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Commentary: The tough trade-offs of simplicity

Posted: 24 Jun 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ease of use  internal design  complex internal circuitry  simple design 

Ease of use and simplicity are hot topics once again. A recent study concluded that a significant percentage of product returns could be traced to users' inability to get their new equipment connected and running rather than to actual defects. Even someone as skilled, persistent and patient as EE Times' editor in chief was frazzled trying to get a supposedly very simple Flip Video camcorder interfaced.

This typifies the dilemma of balancing an internal design that can range from simple to complex with a user experience that spans the same range. (If I were a consultant, I'd now draw a chart mapping the four combinations of "simple or complex design" and "simple or complex usability" as quadrants, then charge for it.)

The problem is that apparent ease of use often requires complex internal circuitry and software, which increases the chances that something will go wrong. Conversely, some designs that are internally simple and reliable expect a sophisticated user. There are cases in which simple design leads to simple operation, but that combination is becoming less common with today's sophisticated products.

Consider two extremes: a spacecraft such as the Phoenix Mars Lander, which recently soft-landed very successfully, and the Flip Video camcorder.

In the case of the Lander, the Martian dirt it scooped up was apparently sticky and too clumped to fit through the input screen of the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyser (TEGA) instrument, so the operational team instructed the Lander to vibrate the input chute screen. On the seventh try, the manoeuvre broke up the soil clumps—not exactly a simple "assess the problem/try this fix" procedure, given the 170 million-mile distance and 15-minute link delay.

At the same time, though, the Lander's on-board instrumentation packages are as simple as possible, consistent with good design. The easy explanation for this is well known: The less there is, the less that can go wrong. But it is much more than that. When there are fewer and simpler parts, fewer unforeseeable performance combinations or tolerance buildups can occur, so the design's analysis, review, simulation, verification and testability are much higher—and it's those rare combinations that worry designers the most.

For consumer products such as the Flip Video, the situation is at the other extreme. The device is intended to connect with myriad combinations of user PCs and software, but there is no way to test all the permutations users may have. Result: a complex design that attempts to keep it simple, but frustrates and fails.

There is no easy answer to this design dilemma. Everyone wants simple design and ease of use, but finding a workable "sweet spot" requires tough trade-offs.

- Bill Schweber
EE Times

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