The Financial Page

by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, allowing us to do things more quickly and efficiently. But too often it seems to make things harder, leaving us with fifty-button remote controls, digital cameras with hundreds of mysterious features and book-length manuals, and cars with dashboard systems worthy of the space shuttle. This spiral of complexity, often called “feature creep,” costs consumers time, but it also costs businesses money. Product returns in the U.S. cost a hundred billion dollars a year, and a recent study by Elke den Ouden, of Philips Electronics, found that at least half of returned products have nothing wrong with them. Consumers just couldn’t figure out how to use them.



Featured Comment by Robert Roaldi: "This really hits a nerve with me. I'm not a technophobe. I know how to set a VCR. I worked as a software developer for 25 years, sometimes in low-level systems design.

"I have owned two cell phones and still have the second one (though I only use it on vacation) and I cannot for the life of me figure out why people buy new cell phones a couple of times per year. I have yet to meet anyone who knew what their phone's features were or what they were for.

I'm over 50 now and am sick and tired of reaching for my glasses when I am using a camera. I need them to read the menus, read the LCD's, stick the USB cable in, and have to wear them around my neck all the time. I hate this. With my Pentax MX, I needed only to turn two dials, the shutter speed and the aperture ring. Other than ISO, those are still the only two parameters that need adjustment when taking pics so why are modern cameras so finicky to use?

"No one, but no one else I know in my circle of friends and family has the first clue about what the buttons do on all their camcorders and digicams. I have never met anyone, other than other geeky photographers, that has ever read a camera manual. Not one.

"'Feature creep' is the opiate of the masses. It fools us into thinking that we are making choices. Since we don't use the features, having the choice is an illusion. It is a con game that takes places at the point of purchase. It's a come-on.

"We can't buy a large sensor small footprint digicam with a 24–70 mm (equiv) lens. Now that's a choice I'd like to be able to make.

"(I feel better now, thanks.)"

Featured (partial) Comment by MHMG: "...I find myself growing very 'new interface' weary. On a recent trip I stopped at a gas station/convenience store that had just installed an LCD touch screen panel at the food counter. Not realizing this apparent inventory control interface existed for my 'benefit,' I tried to order a hot dog from an employee at the grill behind the counter. The employee said, 'you have to enter your choice on the touch screen over there and then pay for it at that counter over there.' I looked at the computer screen and then said, 'Well, I guess I didn't need the hot dog that bad.' The employee curtly remarked, 'What's so hard about ordering on the screen?' I replied, "What's so hard about giving me the hot dog I asked for so that I can now go over there and pay for it?'

"I suspect that machine interface overload is going to get a lot worse before it gets better!"

(You can read MHMG's complete comment in the comments section.)


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