In search of Elegance #1: An introduction

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Spotted this a while back. Recreation of a Saxon door lock (circa 5th and 6th century). Complex yes, but elegant. It serves the purposes of both keeping intruders out when you’re inside and just locking the door when you need it.

Something I’ve been thinking about over the last few months is the complexity of the systems available today. Feature creep is something that every vendor is facing. Apart from a handful, the majority of systems on the market are at least ten years old, relying on technology that was developed in the last millennium. Features have been rammed into every system on a 12 to 18 month cycle for nearly ten years. Ten major releases of new.. well… stuff. Stuff that does stuff slightly different or stuff that does things in exciting and new ways. But at the end of the day, it’s that.

Stuff.

While I’m as guilty as anyone else as being wowed by the latest and greatest technological advancement, the simple facts are that the technology we’re discussing is only a part of a designer, an engineer or a manufacturer’s toolbox. We could, if push comes to shove, do the job using a sheet of paper, a pencil and a rule/french curves. sure, it would be less efficient and more error prone, but that’s a simple fact.

These are tools – nothing more, nothing less.

And it’s now getting to the point where many users are looking at what they’ve invested in, both in terms of personal learning and often theirs or their employer’s cash in and wondering if they need it all. I recently attended a launch event by a major vendor and sat talking to some old friends that have been through the gamut of technology and asked, “Do you ever use any of the new enhancements?” The answer came back as I’d suspected it would. “Nope. I still use the system the same way I did in 1998.” While this is the atypical pessimistic British response, there’s some truth in it.

I dug a little further into their views. it turns out that battle hardened veterans will use new technology if is actually adds some value to their working practices – and that it seems, is something that’s missing. The hook that gets people using new enhancements. And how do they get hooked?

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The simple answer is thus: Users adopt new features that make things easier.

Now, this might sound obvious, blatantly so in fact, but there’s more to “easier to use” than is immediately clear. Design and engineering is an inherently complex process, the definition of part forms is something that takes complex mathematics and geometry wrangling. All too often vendors obsess over removing user control over how geometry is created to the point where a reasonably intelligent chimp, persuaded with a bunch of bananas, could create geometry. That’s not what users seem to want. They want tools that are clean, efficient, solve an issue or challenge, but allow them to retain control over what’s happening.

To my mind, that’s not ease of use, that’s building elegance into an application.

So this is what I’ve been considering of late, elegance. And how stuffing new features into a product isn’t the best way forward for many users, but rather a reworking of things a system does, how it does it and how you gain better results, better workflows or a more efficient design process as a result.

What’s interesting is that there’s been a shift in how vendors are refocusing their development efforts. Some are being very vocal about the fact that they’re refocussed on improving existing tools and fixing what’s broken or clunky, while others are being much more subtle about it. Of course, there’s also a correlation between the vendors being noisey on the topic and the amount of criticism there’s been in their user community of the exact same subject.

So, over the next few posts, I’m going to talk about a few bits of technology, some new products and some examples of where elegance is becoming something all the more appealing than plain old ease of use.


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