To be useful, products must be easy to use

For far too long now, users have been duped by the technology industry. It has convinced us there is an inverse relationship between value and ease. The more complex a product, the more challenging its integration, the more difficult its rollout -- the more sophisticated, important and valuable it is.

There may have been a time when this was true. Early computers -- even early PCs -- were hard to use. But today, with all our processing speed, graphics power, memory, storage, broadband connectivity and experience, computers and applications should be a breeze. Instead, we waste hours each week waiting on Windows and hunting down functions that should not be that hard to find. We lose work, sleep and our minds, convinced we aren't clever enough to work with these sophisticated machines.

Consider my new cell phone, the Cingular 8125 Pocket PC with Windows Mobile 5. This expensive-even-when-subsidized phone has the worst user interface on any device I've seen in 22 years covering the technology industry. The designers spent countless hours packing Windows-like features into this tiny computer and forgot that its primary purpose in life is to be a mobile phone. The up-close computational use of the 8125 isn't bad, but the on-the-go phone use is horrible.

When I went into a Cingular store to get some support, the clerk was unfazed by my complaints. Everyone else likes it, he said, pointing to a blog where gadget junkies wrote pages of posts lauding the fabulous features of the 8125.

Then it hit me: This phone interface was bad because engineers and designers had created it with gadget junkies in mind. Did they give any thought to the remaining 95 percent of the market? Not likely. Let the peasants buy simpleton phones; technophobes don't deserve to own such high technology!

Therein lies the problem. Too often a simple interface is confused with a dumbed-down product for tech lightweights who can't appreciate fine engineering. That's a convenient excuse, but it's lacking in truth. A great and elegant user interface is as hard and as important a technology challenge as any component beneath the covers.

As consumers of technology for business and personal applications, we have to demand more from product designers and engineers. We need to be vocal when products don't work as we expect, because no matter how feature-rich a product may be, if it doesn't provide a positive user experience, it doesn't add value to work or personal life.

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