Intuitive Technology. Still apparently really hard to do.
There are quite a few stories coming out about how easy the new iPhone is to use (complete with youtube videos of 1 year old kids navigating it). Some are actually criticizing the phone for this lowering of the technical proficiency bar one has to be at to use electronics — essentially the same “dumbing down” argument against Apple’s desktop OS X. Personally I think this is a great victory in UI and a rare deliverable on the promise of technology to make our lives a little easier.
It is easy to forget that the goal of technology isn’t to create a thing that has the most features or to have the coolest looking blue lights — it’s to empower its owners to easily do more of something than they were able to before (more places to check email, faster cooking, etc.) or do something they have never been able to do before (send photos of something halfway around the world that they are looking at this very instant).
Requiring a degree in computer science to understand a top-level UI is an engineering failure on the grandest scale.
A good technology parallel to phone evolution might be microwaves. Both consumer goods followed an easy/hard/easy progression to get to where they are today:
MICROWAVES STAGE ONE: THE REBIRTH OF COOKING CONVENIENCE:
Microwaves appear on the scene transforming the kitchen with fast and easy cooking and reheating of food. It is intuitive: it’s just like the oven– stick your food in, turn a dial and you’re off.
MICROWAVES STAGE TWO: TECHNOLOGY TO CONFOUND:
In an effort to show off the amazingly fine-grain modulation they have achieved appliance makers loaded up microwaves with an array of digital timers and an entire panel of non-alphabetical, non-intutive ‘presets’ for everything from popcorn to fish to steak au poivre. Simply setting a time went from a twist of the wrist to a 4-6 button exercise in memory and frustration (do I have to hit the power level first? why is it just counting down instead of cooking? How do I stop this damned thing?!)
MICROWAVES STAGE THREE: TECHNOLOGY DOES ITS JOB:
Technology is summoned to actually work for people once again. Microwaves are smart enough to detect what kind of food is inside and adjust accordingly, saving you the 300-page user manuals. For those who just want 30 seconds with no commitment the dial returns on some models. Now we just need to settle the argument of whether or not microwaved food causes cancer or not.
CELL PHONES STAGE ONE: THE REBIRTH OF CALLING CONVENIENCE:
Cell phones arrive and though thet are bulky and the service coverage isn’t great they are simple and intuitive: the operation is identical to your home phone with the added convenience of being able to bring it with you.
CELL PHONES STAGE TWO: TECHNOLOGY TO CONFOUND:
Feature bloat and technology dead-ends abound. When you buy a phone you have no idea if you can add your own ringtones, if you’ll be forced to email yourself photos to get them on your computer, or if it will even be stable. The rush to bring the personal computer, music player, camera, camcorder, gaming console, fashion accessory, gps, etc. into one device causes a car wreck that stalls traffic on the technology highway for years.
CELL PHONES STAGE THREE: TECHNOLOGY DOES ITS JOB:
iPhone. You pick it up and within a few short minutes you pretty much know what it does and can trust that the things it does will have been done well. In the not so distant future if you wish to add capabilities to it (like a compuer) you will be able to.