July 31, 2004

Conventional Wisdom is Neither Conventional Nor Wise

I don't quite know what the title to this post means, but it came into my head when reading this column on a recent essay citing the 100 most influential papers in physics. It points out that for all the glamour that cosmology, quantum mechanics, black holes, and the like have been getting, what physicists are actually *doing*, and what they're actually *reading* is more prosaic.

Posted by peterme at 09:35 AM | Comments (2)

July 30, 2004

My legacy.

I am the number one result for the the Google Search poontang. And that search term accounts for, far and away, the most visits on my site.

Posted by peterme at 02:27 PM | Comments (6)

July 29, 2004


I'm working on a project where I get to go into people's homes and watch them attempt to set up an internet-enabled device (excuse the vagueness). And, without fail, they cannot. What's interesting to me is how they fail -- each time it's different. Though often in the same part of the process, the detail that causes them to go astray varies -- mistyped email addresses, password confusion, network set up, clicking the wrong link and getting lost, etc. etc. And I'm sure that with each subsequent observation, we'll observe new hitches.

Over 15 years ago, The Donster wrote The Design of Everyday Things, where he wrote about the difficulties we have with fairly simple products -- door handles, stoves, etc. The most complicated single item was an office telephone, with it's various modes that you access through key presses.

Well, of course, none of that has anything on the bizarrely difficult connected world we currently live in. Computers plugged into printers, into cameras, into networks. TVs plugged into DVDs, DVRs, stereos. And the techno-types want more more more. Refrigerators with IP addresses. Smart medicine cabinets. Thermostats that require "programming." House alarm systems that detect individuals distinct biopatterns. Hell, my cell phone doesn't want to make a call -- it seems much more geared to "opening application" now. Look -- I just want to talk, I don't want to *use an operating system*.

Objects aren't simple any more. They don't just turn or push. They behave. And these behaviors are often played out over many steps, in particular orders. And each step is an opportunity for failure. Through the work that my colleagues conducted on business value and user experience, I learned the six sigma concept of "rolled throughput yield."
the probability of being able to pass a unit of product or service through the entire process defect-free.
Basically, this means that the more steps you take, the likelier failure is. Even each step has a high probability of success, when you add them up, the likelihood someone can get through all of it becomes startlingly low.

And that's the big problem I'm seeing. Too many steps. Too many opportunities for something to go wrong. For people to enter a typo. For people to not see and instruction. For people to click the wrong link. I'm not blaming people for this -- they're just doing what they do.

My client assumed they were doing the world a service, allowing you to connect this device directly to the internet -- without a computer. It will make everything easier to have it all in one place. It will allow you access to things you couldn't do before.

But connecting to the internet is not easy. It requires modems, routers, and setting up. To add devices requires cables, or wireless-savvy. People have already gone through a fair amount of hell just getting their current system up and running. Adding to this often just upsets them. People are happy to just have something that works. When you suggest to them ways they could optimize, they'll turn a deaf ear -- change brings uncertainty, change could mean that the thing just doesn't work any more.

In the case of our client, complexity has been bred by a marketing group that WANTS MORE FEATURES (because they sell!) and an engineering group that adds these features onto the existing product like rooms in the Winchester Mystery House -- without rhyme nor reason, with no overriding logic, with no real principles to guide them.

Anyway, the nub of this wee rant is, of course, simplify. It feels like we're reaching a breaking point with new technologies -- if we thought the blinking "12:00" on the VCR was sad, what terrors can we expect? Think about the lesson of rolled throughput yield -- how can we minimize the steps involved? How can we enable people to plug something in and *just have it work*? How can we do a little more work on the design and engineering, so the customer has to do none on their own?

Posted by peterme at 11:12 PM | Comments (19)


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