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Control vs. Competency - Elf M. Sternberg
Control vs. Competency
Don Norman wrote Emotional Design and The Design of Everyday Thing, and is famous in the design community for his thoughtful approach to physical design. But I have to take a counterpoint to his recent essay, "Simplicity is Highly Overrated". Don has a point about a new washing machine from Siemens that was even more automated, less likely to damage your clothing, than a previous model, and yet despite this incredible automation it had even more controls than the previous model. He called the UI designer at Siemens and asked him about it. "Are you one of those people who wants to give up control, who thinks less is better? Don't you want to be in control?"

And I had to answer, as Don did, "Yes, I think less is better."

I think the second question is fascinating, because I think it contains a hidden bit of misdirection: "Don't you want to be in control?" hides the question, "Control of what?"

Omaha tells me that I'm incompetent when it comes to washing clothes. There's a cheat-sheet of settings next to the washing machine that lets me know what settings are to be set for what sets* of clothes. Programming the washing machine is a competency: I don't want to have to remember all those little details so I have transferred that competency to a small sheet of paper and put it in proximity to the device it controls. The only assurance I need is to know that the paper itself is competent.

Thus the purchasing decision. "Do you want to pay more money for less control?" The assumption here is that I want to be in control of the washing machine, when what I really want is to be competent at washing my clothes. I am willing to pay more money to be more competent. If I transfer that competency to the machine itself, and have to only assess that competency once-- at purchasing time-- then I've freed up important mental resources to do something other than know about how to wash my clothes and I've reduced my own anxiety about getting it right every time I stuff clothes into the machine.

* This sentence reminds me that the word "set" has the most insanely long entry in the dictionary.

Current Mood: thoughtful thoughtful

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shunra From: shunra Date: December 10th, 2006 11:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
It is arguable that competencies build upon each other, rather than being a finite resource. Learning a third language is far easier than a second (and observation - but alas, not personal experience - demonstrates that competence in a fifth language can be rather easier than in a second).

Learning laundry skills builds on and forms the foundation of other skills that form part of the knowledge base that might legitimately be considered necessary for an adult human in 2006.

Absence of laundering skills is not life-threatening (mostly). But it can lead to costly failures. The lack of knowledge and practiced skill can lead to unpleasantness if one is separated from one's sophisticated-to-the-point-of-discompetencification laundry services, which is almost certain to occur in the course of travel for business or pleasure, and in the event that said machine gives out in a fit of mechanical failure and must be replaced by a less sophisticated unit.

Or, in other words - laundry training is just as essential as cooking, transportation, and tax-paying skills.

And having read your thoughts on the matter on the very day my sweetie stuffed two blankets PLUS a half-load of laundry into the washer (::insert well-justified eye-roll here::) reminds me that I had better do the right thing and instill laundering skills into the rest of my family. Like cooking, it may be painful to learn - but will save them pain and trouble in the long run. No fair, hogging all the household competencies...

Here come some lessons in surprise dye-jobs and how to avoid them!
From: technoshaman Date: December 11th, 2006 01:48 am (UTC) (Link)
Have to agree with you. When sis decided to start wearing three sets of clothes a day, Mother decided enough is enough and took us both into the laundry room and showed us what was what. Whites and other stuff that will take it (towels, unmentionables) go in hot, permanent press goes in warm, dark natural fibers in cold. And from that day forward, whenever we wanted laundry done, we darn well did it ourselves. That ended up being one of my Saturday chores, was to do *all* of it.

Of course, one advantage of having a house rather than (most) apartments is within-premises laundry.... but I digress.

As for control.

I think it's best to have user-selectable degrees of control. Have good, least-surprise defaults, and drill-down buttons that let you get into the goodies if you want to, but at the same time hide all the crap if you don't want it.

My Canon camera is like that. You can put it on "P" for program, and just point shoot and drool, you can program in various semi-automatic modes where you set one variable and the computer fills in the rest, or you can set it to "M" and you have full control over the whole enchilada, shutter, aperture, focus, etc. and the built-in flash doesn't fire but the hot shoe does go off so you can do really fancy stuff with bounce or whatever...

And it does it all with one simple rotary dial for the major function, and one simple thumbwheel for the minor function. The user interface is clear, crisp, intuitive, you hardly need once you know what the major modes are.

OTOH, GNOME did the opposite approach; when GNOME went 2.0 they took out all the neat whiz-bang stuff that made GNOME kendaer's UI of choice, and dumbed it down to the point where it actively annoyed him. While I agree that your Aunt Matilda isn't going to even know to be annoyed that certain things aren't customizable, your average Linux user *is* going to notice.... D'OH!

The freedom to learn, grow, and change that decision instead of freezing it for all time immemorial right at the get-go.... that is what I want. I may know jack all about the current subject right now. That does not mean that I won't go out and buy the proverbial O'Reilly on the subject and be conversant with the experts on it next week. I want the control to be able to change my mind.

And sometimes I might want to just leave everything to the computer and not worry about it. And sometimes I might want to do it full-manual, just for the technical challenge.
elfs From: elfs Date: December 11th, 2006 03:57 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I understand what you're saying. I was addressing Don's point that there is a core set of competencies around laundry, like separating the delicates from the jeans, and the darks from the lights. (I did like Cheryl Mendelson (Of Home Comforts fame)'s observation that laundry labels are so confounding that it's no wonder so many college students, faced with their own laundry for the first time, fall into despair and nihilism.) Beyond that, however, I question the degree of difference so many dozens of settings on a washing machine will really have, and are really justified.

The core competencies of laundry are quite small compared to those of cooking, and I question the need for many of those competencies to be contained both in my head and in the machine. Which is really what we're talking about here: I know enough to not wreck my clothes. Having a machine that can work with me is a boon, but when getting to that state requires a programming degree it ceases to be a boon and returns to being a chore.

danlyke From: danlyke Date: December 11th, 2006 06:16 pm (UTC) (Link)

Abstractions that hide my control

My issue with many new interface designs for appliances is that the abstractions hide the control. My dryer has a set of radio buttons for various types of clothing (delicate, permanent press, normal), and then the timer knob repeats some of those settings.

I think I know what's really going on behind the scenes, but I wish the the labels could clearly indicate that this section on the timer knob is timed, this uses the moisture sensor, and the other half of the knob repeats those settings at a different tumble speed, and that the radio buttons are temperature selection.

Or, if it's really the case that I never want to mix and match, consolidate it all into one setting so I don't have to choose "permanent press" in two places, but don't go mid-way and end up hiding functionality from me because the abstraction is allegedly easier to understand.
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