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Simplified Controls Make Technology More Marketable - 2001-12-23

The more complicated the technology, the greater the importance of simplified instructions. U.S. designers are realizing that making a product easy to use may have more to do with its market success than the product's capabilities.

In his lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ted Selker is preoccupied with the screens and controls human beings use to get machines to do what they are supposed to do.

In this age of very sophisticated, complicated, computerized machinery, he says, it is more important than ever that the human interface be simple. "A really important goal now," he said, "is to make things we can understand what to do with and what it is because if we do not understand the value of it, we can not use it. It has to present itself. It has to tell us how it is going to fit in with our lives. Otherwise, it is going to be a dusty appliance in the kitchen that could do so much."

No one would agree more than Bob Beaton, the Director of the Displays and Controls laboratory at Virginia Polytechnic Institute - a place that focuses primarily on making technology easy to use.

Mr. Beaton says market forces, namely consumer rejection of past products, have compelled manufacturers to look at ways to incorporate usability into design. He points to television remote controls as an example." Mr. Beaton said, "If you look at the early units, they might have anything from 15 to 30 buttons, with small lettering, difficult or esoteric abbreviations. Today, some of the better, more popular control units have far fewer buttons, labeling that is easy to read. They are being used a lot more."

Another example of successful simplicity, Ted Selker says, is the computerized devices that have made keys unnecessary for opening and locking car doors. He said, "You take a look at a car these days. You push a button on your key chain to close and open the trunk as well as the side doors on both sides. That is all in the service of "easy to use". A good user interface is taking the tool out of the task, so the task is all you are focussing on, not the tool."

In contrast, Bob Beaton points to the videocassette recorders on the market today. Mr. Beaton said, "Many of these products have 10 and 20 functions, but people do not use most of the buttons and dials that are built into these products and end up having popular opinions that these things are difficult to use."

The brilliance of a multifaceted invention dims considerably when the user can't figure out how to make it work. Increasingly, Bob Beaton says, manufacturers are getting that message.