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Coffee Time: The easy to ride bicycle.

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As a designer, one of the most important aspects of design is creating work that can be easily understood by the user/viewer. However, recently I have been questioned by some people, and even criticized by some for possibility of making people “dumb” by my act of simplification. I disagree with these comments and as my philosophy on product design takes an optimistic view on making lives easier. Sure, your own approach may reword that into, “making lives more thoughtless”, but hear me out.

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First of all, people that complain that simplified products are making us think less need to know that operating a product doesn’t require very high level thinking. This is why I think some of the arguments are insane. Learning how to use a manual controls on a camera really isn’t hard, and only becomes a hassle when you’re in the field and adjusting the camera to capture the image you want. And in reality, these actions become muscle memory and don’t require any thought. So logically, wouldn’t you say that removing this level of frustration would enable the photographer to get the photo they want more quickly? Sure, manual controls enable creative freedom that auto controls can’t offer but isn’t the artistic process of composing, planning and deciding to take a photo where the user’s brain really gets stimulated? I’ve seen plenty of photographers that know how to capture the perfect photo with manual controls. What’s really rare are the people who know how to tell and story and create art using a camera.  Learning to use the controls don’t make you a photographer.

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Someone wrote to me and even used the nest as an example of “products that make consumers mindless”. Really? What kind of brilliant thinking do you have to do when you use a thermostat? Unless if you’re a goldfish, learning how to use a thermostat really isn’t going to make you any smarter - it’s just a hassle. Sure, it might make some more lazy because they don’t need to walk over to the thermostat as much but it’s not making people stupid.

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As a matter of fact, the products that we use today that are “easy to use” have only gotten more complex. Take a standard smartphone for example. It’s far more complex in what it enables you to do but it’s far easier to use than a dumb phone. My mother for example was never able to use all the functions of her Motorola flip phone. But now she downloads apps, sends email, makes reminders, reads, browses the web and much more on her iPhone/iPad. I’ve also been reading much more since I’ve gotten the iPad. It’s made the delivery and purchase of content more simple than ever before. Simplicity enables complexity. Making people dumb? Yeah right. 

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This phenomena is exactly what Steve Jobs had said about computers; they’re bicycles for the mind. We’re slow runners but with a bicycle, become one of the fastest animals on the planet. The computer can work the same way by enabling us to become increasingly intelligent. One might say that these products are doing the work for us, but I think they’re doing the dirty work for us and letting us to even greater things.

EDIT: A few people, Colby Olson from Twitter being the first, pointed out that my reference to Steve Jobs was incorrect. Jobs had referred to efficiency, not speed. I do think that what I've said still holds true. Whether it be speed or efficiency, we are gaining benefits from the tools we use. Here is the full quote, which I should have dug out while writing the post:

I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. Humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list....That didn’t look so good, but then someone at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle and a man on a bicycle blew the condor away. That’s what a computer is to me: the computer is the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.
 
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I always like to make automotive analogies, and here is another one. The manual transmission is dead, and I realize how driving enthusiasts feel but it’s not a problem to the mass market. The manual transmission is like the interface of a frustrating to use product. It adds complexity without benefits (yes, I realize there are benefits for a driver, but we’re talking Toyota Camry level here). The automatic transmission enables the driver to focus on doing what’s important, whether it be delivering goods, or getting to workplace for a creative and productive day of work. Products that work for you don’t make you do less work, they enable you to do even greater work.