Tech companies fetishize simple design—and it’s making us dumb

The Apple Watch just can’t compare.
The Apple Watch just can’t compare.
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It took me about five minutes to figure out the New York Times app on my smartphone. As Android apps go, this is a relatively long time—with many others, I’ve been up and running in under a minute. This particular app, though, offers complete access to every section and every article published by one of the great newspapers in history, including videos, recipes, travel guides, and a dizzying array of multimedia doodads. For a casual browser like me, to learn to navigate that in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee is an astounding achievement, not just of technology, but of empathy and insight.

My banjo, on the other hand, is something I’ve been working at diligently for six months now, and I’ve only just emerged from the rank of total beginner. There are chords to memorize and rolls to practice, proper hand position, rhythmic and harmonic structures, and after hundreds of hours of practice, the payoff is a modestly accurate rendition of “You Are My Sunshine.” It’s occasionally frustrating, but not unfair or unexpected—I knew the rules when I picked the thing up.

In our current rush to digitize everything, we struggle with two competing arguments about the value of simplification. The first, and most widely accepted, is that an easy-to-use tool will always triumph over a hard-to-use one. This is Interaction Design 101, and it’s the main reason why “disruptive” products like Spotify and Uber keep gushing out of the digital world. When you use technology to cut steps out of a task, people gravitate toward it. It’s why we do our holiday shopping at Amazon, send an email instead of writing a letter, and go to the grocery store instead of learning to farm.

The second, which nips at the heels of usability like an earnest herding dog, is that ease-of-use snatches away precious moments of satisfaction, isolates us, and makes us dumb. It’s an argument that doesn’t entirely unseat the ease-of-use imperative, but it does have merit: For most of us, pulling up a song on Spotify is an impoverished experience compared with dropping a treasured LP on the turntable in the company of friends.

As with most dichotomies, the answer lies not in one argument or the other, nor even in some compromise between the two, but in learning to discern which argument is right in which situation. I don’t want banjo playing to be easy, but I also don’t want to spend two years figuring out how to read today’s headlines on my phone. The difference has little to do with technology, and everything to do with the intentions and expectations I’m bringing to each task.

Of the hundreds of tools and skills I use on a regular basis, there’s little consistency in the length of their learning curves, which can range from seconds to years. The fancy integrated shifters on my bike took just a few minutes to figure out, while Google Docs, the software I’m using to compose this article, took weeks to master. Twitter, which I check several times a day, needed a month or two to feel really comfortable, and TurboTax seems to take two or three painful days of relearning every year. The difficulty correlates with the versatility of the tool to some degree, but not entirely—you could argue TurboTax does a lot more things than Twitter, yet it’s still easier to learn.

Part of this is attributable to other people. Much of what makes Twitter hard (and Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, Tinder, Snapchat, etc.) is the people on the other end of it. People are unpredictable and complicated, and any tool that mediates between them is going to develop social norms that spawn hashtags, abbreviations, sub-tweets, attribution standards, and on and on. These take time to learn, and they’re not optional if you want to get actual value out of the tool. But there are plenty of technologies that connect people without the steep learning curve—text messaging, for example. And others, like complex video games, involve no people at all, yet take eons to master.

The real correlation, I’d argue, is with how specific our expectations are. TurboTax, Spotify, and the shifters on my bike all share a single-mindedness of purpose—they’re complex in operation, but I engage with each of them knowing exactly what outcome I want. For TurboTax, it’s a complete, legal tax return with the maximum possible refund. For Spotify, it’s immediate access to a song, or a curated introduction to new bands. For the shifters, it’s the next gear.

What am I using Twitter for? To stay connected with friends, to get more fine-grained perspectives on current events, to promote things I’m writing, or some combination of all three, which ebbs and flows with the seasons. That’s part of its appeal, but also what limits its simplicity. The act of learning how to follow, retweet, post images, and build follow lists is also an act of discovery; I’m learning what else is possible, and this is ultimately what makes the platform so useful. If I was using Twitter today like I used it when I first started, I wouldn’t be using it anymore.

Music offers an even more instructive example. Once upon a time, the only way to hear a song was to play it on an instrument—or find someone else who could—and this made all music social and precious. It’s no wonder inventors bent themselves to the task of recording, playback, and distribution: first with the phonograph, then with the radio, the LP, the cassette, CD, MP3, and now streaming media. Each of these was a successively better answer to the question, “How do I hear that song?” Moreover, this increasing ease of access spawned all sorts of new and wonderful experiences: blasting a familiar mixtape on a road trip, constructing and playing the perfect dinner-party playlist, the random access trip down memory lane that a good streaming service can enable.

But all of these technologies only answer one question: They get us to the song. The song is the point. The song is king. Rewind to the ancient days when the song, the performance, and the communal listening were inseparable, and you see that it’s not the only question. For the musician, there’s the question of mastery, and of unexpected discovery of new ways of playing—what the physicist Richard Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.” The difficulty of learning the instrument, with its embedded harmonic structure and physical preference for certain patterns, is fundamental to this process.

For listeners, there’s the question of intimacy with the music and of shared experience with each other. Hearing the song is part of it, and it’s the most easily identifiable part, but it’s certainly not the only thing that’s happening. For some of us, the song itself is almost irrelevant. Instead, we want to see an immediate cause and effect, of fingers on strings linked indelibly to sensations in our ears. Or we want to know who else loves what we love, and see how they dress, how they stand, whether they bounce to the music the way we do. This is why we still pay to see live music when we could stay home and hear the same song more clearly, while seeing the musicians more vividly, for free.

This willingness also shows the limits of optimization. “Hearing the song” is a concrete, specific outcome, and it responds well to ease-of-use efforts. “Engaging with music” is something much more nebulous, that we often pursue despite—or because of—its unknowable outcome.

Similar things could be said about taking pictures: the ease of the smartphone snapshot vs. the cultivated skill of SLR photography. Or for procuring dinner: some of us delight in the creativity of crafting a meal from scratch, while others just want a can of soup to make us not be hungry. Absolutely none of this makes Spotify or iTunes a bad idea any more than a delightful dinner party conversation makes Twitter a bad idea. What we’re slowly coming to grips with is the unimaginable complexity of human experience. Every task we complete or pleasure we pursue has dozens of moving parts, some of which can be improved or optimized through thoughtful design, while others just can’t.

The wisest conclusion for designers and the people who pay them is to start thinking about how easy something should be, and make room for both simple and more complex versions of the same task. Spotify vs. the banjo may be an extreme example, but there are already many arenas of experience that support multiple levels of ease. This is why Vine and iMovie can thrive in a world that already has Adobe Premier and Final Cut Pro.

There’s also an onus upon us as users to stop mindlessly insisting that everything be easy—or conversely, that only the most manual option will do. I, for one, am grateful that a snapshot of my son no longer requires a roll of film and a working knowledge of apertures and f-stops. But I wouldn’t trade our banjo practice sessions for the world.