Rediscovering the Benefits of Simple Design

Recently, I met a coworker from almost twenty years ago whose clearest memory of our time together was our discussions about design.   And how I got us all to make a field trip to the break room to take a look at the microwave oven there.

It had a dial and no buttons.  Pull the handle and it shut off the element automatically.   I loved the simplicity of this.   I loved how it made no demands of the user, and anybody could immediately put it to use.   There was no training, no documentation, no "insufficiently skilled users".

At the time we were rolling Microstrategy out to hundreds of users.    Microstrategy is a ROLAP (Relational On-Line Analytical Processing) tool that once you provided data in a relational database within a star-schema, defined that to Microstrategy in the form of metadata then any user could use it easily - they could quickly create new reports by dragging and dropping element names and it would generate the SQL for them.   It was a very powerful tool that in the right hands could achieve amazing results.   Prior to our roll-out of this tool the backlog on reports for our organization was ten months.   After we rolled it out I signed onto and delivered an 8-hour average SLA for the creation of new reports.

The problem with Microstrategy is that in spite of the theoretical simplicity, the practical reality was that there were an enormous number of controls.   And sure, maybe the beginning user only needs to care about four.  But which four?   We trained hundreds of users *3* times before giving up and deciding that the users didn't want to bother to learn yet-another-tool at this time.   So, instead we pulled together a few of our genuine "power users" and built a dashboard that provided all the power without any of the complexity to our users.   And that was incredibly successful.   Any users that wanted more power could always access the main tool.   The one-dial microwave was a helpful metaphor for what we wanted to build.

Lesson:  do not assume people want to spend their valuable time learning how your tool works.

This came to mind the other day when my microwave oven finally died after about fifteen years.   I looked it and realized that I never used most of its 32 buttons, and most visitors to our house couldn't get it to work.  Sure, it had a few minimal buttons you could live with - once someone showed you the magical combination.   But it was a brain-teaser to figure out those combinations without help.   And whenever the power went out we would have a blinking clock for days until someone felt like playing the clock-reset game.

While researching which microwave to buy I came across this excellent posting by someone else a year ahead of me.  I took his recommendations and got the exact same model.

My replacement microwave arrived yesterday.  I had to buy it used on ebay since I couldn't find a new one I liked.  It's a commercial Panasonic microwave - exactly like the one we took a field trip to see.  It has one dial and nothing else.   I'm completely thrilled, it works great, everyone can use it, it won't add yet-another unnecessary clock to my kitchen, and I'll never miss the "advanced features" and it'll probably out-live the house.

Bottom Line:  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's principle "less is more" applies to appliances and software as much as to architecture   Duh.

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