The most popular ideas in web design (and maybe just design) today is to make things easier. I can’t go 2 hours without someone remarking out how simple Twitter, Tumblr, Square or another product is. I think in general this idea is a fallacy caused by “the other thing” always appearing to be easier than it actually is.
“Twitter’s simplicity is brilliant, they stuck to the 140 character rule and that made it so easy,” they’ll say. Then you go to twitter.com and, if you’re me, end up clicking almost blindly at an endless array of mouseovers, pop-outs and hover-state jumbled calamities.
“Square Card Case is amazing, just give them your name and get a receipt emailed to you,” someone tells me. Then I download and install Card Case and am taken through the most confusing setup process I’ve ever seen where my goal is only go give someone my credit card number — in fact, that’s not just my goal but the only thing I can do to make the app usable.
I was reminded of this misconception about what’s easy last week when my parents were visiting. They were trying to find the way to walk back to their hotel when I pointed out that it’s only about a mile away and my dad was carrying a shiny iPhone 4, complete with GPS and directions. “I don’t know how to use that,” he said. Assuming he meant he just didn’t know the hotel’s address or how to search for it, I took his phone, opened Google Maps, typed in the hotel name and asked for walking directions. Shockingly, iOS alerted me that the Maps application wanted to use my (his) location. “Hmm, what’s odd,” I thought to myself. That thought lingered for a moment until I realized what it meant. He was joking, he really didn’t know how to use the maps or GPS on his phone, a remarkable fact evidenced by the even more stunning realization that he’d actually never used the app. Accordingly, he had never granted it permission to use his location. “I searched for ‘GPS’ once, but nothing came up, so I assumed it wasn’t there,” he told me upon further questioning.
I confirmed the prompt, got their directions, and sent them on their way. But it was an enlightening reminder to me that even the iPhone, which I think most people agree is simple and easy and fun and so amazing it will shoot rainbows out of the unicorns it embeds in your eyeballs…can fail so miserably at helping someone find the thing they want, even when it’s right there on the home screen, staring them on the face.
The point is not that Twitter or Square is confusing, or that the iPhone is poorly-designed, or that my dad shouldn’t have been able to figure out where the damned Maps app was — I mean, it’s right there on the home screen and it has a picture of a map! The point is that it’s easy to say Something Else™ is easy. You don’t see the support requests for Something Else™, you don’t get alerts about the tickets for the bugs you haven’t fixed in Something Else™, and if the media likes Something Else™ it’s convenient to agree and move on. Worse, it’s convenient to copy the parts that seem like good ideas. There are products that are genuinely brilliant, and even the ones that aren’t probably have at least one thing you can learn from, but I’m frustrated by how commonly it seems people are not learning, but rather spectating and assuming.
The emperor probably isn’t wearing any clothes here, and the guy making Something Else™ may well be looking at the parts of your product that you know are broken and remarking, “Look how easy it is…”