Complexity -


My wife announced that she wanted an outdoor grill, something toreplace the toy unit we'd salvaged from a boat which handles maybe twoburgers max at one time.

I groaned, figuring the thing would come in a box full of 5,000easy-to-assemble pieces. (One of the joys of having older kids is nolonger spending Christmas Eve squinting at cryptic instructions in anegg-nog induced fog trying to put some elaborate toy together.)

Sure enough, a big bag full of screws of different sizes, piles ofmetal and plastic parts, and a 30-page assembly manual kept me busy fora couple of nights. I'm still not sure if they supplied extra bolts, orif the half-dozen left over should have been installed somewhere. Themanual was no help; the manual, in fact, was utterly wrong in places.

I advocate code inspections, but sure wish people would inspectusers' manuals before shipping a new product. Wouldn't it be great ifthese were correct and comprehensible?

Complexity. It's not just in software. It's everywhere. Feature richproducts of all sorts stump users.

And it's not just products. Trying to invoice one of thosegovernment agencies whose name is a three-letter acronym a few weeksago my assistant discovered that they no longer take paper bills.Electronic only, a nice idea that should speed the whole process. Thenshe read that the process was considered “complicated,” so the agencyoffered an eight-hour class on invoicing. Eight hours! Shunning that ” howhard can it be to send a simple bill? ” she plodded through theprocess, eventually spending a half day to issue a bill for a day'swork.

My video camera has 53 buttons. It sure does a lot of stuff “dubbing titles, editing and more ” but is so hard to use it hasn't beenpowered on in years. Yet my parents had an 8 mm camera that had twocontrols: a roller-skate-like key to wind up the drive spring, and a”take film” button. Its simplicity meant they recorded everysignificant (and otherwise) event in the lives of their 5 kids.

Onearticle on suggests that consumers are returning30-40% of all DVD recorders shipped, complaining about the difficultuser interface.

It's all about design. Too many web sites baffle potential customerswhile others offer a crisp and clear interface that invites purchases.Most PC software offers lots of features, but their often non-intuitiveuse is documented in a peripheral help file, while a few programs(example: CodeCollaborator)explain everything every step of the way.

Some intrinsically complex products all but scream ease of use ” theiPod comes to mind, its interface even more compelling when compared withcompeting units that offer the same functionality yet are utterlymystifying.

Most product differentiation derives from a wealth of features. Cellphones offer downloadable ring tones, built-in games, schedulers, andmore, all nifty enough stuff but none of which contribute to makingreliable calls. When we engineers, industrial designers, andhuman-interface “experts” overly complicate these features, or makethem incomprehensible, or steer the user to a manual instead of makingtheir use naturally obvious, we're chasing customers away.

I finally got the grill together. It took a while, and the manual,to figure out how to light the thing. And we still don't know how touse the external burner. But big letters on the box proudly proclaim”engineered in the USA!”

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embeddeddevelopment issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helpscompanies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Response

I could not bring myself to choose one of the selections in the poll. None of the selections seem appropriate.

IMO there should have been an item “Poor Design”. This is what usually makes a complex product difficult to use. The majority of the design needs to be in the user interface.

I do wonder what happened to my NO VOTE after I clicked the Vote button with no selection.

– Peter Becher
Amery, Wi

I had a boss once who, when I would show him a new program or feature I was designing, would reply, “You're thinking like an engineer.” At first, I was put off by this, but I came to understand that I wasn't considering my end-user, which would have found my interface nearly unusable!

It's easy to distinguish the really successful, fun-to-use consumer products from the ones people settle for, typically because they're cheaper. Jack mentions the iPod, and that's an eminent example of success. Steve Jobs, when speaking of a competitor, once said that competitor didn't “bring much culture into their product.” Right again — it's far too easy to ignore that culture, and the non-engineering perspective and good design that comes with it. The result is something that may work adequately, but is far from enjoyable to use.

It's not necessarily the number of features; feature-rich products sell well most of the time. It's poor arrangement and presentation of those features that give heartburn to most end-users. Sometimes, engineers alone can design a product that not only works well but is also USED well. When that doesn't happen, we are served well by other professions who see the potential product from a completely different angle, quite likely aligned much more with that of the end-user. Smart engineers take advantage of those other perspectives.

