It Ought To Be Simple. Why Is It Complicated?

Posted Tuesday, April 27, 2010, 12:36 PM


I am finishing up the last touches on a website. In the same way that the most dangerous time to be on a return journey is a few miles from home, the most fiddly time to be finishing a website is in the last few steps. It's when things that you had anticipated to be the simplest and quickest end up taking the longest and are the most maddeningly convoluted.

Why are some methods to do things so absurdly complicated? Why can't everything be elegant and simple and just work straight out of the box?

Early on in my computer career, when the only access to a computer of any significance that I had was to my flatmate's Commodore Amiga 500, I marvelled at the wonderful GUI of its Operating System. Things worked really smoothly, were arranged logically, and were simple for beginners to grasp. It was leaps ahead of what Windows users were battling with, in Win3.1, and was somewhat more advanced than what I had seen in Apple Macintoshes of the time.

But all of that elegance was marred by its disk drive, that constantly whirred and clicked whenever it was empty. It was intended to be an elegant system to recognise when a disk was inside, and it could instantly activate. But the method was clunky at best, with it endlessly circling, waiting, and checking, a soft but everpresent "clunk" every ten seconds. The solution was to always have a disk in, blank if necessary.

A stupid design fault on an otherwise excellent computer. I can only imagine that the Amiga's death was due to more dumb decision-making of that ilk.

After Windows 95 came along, competing more directly with Apple's newer OS, things started to happen, as now using a computer was tangibly logical, instead of mind bendingly complicated. Except a few of my friends at that time didn't want to travel the evil Microsoft or expensive Apple route, and instead clung to the free and kludged together Linux avenue.

Linux, at that time, (not so long ago) was for Nerds only. And I don't mean afficionados and geeks, I mean full on 200% NERDS who obsess over minuscule ephemera as if they actually mattered to the world at large, instead of the easily dismissed nonsense it is.

The Linux Nerds like to use software that they have to "compile" rather than install. That is, they have to add each small part of the program, in pieces, with text commands to get them to work together. They come with no instructions on how to do that, or documentation on how to use the application after it's ready, and no help files should it fail, or any assistance at all. You have to nut everything out yourself, on your own, and if there is a single ounce of incompatibility with any of your other apps or hardware, then it will refuse to work at all, with no explanation.

Compare that with an application with an installer and drivers and a documentation PDF, pretty much the standard for current software on Windows and Macs.

Needlessly complicated, versus sweetly elegant. For some reason, there has to be years of absurd complication and mystifying messiness before someone swoops in and tidies it all up to work effectively and smoothly at long last.

The point of this post is that, on this website I am finishing up, I am trying to find a way to add audio files to the posts so that they come readily setup with a player, requiring no extra work for my client than "choose file, choose place it appears in post, save". I am happy to deal with complications to get a file on my blog (and what a ridiculously messy business it is to add images to Blogger), but for the average user those kinds of steps are needlessly complicated. The method I have employed to achieve this elegant solution involves four third-party plugins; two paragraphs of careful step by step instruction; and two additional text editing steps nobody ought to have to do, and which can easily go wrong, messing up the whole procedure.

It's utter madness that it is so needlessly complicated.

This is coupled with no way for her to upload a gallery of images in one click, no way for her to add a video clip without six lines of javascript or DHTML embed code that she would have to edit by hand each time, and no way to add searchable tag clouds without an expensive separate plugin I will have to purchase.

These kinds of standard, simple, default features are instead unavailable or overly complicated.

Whatever happened to elegance?

3 Reasoned Responses:

Dags said...

What you need is the button on the keyboard that says "insert audio into website here". You press it and presto there it is just the way you want it.

So you want to know why it's all so hard these days, well let's look at writing as an example.

Once upon a time (keeping it simple) writing started with a piece of paper and a pen. You picked up the pen and wrote words with it. All the text, font, formatting, style, indents etc were all done in real time and if you made a mistake, too bad. No matter what it was, and still is, the simplest way of transfering your thoughts onto a different medium.

Then came the typewriter where you could suddenly add some basic formatting in the form of tab marks as well as create better looking text much quicker than you could with handwriting, but alas that was all you could do and mistakes were still a hinderance that couldn't be fixed easily. Typewriting was a skill you had to learn but once learned handwriting took a back seat.

Then came the word processor and from here suddenly the writer was blessed with an abudance of choices in how to create a simple document: bold, itallics, underline, double underline, font size, font choice, left/centre/right justification, colours, bullets, tabs, columns plus the ability to cut and paste text wherever you wanted. Ahhh bliss!

But is it?

What this means is that even writing something simple is now a complicated process because there are so many options to consider. I doubt if anyone EVER opens up a word processor screen, types some text and then saves it exactly as it appears without making some change to it. But what would happen if we took all these extra features away? Let's keep it simple like only having one font, one font size, no ability to bold, itallicise and so on? People would complain that it's too primitive, so all these features are included and unfortunately as people get used to these features they then want a few more added in ala Headers and Footers, drop casing, sub texts, the ability to include pictures, tables and so on. Thus before you know it the humble word processor, once designed to just write a document with some basic control, is now burdened with all these extra features that users now have to learn and understand. Further to that, the time it takes to create a document is increased because of all the formatting choices on offer for the user.

What this means in your case is that website building was once simple in its execution. In the early days pages were created with some simple HTML code and published in a way for browsers to view. All you needed was a default page, a couple of links and ta da! But today that's not enough, everything has to be interactive, everything requires fields, animation, video, audio and thus what was once simple is now complicated as users want to change things in minute detail, and complication takes time.

So the big question for you shouldn't be "how to add audio onto your webpage more easily" the question should be "what if I don't include audio to begin with" and keep it simple?

Now this post isn't to say that progression is a bad thing, far from it especially as I LOVE my word processor and all the features it has, but what it's saying is that all this control and the ability to so many things comes at a price and that price is ... complication.

And thus ends my rant :)

GuanoLad said...

There has to be audio, she's a musician, and that's what her site is primarily built for.

I see what you're saying, but there's additional complexity, and then there's unnecessary convoluted rigmarole.

Dags said...

The downside to application packages these days is that there is only so much you can do with a simple click of an icon.

For example to bold something simply means you highlight it and click the bold icon - easy. But if you want to bold the text, copy it to a table, change the font, change the colour, change its justification and change its size, then that requires a number of clicks and unfortunately no single icon can do all that exactly as a person wishes (excluding the creation of macros).

So in the end somethings will always be simple and somethings will always be difficult. The problem is when your work depends on a task that is difficult to perform then you'll always think there should be an easier way.

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