I saw the most fantastic advertisment on daytime telly the other day. For those of you who have Cable, daytime telly in the UK on the terrestrial (“free” in that you just pay for your TV licence) channels is the closest you get to the general crap informercialness of normal Cable channels all the time. The best thing on was this fantastic ad for an idiot-proof video recorder. It was about a minute long, describing how with this fantastic piece of equipment you could be guaranteed to record what you wanted, when you wanted it.

Sounds good, right? Well, yes and no. See the instructions were very very simplistic. The remote consisted of three dials — the top dial for setting the day (Mon – Sun), the second for the start-time, the third for the end-time (or number of hours to record for, or something). Each about 5 cm in diameter, so the remote itself is massive. The voice-over also explained that you have to put the video in and set the right channel on the video recorder itself. So this video can’t even record on BBC 1 at 8pm for an hour, then Channel 5 at 11pm for an hour to get this week’s episode of Lexx. It’s the most simplistic video-recorder I’ve seen in my entire life … and I am old enough to remember some fairly basic ones.

What concerns me is that there is evidently this opportunity in the market. Some people are so over-faced by their complicated video recorders that they feel the need to go back to absolute basics. The usability of their sophisticated modern technology has failed them so absolutely that they are willing to pay more money for far far fewer features, just so they can rely that it will do what they want it to do, rather than what their 2 year old has programmed it to do. This I can understand … if all I had was a house full of taped Teletubbies episodes, I’d be a little closer to the edge too.

But what does this say about the industry? This has happened in the arena of electronics although perhaps it is a doomed attempt to corner a market that isn’t really that big. My interactions with various relatives, however, lead me to suspect that maybe there really is a massive market for this type of thing. Nobody wants to have to rely on their kids to get their stuff video’d. In a way this is the appeal of the Sky Plus boxes, which are Tivo-like, but apparently more idiot-proof. Are we going to see a similar trend in computing?

Or has this trend already started? For reasons best not explained here, I had to do an install of Win XP Pro this weekend. Whilst it was doing it’s thing and throwing up propaganda onto the screen, I glanced at what it was trying to get across. A lot of it revolved around only the options you needed being on the screen … about simplifying the interface. This is presumably what that horrible green-blue creation is all about .. making your PC “friendlier”. It’s definitely what that saccharine little paper-clip is all about. Is the next phase of software development not going to be about functionality, but about usability taken to an extreme? Are we just going to make things dumb and dumber from now on?

Well, firstly my work laptop appears to have b0rked completely. Corrupted hard-drive. So much for the safety and reliability of this new-fangled XP malarkey. Luckily I don’t think I’ve lost much significant work, as I’d had problems a few weeks ago and was fairly religiously backing up.

I have just realised, however, that our corporate backup only saves My Documents and my Lotus Notes related files to the server. This means that my Firebird bookmark files are lost to the corruption. I know this shows how geeky I am, but this is the most upsetting thing of all — I had weeks and weeks worth of unvisited links, things I meant to return to, at least 20 things I had intended to blog …. the list goes on. I am such a geek, mourning over lost links *rolls eyes*

Hey everyone. Fantastically I am on holiday from tomorrow (Xmas eve) until next Monday. Technically I’m working every working day over the festive season, so I’m quite grateful my company sees Xmas Eve as a holiday as well. 5 whole days off! We’re off to see my clan and then the in-laws as well, so it should all be … interesting.

So for now I leave you with a load of links and a reminder to vote for the pet homophobe’s name. My favourite at the moment is still “Prince” but “Spot” is growing on me too. It’s a fairly short list, so I won’t shortlist it and I don’t think we need Big Read-style commentaries, so just go give your vote or suggestion!

Happy Commercial Season to you all!

There’s an interesting article over at UsabilityWorks from a little while ago, essentially about design by committee. Situations where a consensus is needed for even the most minor decision are very difficult — particularly when everyone has a different (sometimes political) agenda.

This sort of environment leads to two main things happening: either 1) decisions end up being taken in a hurry by some random person who it falls to in the end, because “we’re hitting a deadline now and we just haven’t been able to get everyone in a room to point at the same bit of paper” (just for the record, I’m a BIG fan of everyone pointing at the same bit of paper) or 2) decisions not being taken at all, potentially critical issues not being addressed because achieving consensus is just too difficult.

What often occurs in these situations is as Matthew predicts: “the person who speaks first/loudest is the authority”. For some this is a fantastic opportunity and they build their career on the great decisions they have made at critical moments. For others it is disastrous — they are not the right person to make the decision, due to lack of experience, misunderstanding of the issues, etc. Projects driven on consensus and designed by committee are made or broken in those critical moments when someone without authority (for essentially no one has authority) makes a decision. The person who speaks loudest is not necessarily the best person to make the decision, as the guys at OK/Cancel have previously illustrated.

Admittedly, sometimes this setup is needed. If you have a number of stakeholders, each representing a given role/viewpoint, then everyone being involved in the design may be essential. It often falls over, however, when those involved have not clearly declared their roles and discussions become fights because no-one understands where anyone else is coming from. The real problem is when you have a team which is not a team at all — it is possible for a team to design something, even a group can do so. But never a committee.

As Elly previously touched upon, what you end up with is a situation where any idea that doesn’t cause a fight is a Good Idea ™. There is a similar concept in Software Engineering called Groupthink — where any idea the group comes up with is by definition great, because the group came up with it (yes, ladies & gents, psychosis and circles all in one concept…).

Now, the question really crystallizes down to the following: do we want to design “OK” things? Surely any critical design decision should evoke some sort of emotion from people? I think this is where Apple have got the right idea. They design beautiful things, things that people feel strongly about. You don’t just buy an iPod or a Powerbook. You WANT one. If you’re Simon then you lust after one for months and it is a major event when you finally order one.

I want to design things that people love, hate, adore, detest, recommend, ignore. I’d rather the strength of feeling were there than just mindless acceptance or apathy. Maybe I’m not the only one, but you wouldn’t know to look at a lot of the things produced out there.

Strange things from today:

Also, I’m not the only one getting homophobic weblog comments … and so far the names in the running for our pet homophobe are “Fobey”, “the homophobe formally known as Prince” and “Pokey”. For now, please go along and contribute, or just vote for your favourite. I might set up a voting script if I can find time, but this week it’s unlikely…

As some of you might have noticed, here at Meriblog we have had some homophobic and malicious comments. I found it quite amusing and Tony pointed out to me this morning that we have a pet homophobe, just in time for Xmas!

Now he also pointed out that every pet needs a name (and that “a homophobe is for life, not just for Xmas” … to which I pointed out that a homophobe is only for life if they never face up to being gay themselves 😉 ) so I thought we should have a competition.

This isn’t just to take the festive piss, but also a chance for all those of you lurking who haven’t shown yourself to do so. So what’s the best name for our pet homophobe? If you have a new idea, or like an existing one, post a comment stating your preference 😉

Some strange and interesting things that have wandered through my tabs today: