Sunday, June 19, 2011

Not remotely happy

I've never thought of myself as a Luddite or any kind of technological dinosaur. I like machines. I like stuff with bells and whistles and sexy features. I am a bloke after all. However, it does come with a proviso; it has to, in some way, make my life easier or more enriched. If it makes life more difficult or needlessly complex, I'm out.

This coming Tuesday I'll be kind-of interviewing that giant of advertising and marketing, Rory Sutherland (Click here to see his two outstanding TED talks). Well, I say 'interview'; it's more of a chat. I'm interested in some of his insights for my next book and he's interested in getting some stories from me about my life in the Met Police's Problem Solving Unit. What we have in common is a belief that the best way to get 'buy in' to an idea is to make it easy for people to participate.

As Rory points out in one of his TED talks, we'd all save more money if there was a big red button on the wall that saved £10 every time we pressed it. The simple interface makes us more likely to use it. The reality is that if we want to save money, we currently have to go through the rigmarole of setting up standing orders etc. Yawn. Do what I do. I have a simple interface (a jar with a slit in the lid) into which I put all of my change up to and including 20p pieces. I empty it once a year, usually around Christmas. Last December there was £108 in it. It covered most of the Christmas food and booze bill. Imagine if I did it with fivers.

Or look at organ donation. The majority of people say it's a good thing and that they'd be willing to do so. And yet only a small proportion of the public has taken the effort to track down a donor card or log on to the donor website. The interface is too hard. We all want to be spoon-fed. Though we don't like to admit it, we are a species of short-cutters. Almost without exception, we will take the easier route rather than the hard one and if we can avoid hassle on the way, we will. As a simple example, look at Desire Lines. Desire Lines are the paths that most people will take, often in preference to a proscribed route, if given free choice. Here's a perfect example:

Someone has gone to the effort to create a tarmac path for people to walk on but, for reasons known only to them, have chosen to put the path away from where people want to walk. The Desire Line is the one worn into the grass and mud on the left. That's actually where people want to walk. If they'd researched it beforehand, they'd have put the path in the right place. And it would have been cheaper as the distance covered is shorter than that of the 'proper' path. When I was involved in crime prevention work, I would always look at Desire Lines. Why put CCTV on a path that no one uses? It's better placed on the 'unofficial' short cut that everyone does use, surely? The science behind my work involved understanding human habits and behaviour. And once you understood that, you could employ clever tricks to make people move in particular directions, make them gather or not gather in certain areas, and even modify their behaviour. Or, to be more precise, to let people's natural tendency to take the quickest and easiest route and manipulate that behaviour for the common good. If this sounds like an interesting area of science I urge you to visit Dan Lockton's site at Brunel University (here) - he can explain much further and in greater depth than this humble blog will allow.

So, what has this to do with technology and Luddites? I'll explain. Look at this remote control:

It's the one for my telly. And it's not even an HDTV or 3DTV. Just look at the buttons. All of those sodding buttons. I mean ... Window. PIP/POP. S Mode. P Mode. And as for the ones with little icons ... I have absolutely no idea what any of them do and, more importantly, have never needed them. It's a fecking television. What more can I possibly need a remote for than to change channels and turn the sound up and down? And maybe some 'Red Button' extra stuff. Being a digital signal I never have to worry about colour, brightness, contrast and all that malarkey. The SCART leads mean that the telly 'knows' whether I want to watch a DVD or shake my bootie with the Wii. So what are all these buttons for? And why bother me with them?

It's a classic case of what happens when geeks create products they'd like rather than what the customers actually need. Or want, I suspect. The 'Desire Line' on my remote is visible in which buttons are shiny and worn with use when compared to the pristine untouched buttons. Is it just me being a dinosaur? I don't think so. I'm a simple soul who wants an easy life. I want a TV that I don't have to read an instruction book to operate. Why is that apparently no longer possible? All my TV has to do is show me moving pictures, nothing more. And surely, with fewer buttons and functions my TV and its remote would be cheaper too? We'd all like that surely?

The DVD remote is even worse. What do I want my DVD player to do? Play DVDs. That's all. The sound and vision side of things is already controlled by my TV. All I want my DVD player to do is play and occasionally pause, stop, wind or rewind. By my reckoning that's five buttons - seven at worst if you want to skip between chapters. Okay, nine if you're too lazy to get off your arse and press the power on/off or eject disc buttons. So why does my remote have 41 buttons?! I'm not joking. FORTY FECKING ONE. Look:

This is not the cockpit of the space shuttle. This is a £19.99 DVD player from Tesco. I kid you not. It's fecking madness. Didn't Arthur C Clarke say something about the highest forms of technology being indistinguishable from magic? A wizard doesn't need forty one buttons on his munting wand does he?

All of which brings me full circle to Rory. Like all advertisers, he knows that the most popular products are those that are simple. The simplest and easiest products to use are the ones that sell in billions and for decade after decade. Come up with as many fancy alternatives as you like but people still buy bristle brooms, water kettles and steam irons because they do what you want and you don't need a degree to figure out how to work them. They also remain easily affordable because of that simplicity. I want the same for my technology. I want it to be usable straight out of the box, just like a kettle. I want as few buttons on my remotes as possible and I want those buttons to only do the things I need them to do. I never want to have to read a manual. I'm not a Luddite. I love machines. I just don't have much time any more for the people who design them. Nor, incidentally, does David Mitchell. I actually agree with almost everything he says here:

HDTV? No thanks. My eyes get worse every year so what's the fecking point? Fix them, Mr Scientist. Spend as much money of developing cures for blindness as you do in coming up with pointless new functions for my TV. Priorities, people, priorities.


Lizwoolly said...

fascinating! I like Rory Sutherland. interestingly I chose my last washing machine purely on its merits of performing very few tasks, ie the ones I wanted it to perform, I realised over the years, that I only ever used about 3 functions out of the myriad on offer by my now defunct machine. So, the very selling point of my Indesit Moon (we only ever use about 3 programmes) serves me well, brilliant!

Piers said...

Two interesting things from my own experience here:

When I was at Sussex University, many years ago, some re-landscaping went on. And they didn't put any paths into the new area.

Three or four months later, they simply paved the desire line.

And on the remote front, my Nanna's previous TV remote had two sides. On one side were half-a-dozen or so buttons: power, programme up-down, volume etc. And on the other, were the forty-odd of the standard remote. And it had a hard plastic slip case, so you could simply slide it out, turn it over, and slide it back in to give you access to only your preferred user interface. Lovely bit of design.

Persephone said...

Best bit of advice I ever received was from the fella who sold us an oven to replace the one that went "foom" (on the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, naturally). While we hemmed and hawed on getting something nicer, he asked us if we did any kind of cooking fancier than your usual casseroles, pies, etc.
"Thing is," he told us, "the more bells and whistles there are, the more things there are to break down."
I've kept that in mind while buying appliances and gadgets ever since.