– Daniel Daly
IntelliBOT Robotics LLC
Indianapolis, IN

well….I think complexity is fine; just long as you hide it pretty well. In some of the examples you mentioned, it looks as if the complexity is not very well hidden. Some of the best products out there have a lot of complexity built in, it is just very well hidden. A great example of this is your iPod example!

The cure to this, is very aptly put…Good or decent design.

Every engineer's motto should be something to the effect:”We take care of the details so you don't have to!”

However; sometimes it winds up like this:”We won't take care of the details so you will need to!”

– Ken Wada
Sr Embedded Systems Consultant
Aurium Technologies Inc
San Jose, CA

… engineered in the USA, manufactured abroad! Jack, your grill may have been conceived here in the USA, but it was born in another country.

Anyway, I would guess the following: The more “User Configurable” a product is…. the more complex it is. Take for example Microsoft Windows. Mr. Gates was kind enough to make it very “User Configurable”, both the legit user and hacker can modify as needed! People like options, but there is a trade off… complexity is directly proportional to configurability.

– Steve King
Tucson, Arizona

This week I bought a smoker and I put it together last night. The instructions were extremely easy to follow and the packages of bolts and other hardware were divided up in separate bags for each page of the manual. There were no extra parts.

So there is hope.

– John Davies
Montrose Hill Systems
Pittsburgh, PA

Thats the reason why Philips changed their caption to 'Sense and Simplicity' and placed ads about 'Technology should be as easy to use as the box that it comes in' and the like.

Scott Adams in Dilbert Future talks about how he is steadily made incompetent by more and more complex gadgets. He compares his earlier TV and current one. (in a very funny way though! 🙂 )

Time for engineers to consciously engineer end-user friendliness into products

– Sriram V. Iyer
Principal Engineer
Beceem Communications
Bangalore, Karnataka, India

If you really want polls that reflect more than just what a couple editors want us to think, you should add “other” and a text field to let us really speak.

All really important, honest polls have write-in capabilities.

These should reflect that, as there are some good, thought-provoking comments made by the polls and in response to articles such as this one.

Apparently the editors forgot to include “poor design” as one of the options. I had to vote for “marketing dweebs” since they drive the schedule, they demand the features that they want their customers to want, they drive the BOM cost to the floor by promising unrealistic pricing, and they drive the delivery schedule to the point that things cannot be properly implemented.

– Andy Kunz
Sr. Firmware Engineer
company : Transistor Devices
Hackettstown, NJ

“I advocate code inspections, but sure wish people would inspected users? manuals before shipping a new product.”

With all due respect, Jack, it looks like your column needs “grammar inspections” before it “ships”. 😉

– Sam Linder
Beaverton, OR

Regarding the grill. We bought a cheapie from Target a few years back, a million parts to put together. It completely disintegrated in 2 years! This year we bought a Weber and it comes 50% assembled already (oh joy!) and hopefully it will last more than 2 years. Does anyone else get the feeling that we are suffering from Made In China syndrome?

Regarding complexity of electronic devices. Take a test drive of a car with a built in Nav and CD player. The one in our Audi A3 is rated superior to most yet it's horrible to operate. It takes about 5 button pushes to get to the screen where you get the 6 “radio station push buttons” (presets) we all grew up with.

– Grant Beattie
Irvine, CA

Dear Jack,

While there's some fact in your comments on complex(or rather poor) design, i'd like to point out the knowledge of users has become more sophiscated and demand for finer control of the product has ever been increasing. So the engineer and designer of the product is mostly settles for trade-off. The old camera you mentioned could hardly do the sophiscated functions the new digital cameras or camcarders do. I agree that a poor design fails a good product but complex user interfaces are very much required now.

It's nice you brought this topic out.

– Mano Namasivayan
Technical Lead
HCL Technologies Ltd
Chennai, India

An eight-hour training on invoicing? Good for your assistant — now she can make her consulting service available to others who have to submit invoice electronically. Our government is clearly working hard to create jobs.

– David Liu
VIMA Technologies Inc.
Santa Barbara, CA

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