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Originally posted May 22 2006 at 22:05 under General. 0 Comments. Trackbacks Disabled.

This Entry Is A Bit Like A Car

In an instant message conversation with Ed last night I said something along the lines of “car analogies should be banned”. He agreed. Except I think I’ve just decided they’re occasionally useful. You see the one thing with cars is they’re the one piece of relatively complicated tech that the majority of the populace can operate, and has been familiar with for some time. The appropriate word here being complicated.

My thinking on this was inspired by a Forever Geek article extolling the virtues of simplicity in design. In essence the article is correct, simplicity is a beautiful thing when things just work; the problem is some things have a certain inherent complexity necessary for them to be useable which gets tends to get missed when campaining for things to “just work”. Which brings us to the car as analogy for technology.

A car for instance must have a steering wheel. It would be a lot simpler to make it with just stop and go pedals and a seat but that isn’t useable. In order to be useful it must have a means of deciding where you want to go, and of avoiding obstacles between you and that destination. The steering wheel is a necessary piece of complexity in order to use the car, just as some things must be present in certain pieces of technology or they are pointless (or directionless). There, I’ve made a car analogy and haven’t even made any puns about winding up windows and restarting the engine. The car is used as an analogy for the other side of simplicity too. It is often pointed out that one needn’t understand the workings of an engine in order to drive a car. This is indeed true, and in general a good thing. That is not to say that such an understanding won’t give you better insight into the car, and make you better able to use it. You have to at least know where to put the petrol in. That comes close to touching on another aspect of the whole “less is more” attitude. It is in the end pandering to the lowest common denominator. Doing so ignores the fact that whilst this might make things more useable for some it can make things less useable for a large proportion (and even the majority) of others. Imagine if having put our steering wheel in place we’d only allow right turns, because three right turns make a left and so it’s simpler that way. That may well work (in this rather simplified, not really the real world analogy) but isn’t it obvious that it’s better to let people turn left if they want to—even if that means they can go left then right and so end up not turning at all? To put it another way some people run to the shops and some people are racing drivers.

One might argue that there should therefore be a selection of products, a number of cars, for people to select from depending on their needs. That again to some extent is true; it’s obvious that you shouldn’t directly compare a formula 1 race car with a Renault Clio for instance. However, it’s also true that you can stil race Clios if you want to. Besides, saying there should be many products just shifts some of the complexity from the product to the selection process (to show the car analogy can stretch a little it’s also true that some things should be shifted to the users intitial choice. Nobody expects their car to come with spray paint to change the colour, though they might expect they at least can). Not only that but the user can’t necessarily anticipate their usage before hand. If you want the analogy then maybe that’s why cars have a reverse gear. Cars also have luggage space and radios and passenger seats not because these are necessary but because they are useful to enough people, and make the whole thing versatile. The thing about Apple’s one button mouse has always bugged me. It is perfectly possible to use windows, or linux, for instance, without ever touching the right mouse button. Hell, it’s possible to do it without ever touching the mouse! Obviously the mouse is an un-needed over complication….

There’s also one other vital ingreadient that, no matter how hard they try to, the designer can’t remove—that not so much of human stupidity but ability. I have a fair ability to understand physics concepts, or to discuss the finer points of the offside law. However, I have pretty much nill musical ability or talent. In a similar way there are people who have been trying to learn to use a car for years and still can’t pass a driving test, which essentially just makes sure your competant enough not to immediatly kill someone. For some people no matter how “just works” you make it they’re just not suited.

So you see the car analogy for technology. It’s simple. Imagine you had this car right, where you had to turn a key in a door, then part way in another lock, then enter a code on a keypad, then turn the key some more before releasing it back to a previous position. And if you haven’t got some of the other switches in the right place the process isn’t going to work properly. Silly, eh ;-)

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This Crazy Fool

Dr Ian Scott
Croydon (and Gateshead), United Kingdom
Bullding Services Engineer (EngDesign), PhD in Physics (University of York), football fanatic (Newcastle United), open source enthusiast (mainly Mozilla)

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