Fewer Bells And Whistles, Please

Not many of us have escaped the intense frustration that comes with trying to program a VCR or getting a big office copier to duplicate just a page or two. Remember the last time your computer said can't next x, rf, fn? Talk about stress!

The wondrous electronic revolution that promised to boost productivity and at the same time entertain us is turning out to be a major cause of high blood pressure. Products have become so technologically complicated that the poor consumer is left feeling foolish--and angry--about not being able to get anything to work anymore. Alienating customers is always a dangerous situation, and corporations ignore it at their own peril.

Surveys have shown that consumers want "plug and play" products. They despise most user manuals, which are rarely written in plain English. Opportunities abound for companies that are smart enough to buck the gimmickry and get back to basics.

In designing people-friendly products, less is frequently more. While the microchip permits dozens of features to be added at negligible cost, a little self-restraint would lead to fewer gadget-laden products that hardly anyone can operate properly. Who really needs a telephone with 144 features?

Fortunately, the same advanced electronic technology that gave us "VCR stress syndrome" can be used to make even the most sophisticated products easy to use. For example, interactive touchscreens on automated teller machines or office copiers can walk the user step by step through quite complex functions. Successful design is determined by what the user needs at the moment, not what the engineers decide to build.

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