Complexity as a Feature

Over the weekend, I bought a new camera, the Sony a6000. So far I’m amazed and delighted with what it can do but I also know that this is a tool that I will have to study up on and practice with quite a bit in order to get the most out of it.

The Sony a6000 is very feature rich and like most complex systems, knowing what each feature does is not enough. You have to understand how they work together to get the most out of it. In other words, you have to examine features from the changing perspectives of what you want to achieve in any given case, not just a static list of what the camera does. This is design that trusts its users to know what they want and that respects that they don’t all want the same thing.

Intuitiveness in design has become somewhat of a sacred cow. While it’s certainly true that successful acceptance of new systems is sometimes stymied by a learning curve that users refuse to broach, the other extreme also causes problems: creating systems so simplistic that they aren’t very useful, especially when they rely too heavily on a one-size-fits-all approach. Simplistic is not the same as intuitive.

Intuitiveness mostly draws what knowledge we’ve internalized from previous experiences. However conscious effort—to think, to be—is our human birthright, what sets us apart and what what enables us progress. We oughtn’t just operate the world on a gut feeling; we have brains, after all. Most of our best work is when we are forced out of our mindless, unthinking behavior and we interrogate the world around us, when we question our own assumptions. Yes, it’s hard work to see things with new eyes.

The best systems do not simply provide better solutions (faster, more efficient, more automated), they rethink the problem. They try to understand what the user really needs. Users frequently can’t tell you themselves as they are as constrained by the existing solutions as the designer is. That is, they have adapted themselves to the system and can no longer think outside it.

Sometimes, that means the solution isn’t intuitive. Rethinking a problem, changing habits can be a bit uncomfortable, initially. But make that effort and when you get it. Wow. Then you’ll think, “It’s so obvious.” It will seem intuitive.

That prelude was an introduction to this bit of very well-written procedural documentation I found by someone who understands that it is better to think of machines in terms of functions, not features. It’s not enough to describe the parts, we have to learn how the parts work together.