Out of the box

I found it elegant. Synergistic, maybe. I was listening to a podcast on my iPod. It was one from back in July. I enjoy NPR‘s Talk of the Nation “Science Friday“, and July 13’s show had a segment on simplicity and complexity, featuring John Maeda, MIT technologist/artist and author of “The Laws of Simplicity.” The elegance was this: the iPod is one of the simplest user designs masking a fairly complex system and I was enjoying the fruits of a lifetime of complexities made simple.

From capturing radio waves to storing their payload and accessing them with minimal effort, maximal enjoyment.

I am a techno-geek. I love gadgets. I am an engineer by trade and training, an artist deep in my heart, and, above all, someone who gets royally peeved when taking a gadget out of its box and finding I must spend hours or even days pouring through the user documentation to figure it all out.

Car stereo systems are like that. They try to cram tons of functionality into a relatively simple interface, reducing the number of knobs and buttons, but you end up with complex instructions for performing some of the simplest tasks. To tune into this station, push this knob in, then tilt it to the right until the number you want comes up. To scan radio signals, pull out that knob, then press this button. To set your clock, use your left hand to press and hold that knob, then use your right hand to tilt the other knob to the left for hours, right for minutes, and use your foot (either one) to punch this button for AM/PM.

Cell phones — let us not go there. A company I like because they, well, provide my paycheck is chief among the offenders, creating user interfaces that require advanced degrees in glyphs and codices, deep arcane knowledge. I consider the iPhone a breakthrough — like its sibling the iPod — that combines the abstract, the artistic, and the deeply complex functions we Americans are demanding. Of course, both of those products are sitting on the shoulders of the MacIntosh computer which pioneered simple, elegant, and intuitive computing.

I value simplicity. When I pick up my new gadget, I want to just use it, right out of the box. Turn it on (do NOT make me look for the on switch!) and do the most obvious thing to make it perform its primary function(s).

But I also like to hack and customize my toys.

I’ve always found that the best, most elegant design of any software application or gadget was one that had a simple, intuitive user experience on the surface, but would support “power users”, the peeps like me who wanted to make it do everything it could do. Layers of simplicity over oodles of complexity.

Pure elegance.

It seems, though, that for designers of products and software to accomplish that, they have to, well, think out(side) of the box.

I’m waiting for Apple, those masters of elegant simplicity, to provide me with the ability to really play with my toys.