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Designing Technology Systems: The Evolution of Increasing Complexity


By David Hoffer

"Complex mechanical devices can go wrong in many ways," writes Don Norman in his book Emotional Design. "And many a person has fallen in love—or become outraged—over the transgressions of automobiles, shop equipment, or other complex machinery."

Norman is speaking about individual devices. The automobile is a great example. People love their cars when they perform well, but hate them when they end up in the shop once a month. However, there is a much bigger picture to consider. Your car must interact in a multi-faceted and varied context. You parallel park in between two cars that haven't left you enough room. You drive to work and merge onto a highway with hundreds of other cars, and that darn truck just won't let you merge. Traffic is horrendous and gas is expensive. You may love your car, but the other parts of this system piss you off.

This is because cars, complicated mechanical devices in and of themselves, operate within an enormously sophisticated system. When advanced devices must interact on this level, they become increasingly more complicated and the user experience usually suffers.

Examples of complex technological systems abound. For example, there are often four or five remote controls for your home entertainment system. While house-sitting recently, my friend gave me some very detailed instructions:

-To turn the TV on, use the silver remote -Use the white remote for volume control -Use the grey remote to change channels
 -Do not touch the black remote (I was afraid to ask why)

"What does the middle one do?" I said, kidding her.

She shook her head. "Don't joke" she said seriously, "I'm still training my new boyfriend."

Every time a device gets added to your home entertainment system, another remote gets added. And this product deluge is a recent phenomenon. It used to be that you turned the TV on, chose the channel, and watched the program. Too loud? Turn down the volume. Today, though, you need (at least) four remote controls. On top of that, people always complain about how unnecessarily difficult their systems are to set up. During user research conducted by my firm, we've talked to a number of people about their technology. One family had to make five trips to the store to set up their TV. Another bought a TV, had the store come set it up, and then had the cable company install the cable. The system was so new that the cable guy took three visits to complete the installation.

Manufacturers, in their relentless drive to compete and innovate, have steadfastly ignored a key element of the big picture: systems design. Effective design requires examining the relationships that exist between all the pieces within a system. Ask yourself the following questions: Is your system in the living room, the bedroom or the basement? How does your system fit on the shelf, the dresser or the home entertainment center? Do you have cable or satellite (or, in the not-too-distant future, Internet Protocol TV)? Most importantly, how do you use the system? How many of the channels do you actually watch? How many remote controls do you have?

Manufacturers have ignored these questions for too long, instead focusing on building a device that has a great new feature that the competition doesn't have. They've ignored the system as a whole, and this is what needs to be fixed.

In the case of the TV/remote control problem, we can eliminate at least one issue right off the bat by removing the Set-Top Box (STB) and replacing that technology with a cable card that will plug into your card-ready TV. This technology hasn't matured yet and doesn't provide the breadth of functionality that your STB does, but that will change. One down.

A huge part of the solution is to provide better user interfaces. These interfaces could easily be modular to accommodate older remotes and variable systems. The remote should work seamlessly with the on-screen interface as does the Digeo MOXI>/a> and TiVo. Both of these systems have spent a great deal of time integrating the controller and the screens they control.

Other systems we've examined have typically chosen to add buttons onto their remotes, rather than attempt to leverage the on-screen interface. Fewer buttons would make the system simpler by placing the burden on the software. Apple is on the right track here with the iMac G5 with Front Row, which has reduced 60 buttons down to six. This is exactly the right idea.

Additionally, given the hundreds of channels there are to choose from, scrolling through huge lists of programs to find what to watch may soon be dinosaured. Several vendors are beginning to offer solutions to this problem, among them Aptiv Digital (formerly Pioneer Digital) with what they call an Interactive Video Mosaic. Seeing what's on helps the viewer decide what to watch and having a larger screen to work with facilitates this type of interface.

Companies also need to work together to provide standards for interoperability. Currently the Advanced Television Systems Committee, an international non-profit, is developing technical standards for digital television. While important, technical standards don't take the user into account as part of the system. User experience standards are essential; until they are included, the system will be broken and the consumer will suffer.

The most important part of the solution, however, is for companies to engage in systems design. They need to think about the product as part of a greater whole and design their pieces to fit into the puzzle seamlessly.

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The winners in this space will be the companies that provide the most cohesive implementations with systems that ensure the best possible user experience through reasonable system design. The losers will be the systems that crash with a "blue screen of death," with no way to recover. Although it's unclear where they'll fit Ctrl+Alt+Delete on your remote.

David Hoffer is a Senior Design Analyst at frog design San Francisco.

The frog Design Mind column appears every Monday on Gizmodo. Read more frog Design Mind.