Simple != Easy

I’ve been working on a three part article for the last few days called "Pimp my Treo" but now I’m not sure I’ll post it. In short, it’s how to use Kinoma Play, Skyfire and Winterface to "modernize" a Treo or similar device to look and feel more like the "new hotness" devices from HTC and Samsung. It all works pretty well, but I’m doubting now if it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve talked many times before about the Zen of Palm, the commitment going back to Jeff Hawkins to make Palm devices as easy to use as possible. As it turns out, this is important not just in handhelds, but all kinds of computers. Paul Thurrott of the Windows Supersite had an interesting observation on this recently (expanded a bit in this week’s Windows Weekly podcast):

Reading Mr. Carr’s article, it occurred to me that the problem with Windows 7 is the same thing that’s the problem with Mac OS X. That is, Microsoft is confusing “easy” with “simple.”

For example, Mac users have claimed for years that Mac OS X is “easy to use,” when in fact it is anything but. Mac OS X is simple. As noted above, simple is hard [to engineer]. And we should all give Apple credit for that. But simple is not the same as easy. One basic example: The Mac OS X desktop is a barren place with no obvious starting point. And the people who feel that it is easy are fooled because they are simply used to it. Things that are familiar seem easy. But they’re not necessarily easy to those who are unfamiliar with that thing or, in the case of potential Switchers, are familiar with something else. The Mac OS X desktop is simple. But it is not easy.

By contrast, the Windows desktop is easy in that it provides an obvious starting point (a Start button) and because Microsoft and its PC maker partners go a bit over the top presenting information to the user on first boot. Critics will argue that this also makes Windows convoluted. And they’re right, as it turns out. It’s hard to get the right mix of simple and easy. Apple errs to much on the side of simple, in my opinion. But Microsoft errs somewhere else: They overwhelm the user with functionality in a bid to make sure it works for everyone. All too often, the result is something that works for very few people.

Simple is not the same thing as easy. Jeff Hawkins understood this, and made the original Palm devices easy to use. But as many of us Palm veterans know, there was a lot of power in those early devices, too.

Thanks in large part to the iPhone, we’ve seen a flood of “simple” user interfaces on Windows Mobile devices recently. TouchFlo3D on the new HTC devices is only one, Samsung and O2 and Velocity and many others have followed suit with their own spins on how to simplify the Windows Mobile experience. But are they right?

One of the examples Thurrott mentioned in the podcast was old school command line Unix. Here we have a system that was simple, but not easy. Most Unix commands do only one thing, it doesn’t get much simpler than that. Grep finds text matching a search term, nothing more. But you had to know what they were, how they worked, and what kind of output they’d give you before you could string them together in shell scripts to do complex things. Definitely not easy.

The more I tweaked my Treo to work more like the new devices on the market, the more something started to bug me. It seemed slower. It seemed a lot slower. And it was, because I was discarding features designed for ease of use for things that made the experience “simple”. It was simpler to have contacts mixed in with my applications in Winterface, but it was actually easier to get to them by typing directly on the Today screen. I’ll bet my Treo can do anything a Touch Pro can do in a fraction of the time, even with a slower processor. Because it’s easy to use, not simple.

3 thoughts on “Simple != Easy”

  1. There’s something you’re missing here, actually it’s something you miss quite often, not everyone is you and neither you or I are the average user. In fact the people these simple interfaces are aimed at really could care less about the power of the device or how quickly it goes typing into it. For you (and me for that matter), that is to say power users, things like TouchFlo 3D actually make the experience sort of painful. In fact it’s the one thing that worries me about the Touch Pro (I’ll most likely be getting one this week). For people like my grandfather however the TouchFlo interface is perfect.

    For many people the separation in the TouchFlo interface makes it easier to understand out of the box. The biggest complaint I hear from knew users of the standard Windows Mobile interface is it’s not easy to understand. These people are used to feature phones, the streamlined interface is much more intuitive to those sort of people.

    So while people who are willing to learn the more complex Windows Mobile interface may find that easier, even that isn’t a guarantee. I can’t disagree that the standard interface is faster and overall I agree with you. However, we are not the masses and from my experience with the several different kinds of users (several of which are coming from a mogul to a Touch Pro) I can say they prefer the TouchFlo interface hands down. These users really vary in competency when it comes to phone use and they all have the same feelings about the TouchFlo 3D interface.

    I think the big thing here is neither you are I are coming at this with fresh eyes, we’re comfortable with the standard Windows Mobile interface, these newer interfaces aren’t designed with us in mind. If the music app in TouchFlo wasn’t a piece of crap I’d get no complaints about the interface on the Touch Pro. So while we see a slower clunky interface with more steps than we’re used to, new users don’t see that at all.

  2. No, it is YOU who are missing the point. People use Windows Mobile because of the power. If all you’re looking for is a shiny bimbo of an interface, buy an iPhone or a Blackberry Storm. They’re cheap and easy, and if that’s what you’re willing to settle for, great.

    Some people want more. They want a phone (why are we still calling things with more power than a PC from a decade ago phones?) that can do what they want, when they want, with no compromises. And sadly, these are the people too often suckered into buying an inferior device because it’s prettier. PRETTY DON’T WIN THE WAR, SON.

    /wanders off to find pearl-handled revolvers…

  3. Oh, of course, they should cater to the small part of the market, the people who’ve been buying their phones for years. It’d be stupid to build an interface that appeals to normal people.

    The point you’re missing Jeff is you’re the minority (although I’ll admit a very vocal one). We’re both the minority. This is one of the things you and I always argue about, we ain’t the masses by a long shot and they shouldn’t build a market around us. In fact, if you don’t like the interface, just remove it, you’re a power user, feel free to setup your own interface just how you like it on a Touch Pro. Leave the TouchFlo 3D to the people it’s designed for (hint: you aren’t one of those people).

    My point is, you don’t think it’s easier, but you’re not supposed to. When HTC was designing the interface they specifically weren’t trying to build something for you, they were building something for people who AREN’T like you. The people who weren’t buying their phones or who were returning them because they were too complicated. Judging by the success of the Touch Pro, I’d say they’ve got a winner.

    So it’s win win, you get a phone with the power under the hood and normal people get an interface they can understand more easily.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *