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Recs, "I agree", and Simplicity

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By teacherjh
February 19, 2002

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Warning - this is a long post. I don't get around to the point of it until three paragraphs after the end, so if you are in a hurry, just skip down to there. Or better yet, write three random paragraphs, and then read them. But first, read about my toaster and my answering machine.

I have a toaster. You put bread in, push the button, and a few minutes later, out comes toast. It's really simple to operate, and I mastered it in less than a week. The fact that the light-dark dial didn't work helped, as I just ignore it now. The toast comes out just as well in daylight as at night.

Steve Jobs of Apple Computer realized the simplicity of this design when he designed his computers. The goal was to make them just like a toaster. He failed. I never got good toast out of my Mac. Nonetheless, all is not lost on the technology front. I have an answering machine that could serve as a model for those who would attempt the arduous task of making things simple. It only has one button. It doesn't even have a light-dark dial. That's how simple it is.

Anyway, to set the machine to answer calls, I press the button (there's only one!), wait for a beep, press it again, wait for three beeps, then wait for two beeps, and press it again. When I come home, all I have to do to listen to messages is to press the button. If I want to skip a message, I press the button again, wait for a beep, then wait for two beeps, then press it again. It beeps the number of times there are messages left and begins playing the next message. To go back, I press the button to take me back to the beginning, and then press the button as many times as there are messages to skip. To pause, I just press the button, wait for the beep, wait for two beeps, press the button again, wait for the beep, and press it again. To unpause, I just press the button. It's just like playing the messages in the first place. Erasing the messages is easy. Press the button, wait for two beeps, wait for three beeps, and then press the button twice.

One button! So simple! I love this machine - it's far better than the one it replaces. That one had TEN buttons.
There was a button to play
There was a button to pause
There was a button to skip a message
There was a button to go back a message

For every thing you wanted to do, there was a separate button. And they were all labeled. It was an utter nightmare. Ten buttons, ten labels. If I wanted to play a message, I had to figure out which of these ten buttons said PLAY, and then press it. Once. The other nine buttons were totally and completely useless if I wanted to play a message. I can't figure out for the life of me why they are there.

Every time I wanted to pause playback, I had to figure out which of the ten buttons said PAUSE. It was different from the one that said PLAY. Every time.

Then, if I wanted to skip a message, I had to search for the button that said SKIP. It was driving me crazy. There are TEN of these buttons, each one carefully labeled with a separate function. How are ordinary people supposed to figure this out? I could never get it. So I'm glad that I have this simple, intuitive, one-button-does-it-all machine.

The same kind of thing is happening with language. My dictionary has over 1500 pages, each page is stuffed with all sorts of different words. It seems like each concept has a separate word, and then they have to be put together into sentences before we can make much sense of them (except on the Internet, of course). New words are being invented all the time, and this process just has to stop. People's brains just can't hold all these words and still have room to figure out what to watch on TV tonight. A simple language would have very few words. Something like Newspeak (from 1984) is a start, but the Simpsons seems to have a better handle on the problem. A true lexicographer could probably reduce all of human thought into a few well-chosen grunts, and that would be that. Communication would be far easier if there just wasn't much that could be said.

The fewer options, the better. This is why television is so popular. Just turn it on and watch whatever comes in. Snow, if that's the happening thing.

The Motley Fool's goal of "educate, enrich, amuse" is a very difficult goal to achieve. I laud them for their valiant attempts, but really, what we want is simplicity. Nothing complicated like earnings reports, industry overviews, logarithmic stock charts, and al that ballyhoo that just makes people keel over with boredom and wealth. We're too stupid to figure it all out. We want SIMPLE! Especially now that we're paying for it.

The current rec controversy embodies this in a nutshell. It's been observed that there are three common simple reactions to a post, and one complex one. The complex reaction is to post a well though out reply. This is too complicated for me to discuss here, so I'll just ignore it. The three simple reactions are to agree (or disagree), to admire the cogitation and rationale being explicated in the post, and to simply move on. There are four reactions in all, but there are three actions the user can take. (Newton eat your heart out - action comes after reaction.) This is classic bad design. We have:

Reaction to Post       Button Available

What's next?           Next
I agree                Recommend this post!
Worth reading          Recommend this post!
Here's what I think:   Post Reply

I know I promised not to deal with the case of posting a reply, but there are just too many words in the dictionary and this engendered an obligation to use some of them up. For everyone else's good, of course. :)

There are those that would argue that four reactions should have four different buttons available. To wit:

Reaction to Post       Button Available

What's next??          Next
I agree                I agree!
Worth reading          Recommend this post!
Here's what I think:   Post Reply

This is obviously counter intuitive and would confuse everyone. I don't think there's a soul alive who could figure out something like this. Even Albert Einstein would give up, saying everything is relative and letting his uncle choose which button to push.

Lets take the lesson from the answering machine example above. No, further above. Yes, almost all the way at the top. Can't find it? Just goes to show this system is for you.

First, the I agree and Worth reading thoughts are quite different, so it's ok to give them the same button (Recommend this post). Reusing buttons like that increases efficiency, like the fire alarm box that doubles as a snack dispenser. The Post Reply button is unnecessary, since posting coherent thoughts is beyond the average person's ability. In any case, once such a putative reply is posted, the Fool member is likely to keep reading anyway. So, we can safely combine the What's next? and the Here's what I think functions into the Next button. Since this whole rec thing has already been shown to be confusing, it should be rolled into the Next button too.

Now, each time the reader sees a post, there will be only one button to push: Next. It's really easy for members to do this, and they won't get confused at all. It saves them the trouble of having thoughts in the first place.

Once we remove all the possible sources of information on the Fool, we will truly have an environment for simple members.

Simplicity. What you need when thoughts get in the way.



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