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Sometimes, gadgets offer too much

Scott Craven The Arizona Republic

In the olden days, we turned a knob to tune the TV, dialed a phone to make a call and pressed the big button on top of a camera to take a picture.

But now gadgets meant to make our lives simpler come with so many features, the first hour or two is spent trying to get them to work.

Design experts say manufacturers’ zeal to out-wow the competition has led to a generation of doodads known more for features than function. While a select few consumers appreciate and can quickly master a scanner that also copies and faxes, the rest of us are thinking, “What the heck is this button for?”

Three problems have converged to result in a perfect storm of confusion: baffling manuals, confounding design and a tendency to pack too many components into each device.

Manufacturers feel compelled to offer the latest and greatest functions to stay ahead in the highly competitive tech industry, even if those functions are desired by a small percentage of the market.

“Manufacturers struggle with what they can offer as opposed to what people want,” says Whitney Quesenbery, a New Jersey consultant who specializes in making products easier to use. “They’re not sure so they add lots of things just in case. Pretty soon there’s so much packed inside, people have no idea how to get to the basics.”

When it comes to confounding design, Theo Mandel loves to talk about the on/off switch. It’s a very simple button, yet engineers have found a way to make it confusing.

Many computers, scanners and printers sport a toggle switch with a 1 and a 0. Rather than label it “On” and “Off,” or simply “Power,” engineers use the binary code for on and off.

“That’s classic engineer-ese,” says Mandel, a Phoenix design consultant who for more than 20 years has helped make products and Web sites more usable. “In the engineering world, the 1 and 0 is obvious. The ordinary consumer has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.”

Some products seem programmed to be counterintuitive. You click on the “Start” button in Microsoft Windows to shut down the computer. You press the red “End Call” button to turn on your cell phone.

Alaina Chabrier of Phoenix has a simple rule about complex products: She will devote one hour to learning how it works. If it takes any longer, it’s just not worth it.

As a result, she is a whiz with her Apple iPod, a device that does one thing (play music) and does it well, perhaps explaining its enormous popularity.

But Chabrier struggled with her digital camera. After spending the allotted time with the manual, she remained only faintly aware of the many features she would never understand.

“It was just too complicated,” Chabrier says. “I don’t have time to figure out all these directions.”

So, who’s responsible for the technology of confusion? You are, in part, says Jakob Nielsen, a usability consultant and author based in Fremont, Calif.

“You look on the box and see all these features and you think, ‘Well, all I need is this, but those couldn’t hurt,’ ” he says. “So you buy it just as makers figured you would.”

Buy those things with the features you want and no more, Nielsen says. When sales figures indicate consumers want simplicity, the tech industry will respond.

“For hundreds of years, more was better,” Nielsen says. “That’s not the case now. Less is better, but it is not going to be easy to overcome hundreds of years of thinking.”

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