving it down her throat, and the notion of do-it-yourself, community-based support will likely scare the shit out of her.) The result is that the average computer user — who would most benefit from simpler devices  — gets the most complex stuff because they just don’t know any better. And the cycle of confused computer-users continues.

Where does this leave us? In my mind, the perfect microwave has one button: it knows what I want to cook and figures out how long to cook it for. The iPhone/iPad follows this example pretty well. Other computer programs and operating systems (including those from Apple) still have a lot of catching up to do.

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