K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple Stupid

Fri, 09/30/2005 - 8:00pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph. D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

Technologists love acronyms. One used for many years by design engineers is K.I.S.S., for "Keep It Simple, Stupid." But this important rule is more honored in the breach than in compliance. Consumer electronics products are the most egregious violators of this rule. This is ironic because consumers are most in need of products built to this principle.

We all have digital cameras, personal digital assistants (PDAs), cell phones, TVs, VCRs, DVD players and recorders, etc., which have dozens of unused features. As a result of the power of Moore's Law, it costs essentially nothing to add these features to the electronics. Accommodating the controls for a new feature can be more expensive than the electronics which implement the feature. Often, the mechanical design requires augmentation or redesign. Sometimes this is avoided by having buttons serve multiple purposes or by requiring more than one button to be pushed simultaneously, such as along with a "shift key" or "aux key." In some cases, it costs more to add a few pages of clear information to the instruction manual than to add the transistors that actually perform the function. Because the consumer electronics business is so fiercely competitive, marketers are always looking for a new feature that might be a competitive edge. Because design cycles have become so short, any competitive edge lasts just a short while before it is copied, giving rise to the search for another competitive feature lead.

At least four reasons exist for these features lying fallow: First, the consumer may not be aware of the feature. Second, the consumer may not perceive its value. Third, the access and operation of the features may not be intuitive. Fourth, the instruction manual, if there is one, is poorly written.

Walter Ciciora
Walter S. Ciciora,
Ph.D., Recognized
Industry Expert on
Cable and Consumer
Electronics Issues
For most of us, this is a minor frustration. But for a growing segment of the population, it is a more severe problem. Older folks have problems with the features of these products. Eyes don't focus as well as they used to and fingers become less nimble. It's a pain to require reading glasses to see the small print on these products. These limitations also apply to trying to read the small print in the instruction booklet. It's hard to push just one button when they are so small and close together. And there's the cognitive issue. A significant fraction of older folks just don't learn as fast as they used to nor do they remember as well.

Some companies are responding to the challenge. Philips Electronics has instituted a "Simplicity Advisory Board" of non-employees to help their product designers build devices that contribute to simplifying life, rather than complicating it. Vodafone Group PLC is bringing to market a cell phone that will be bigger, rather than smaller, to accommodate larger numbers and larger buttons.

These are important issues for the cable service and hardware designer. It suggests that there should be a significantly simplified version of the cable set-top box and remote control for older or handicapped customers. One way of addressing this issue is to have a remote control with fewer buttons, larger buttons, and large text. Marketing research should determine which features are most important to the elderly and handicapped subscriber so that these features can be emphasized. Perhaps the less important features should be prevented from cluttering up the remote control. The shape of the remote control should cause it to feel uncomfortable when held backwards with the IR diodes pointed toward the subscriber's chest. Of course, lighted buttons will help. Because the remote control is made larger for these customers, it should also use larger batteries. The elderly are less likely to have spare batteries and be able to easily replace them. On-screen instructions and program guides should have large print and high contrast. If speech processing is available, having the instructions spoken by the set-top box can be a big help.

Poor hearing is another impairment that comes with age. A welcome feature would be a comfortable headset with an individual volume and mute control and an infrared or RF link to the set-top box. The headset should be designed to couple to hearing aids. Each older or impaired viewer should be able to have his/her own headset and control the volume individually.

The concept of a "Simplicity Advisory Board" is a powerful one. A group of these folks can help determine which features and services have the most appeal to the elderly, and then can test the proposed designs, providing valuable feedback.

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