In my relative youth, I was always bemused about how the Computing Industry had a habit of making things over complicated. I’d be listening close by as a phone call came in to one of my colleagues, where a salesman wanted to know how much a specific piece of software would cost his customer to buy. Out came a wide range of licensing and update options that made my brain hurt, and i’m sure sent the salesman into a state of gloom and despondency. Came in with one question and left with at least three.
There was an article in one of the early editions of “Practical Computing” magazine that really hit home, so much so that it’s one of a select seminal few bits of paper I still have copies of from my early programming career . A two page article – stored alongside a completely unrelated one page flow chart of how to draw a circle on a bit mapped screen using only increment and decrement instructions, with no trigonomic functions in sight. The two page article was entitled “Removing the Buttons” by Nick Laurie. It’s premise stands correct to this day, an observing it has resulted in some multi million pound profit spectaculars my teams have pulled off down by career.
The 0-$100m at 89% Gross Margin – in 18 months – example
One was being given a Software business to run that featured 48,000 different part numbers. Some of my American colleagues built this into a kind of telephone directory that was 2″ (50mm) thick, and duly sent this to all the sales folks in the USA in the belief that it was doing them all a favour. I took a different tack, listened in to quite a few customer phone calls, and managed to boil things down to 6 double page spreads, each spread dedicated to a specific type of product. The chief stated objective was to ensure that a salesperson could lookup the part number and price for any software product we sold within their normal attention span (which we thought was around 10 seconds!).
So, the split was Operating Systems and System Software, Development Tools, Networking/Comms, Database Management, Industrial Applications and Office software (aka “End User Computing). Product names down the left with most of the part number present, different computers in order of price/power across the top (with the code to insert into the part number for that tier), and the associated price at the intersection of product and machine. The media cost on tape cartridge or magtape on the right of each product.
Visit from Royalty
We had a Corporate senior management entourage over from the USA who were told about the DECdirect Software Business and it’s impressive growth. I found myself called out of the blue into a conference room, carrying one of the price books, to find at least 2 company Vice Presidents and a lot of their senior staff present talking to my bosses boss. One of them got the USA Software price book out, and asked what I thought of it.
I related the challenge it gave salespeople, and on request, passed a copy of our 12 page work to one of the entourage. His VP said to him, well, say I wanted to buy VAX ELN to run on my VAX-11/785 – what’s the part number and price? His direct report, who’d been in possession of the guide for 2 minutes and had flicked through it once, from cold, said “oh, here it is” and rolled off the correct part number and the local price. I think they understood pretty quickly why that software operation was growing like topsy, and why even customers would throw orders into us, correct part numbers and pricing on board, for over 90% of our order volume. Simplicity Sells.
Meanwhile, back to today
Sometimes termed “Opinionated” interfaces, the central theme is that rather than adding extra buttons to any hardware, or one-plussing the number of software User Interface options you confront a user with, or giving people a thick book containing every imaginable option available, that the antithesis is usually much better design. To boil things down to the core tasks the user wants to implement, and to do that one thing really well, without unnecessary distractions. And despite knowing this for a long time now, the Mobile Phone Software Industry is very much stuck in the “let’s give them the kitchen sink” mind set, or to let functionality of their app get one-plussed to death in a mission creep into adjacent “wouldn’t it be nice if” task types. Two recent personal real life scenarios:
First is that i’m in a Coffee Shop while my wife is shopping. I get a text from her saying she’s in the last one, and will be ready to leave soon. Message comes up on my iPad, so I pull my Nexus 5 phone out of my pocket to tell her i’m on my way. Sequence goes something like this:
Having selected the Google Hangout app (the default way of sending SMS’s in stock Android), I flick it’s startup screen to the left, select her picture (there as I talk to her regularly), tap in “on way” and hit the button to send it. Done.
I get to the last shop and she says “Did you get my text?”. I said yes, and that i’d replied to tell her that I was on her way. She said she’d not received it. So, I replay the sequence, look how I sent it, click on her name and see this:
WTF! The Hangout app decided that my default action was to have a face to face video call with her, and it appears to have sent a notification to the Hangout app on her iPhone inviting her to this meeting. One which she didn’t get a notification for. Note to self – remember to select her name, choose the SMS number, before sending a text next time.
We’ve had a day out with my sons kids, whose school has had an inset (teacher training) day, walking (according to my Fitbit) around 5 miles around Legoland Windsor. Get in the car at the end of the day, get to the road outside, and think – hmmm – I think we turned left somewhere further up this road to aim home, but not sure where. Let’s play safe. Pick up my Nexus phone, and say “Ok Google”. Up pops the speech input on the launcher. “Navigate me home”. Beep – up comes a display showing that it plans to send me from my current location, and lists the ultimate destination as my home postcode. Then sits there like a lemon with a display that looks like this (i’ve just done this one from my home, asking it to navigate me to a local supermarket, but the screen layout is identical in structure):
Given the phone is sitting there like a lemon and the car is moving in traffic, I hand the Nexus 5 to Jane, and ask if she can see what I need to press to make it start giving directions. The first thing she says is “it appears to be having difficulty loading from the Internet” – given in a browser, there is a blue line that gradually moves left to right as the page loads. The Maps UI appears to be stuck at around 25%. It’s only later I realise that Google have just underlined the mode of transport (by car) with a blue bar, and this isn’t a progress bar at all.
Next, she can select route options. Then we are given some alternative ways of getting to the destination, just like the two listed above (shortest and fastest route). Though I can swear that the words “Start Navigation” were not visible at all when we were in motion and the map around Windsor was displayed. So, Jane says she can’t see where to press, the phone is sitting there like a lemon and roads passing me by with the car in motion. So I make a guess. And get it wrong, and have no idea which way we’re headed. A couple of miles on, a plane outbound from Heathrow flies over us, and I suddenly have a clue that if that is going East to West, I need to turn right to approximately head north back to the M4. This I do, travel another mile and then we get signage to M4 junction 6. And the phone is still sitting there like a lemon.
When I tried it today at home, it did an automatic hop, skip and jump into telling me how to start my journey – something I wished it did yesterday when I needed it to. But didn’t.
I’m far from alone
I’ve heard similar rants from one friend about how Apple iTunes has now turned into an ungodly and complex mess. Also quite a nice rant by Marco Arment about unnecessary bundling of unwanted components to his Amazon Prime Membership supporting a price increase (to support their online video business, that he has no interest in subscribing to). Marco then goes further with the one-plussing of Facebook and Twitter apps to start treading into each others core business, and losing their value to him along the way by doing so. See his blog post entitled “Wrong“.
So, quite a widely used and unfortunate trend. I guess the good news is that where vendors start doing this, it opens up an opportunity for other vendors to more closely align to the basic brass tacks most customers value. If the network effects are strong enough to enact this sort of revolution, we’ll all be the better for it, so – out with the coding pencil!
Footnote: The Seminal “Removing the Buttons” is here: Page 1 and Page 2.