As tech gets more complex, the best tech stays simple

Voice control and simplified interfaces are two key ways to keep technology from becoming so complicated it loses its convenience factor.

appletv device setup

Easy is hard.

That’s been a tenet of Apple’s since its very earliest days, a sentiment expressed by Steve Jobs himself in a 1998 interview, shortly after he returned to the company: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”

That simplicity is one reason that many of us became Apple converts in the first place, but the idea has always suffered from some tension. Because while easy is hard, “easy” itself is an ever-moving goalpost. Even though we get better at technology, technology gets more and more capable, which in turn requires even more simplification.

I think about this a lot, especially when I interact with people for whom technology isn’t second nature. It can be frustrating, coming from the perspective of someone who not only writes about technology but unabashedly loves gadgets and devices, who sees setting up wireless networks and home theater systems as a sport. But taking a step back, you realize that what it really means is that today’s simple just isn’t simple enough.

The learning curveball

Unsurprisingly, a lot of this comes from helping my parents with their technology travails.

Technology often seems to bemuse them. And I don’t believe that it’s purely a generational thing: My parents are both competent adults. They’ve had professional careers. They’ve each got multiple degrees. They’ve navigated bought a house, raised a kid, and dealt with all of the vagaries that life throws one’s way.

But they’ve never really been technology enthusiasts.

That’s supposed to be Apple’s sweet spot, but despite my parents having an iMac, a MacBook, an iPad, two iPhones, and an AirPort Express, I still end up fielding technology questions on a regular basis. They’re not the only ones either. One of my college roommates is an emergency room doctor for whom technology is far more perplexing than, say, stitching up a stab wound.

In the end, I think it’s less about the people themselves than it is technology getting more and more pervasive. Watching TV shows has gone online, paying bills has gone online, even keeping in touch with friends and family has gone online. While those tasks are now much more convenient, convenience and simplicity don’t always go hand in hand.

There are 500 channels, and they’re a pain to set up

A few months back, I brought my old Apple TV over to my folks’ house to hook up to a small bedroom flatscreen TV. I showed off some of the things they could do with the Apple TV, like stream shows from Netflix or Hulu or HBO, watch some network TV, and even stream from their iPads and iPhones.

appletv siri remote hand primary Apple

Apple kept the Siri Remote simple, and while voice search isn't universal, it does cut down navigation time. 

But something about sitting there setting up the box, with my dad idly watching, made me starkly aware of just how cumbersome these processes can be. Trying to watch a video often leads to having to log in to a service by going to a provided URL—meaning you need another device, like an iPhone, iPad, or Mac nearby; not always a gimme in my parents’ household—then enter your cable provider username and password (assuming you can remember them off the top of your head), and finally entering said code from your TV screen. That’s a lot of steps.

It’s not that much better for apps that make you log in right on the Apple TV. Entering my account name and password using an Apple Remote? Fine, it’s tedious, but I can do it. I certainly wouldn’t wish it on anybody else. (And no, I’m not going to equip my parents with a Bluetooth keyboard or an iOS app just to use their TV.)

Thirty years ago, you turned on the TV and started flipping channels. The choices were more limited, sure, but you can’t argue with it being easier.

Best adapted interface

This increasing complexity is one major reason that I’m so wholeheartedly in favor of voice interfaces. Not that they’re perfect—spend any amount of time with Siri and you’ll unquestionably find yourself scratching your head at some of the bizarre interpretations of what you’ve asked. But often, simply asking for something is far easier than trying to figure out which series of buttons to press to get the same result.

For example, try asking SoundHound’s Hound iOS app which Italian restaurants nearby are open at 7pm tonight and you’ll get answers way faster than if you were to find the Yelp app, open that, and then locate and tap in all the necessary search terms and filters. It’s why my aforementioned doctor friend has been using text dictation on his Android phone for years—it’s faster than him trying to pick the message out on the onscreen keyboard.

This isn’t to say voice interfaces will be the ultimate fix for the complexity of our technology—sorry, Star Trek—but I remain convinced that they’re a definite part of the equation. Because, like touchscreens, they’re a prime example of how computers adjust to us. Rather than saying to people, “Oh, use this piece of plastic with buttons for each letter and number”—a natural interface for a computer, if not for a person—we’re creating interfaces for computers that are predicated on an ability that humans have developed.

And really, in the end, shouldn’t technology be all about adapting to our needs, rather than ours to technology’s?

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