Culture

Complicating the Obvious

(Bacho12345/Dreamstime)

Engineers who design computerized products and services seem to have an almost fanatical determination to avoid using plain English.

It is understandable when complicated processes require complicated operations. But when the very simplest things are designed with needless complications or murky instructions, that is something else.

For example, like all sorts of other devices, computers, and computerized products and services have to be turned on and off. And everybody knows what the words “on” and “off” mean. But how often have you seen a computer or a computerized product or service that used the words “on” or “off”?

These simple and obvious words are avoided like the plague on many electronic devices — and this is symptomatic of a mindset that creates bigger problems with other operations. It is as if using words that everybody understands is beneath the dignity of a high-tech product.

Often “power” is substituted for “on” and all sorts of words or symbols are substituted for “off.” A laptop computer of mine had an unidentified symbol on the screen, and only after you clicked on that symbol did another symbol appear, with some words indicating where you could turn the computer off.

Designers of many electronic products do not condescend to use words at all. There is just an array of symbols or buttons that you can either guess what they mean or else dig into a thick book of instructions and search for explanations, much like a pioneer trying to find his way in the wilderness.

My cell phone is a classic example. It does not have a single word blemishing its gleaming surface, except for the name of the manufacturer and the name of the phone company. There is ample room for words such as “on” or “off” but nothing so pedestrian is allowed to upset the design.

For people who spend hours every day talking on their cell phones, no doubt it is easy enough to remember how to turn it on and off. But, those of us who have a life to live, and work to do, cannot spend our time yakking it up with all and sundry. We may keep a cell phone on hand just for emergencies — and months can go by without our using it, or a year or more in my case.

But when there is an emergency, that is no time to have to dig into an instruction booklet, in order to do something as simple as making a phone call. Nor are these instruction booklets always models of clarity. Too often they reflect the same mindset as the devices they describe. Plain and simple words are avoided whenever there is some fancy, murky, or esoteric word that can be used instead.

All sorts of things are computerized these days, and the same preference for murkiness often prevails in their design.

All sorts of things are computerized these days, and the same preference for murkiness often prevails in their design.

After I bought a minivan, everything seemed to go well until I found myself running out of gas. After pulling into a filling station, I wanted to open the cover of the fuel tank — and saw nothing among the forest of anonymous control buttons and levers that would open the fuel tank.

There was nothing to do but get out the 300-page instruction book. However, nothing in the table of contents or the index had any such pedestrian word as “fuel” or “gas.” Eventually — and it seemed like an eternity at the time — I finally stumbled across something in the instruction book that revealed the secret identity of the lever that opened the fuel tank.

There was ample space on the lever for four letters for “fuel” or three letters for “gas.”

There is a certain newspaper whose outstanding editorials I read every day, usually on my iPad in the morning, since I don’t get the paper edition until evening. At one time, it was equally simple to find the editorials in either edition. In the paper edition I just opened the editorial page, and on the iPad I simply clicked on the word “editorial” and the editorials appeared. But then electronic “improvement” reared its ugly head.

In the new electronic version, all kinds of items are grouped under all kinds of titles — none of these titles including “editorials.” After plowing through a long list of items, I discovered the new alias for editorials. It was “Issues and Insights.”

I wish someone would issue some insights to engineers designing computerized products and services.

— Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His website is tsowell.com. © 2015 Creators Syndicate Inc.
Thomas Sowell — Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Update on Alfie Evans

In the few hours since I sent in the piece below, a remarkable succession of events has occurred that paint the decision of the UK authorities in ever-bleaker colors. In the hospital, Alfie was removed from the respirator in accordance with the court’s decision. For the moment, however, he has continued ... Read More
Sports

Hurray for the NBA

Last month, just before the Final Four, I did a Q&A on college basketball with our Theodore Kupfer. Teddy K. is back, by popular demand, joined by two other experts: Vivek Dave, an old friend of mine from Michigan, who has long lived in Chicago, and David French, National Review’s Kentucky Kid, now ... Read More
Economy & Business

Trade Misunderstandings

I was distracted by other policy topics last week but not enough not to notice Peter Navarro’s article in the Wall Street Journal, headlined “China’s Faux Comparative Advantage.” Considering Navarro’s position in the White House, it is unfortunate that it demonstrates some serious misunderstandings ... Read More
Culture

Monday Links

A Supercut of Epic Movie Explosions. Can You Solve These 10 Medieval Riddles? The cost to make a Margherita pizza: $1.77. How much restaurants charge on average for a pizza: $12. The actual costs of restaurant foods. Vintage animation lessons -- how to make things cute. London's "Great ... Read More
World

On Trade, No One Is Waiting for Washington

President Donald Trump’s flips and flops on trade are now as ubiquitous as his 5:00 a.m. tweets. Many predicted that trade-expansion efforts would come to a standstill and world commerce would suffer amidst all the uncertainty. Instead, the precise opposite has happened. In the last few months, it’s become ... Read More
National Security & Defense

Trump’s Syria Quandary

President Trump raised eyebrows recently when he ended a tweet lauding the airstrikes he’d ordered against chemical-weapons facilities in Syria with the words “mission accomplished.” The phrase, of course, became infamous in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, when President Bush used it in a speech ... Read More