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Digital technology

In the future, keep it simple!

München, 03/18/2015

Utilizing technology without having to understand it: Here, Andreas Butz, Chair of Human-Computer Interaction at LMU, discusses devices that are needlessly complicated, Apple’s design strategy, and doing more with less.

Foto: Oleksiy Mark /

At this year‘s Cebit, exhibitors will present thousands of innovations. What makes a new application do into a commercial success?
Andreas Butz: It must be of some use to us. That use need not have a monetarily quantifiable value. It can be anything we enjoy doing. If a technical innovation is perceived as providing some added value, it doesn’t matter how difficult it is to use. That is exemplified by SMS, which allows us to send short text messages back and forth, and so brings people closer together. When it first appeared, entering text on the keyboard of a mobile phone was a real chore. In spite of that, SMS soon established itself as indispensable.

Can you give me a counterexample – a product that owes its success to its ease of operation?
From its earliest days, Apple’s product design has always placed great emphasis on aesthetics and convenience. Both elements were initially regarded as very much secondary virtues by other developers. But it was Apple’s insistence on their importance that enabled the company to set itself apart from its much larger rival Microsoft. User-friendly interfaces have become more important as the systems that we use become ever more complex. This means that ease of operation is becoming more and more vital. Interfaces must be structured in such a way that users can understand them.

But right now, that’s not really true. Lots of people are simply overwhelmed by the diversity of applications available on their smartphones.
Of course, the devices available today are far more versatile than they were 10 years ago. That’s why they are more difficult to use. But if a smartphone can do ten times as much, but takes only twice the effort to master, that rates as progress.

Perhaps the real problem is that they can already do too much?
That is in part a response to market forces. Novel functions, extra functions are always a selling point. But the argument is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Unfortunately, we have yet to see an advertising campaign that says: This device does everything that the competition does, but it’s easier to use. Technology is not an end in itself. It should make life easier for people. That something is technically feasible does not necessarily mean that it would make sense to do it. Maybe we have to stop thinking of digital devices as disposable: here today, replaced tomorrow. As a kind of hobby, I make a point of keeping old computers up and putting them to good use. The eldest in my collection is a 2003 model. That timespan exceeds what we now regard as the useful lifetime of a personal computer.

Why has touchscreen technology become the established standard?
The touchscreen was a qualitative leap forward. I can express more with one hand on a touchscreen than I could on a keyboard with 14 keys. Program design has also become more flexible, and there is more computing power on board. When I was young, mainframes that could do what today’s smartphones can do hadn’t even been thought of. And we now nonchalantly carry the computing power of machines that were as big as houses in the pockets of our jackets or our jeans.

Are we going to have more and more technology in our pockets and at our fingertips in future?
Modern mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones make the home computer dispensable if not obsolete. The next generation of computer devices will be wearable, like watches and glasses. A doctoral student in my group is currently looking at how these tools can be usefully integrated into everyday life in a socially acceptable way. Interestingly, our research now focuses far more on how technology can be used than on the development of the technology as such.

And is this situation likely to change?
I remain hopeful that we will someday reach a stage in which the technology behind the computer is no longer the focus of attention. Take the case of electric light. Nobody these days needs to know anything about the transmission of electricity in order to switch on the light. We still have a long way to go before computer technology becomes as natural a part of our everyday lives. To use computers intelligently, users still need to know a lot about the technical capabilities of the devices, although the vast majority of them have no interest in that. It shouldn’t be like that. Instead, we should be building systems that people can use without having any knowledge of the underlying technology, and we should try to organize the countless functions available – which we can no longer ignore – with an eye to the practical needs of the end user. The less time we need to devote to the hardware, the more we can concentrate on what we want it to do for us.

But isn’t there a general trend toward the use of more and more demanding technologies in everyday life?
That is certainly true of the market for tablets, PCs and smartphones. But there are other sectors in which far more attention has been paid to the operational issues and the limits on the resources the average user can bring to bear on a given task in terms of attention span and memory, for instance. In the auto industry there have been a number of developments in which the technical aspects have been relegated to the backseat, so to speak. Today’s vehicles are equipped with a variety of functions and capabilities whose complexity is not obvious to the driver. Take Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), for example. ACC enables the car automatically to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle immediately ahead, and it requires a lot of intricate technology. But the driver only notices that it is active when the system autonomously brakes if the distance narrows. The car reacts appropriately, and the driver doesn’t have to worry about how the system works.

Why has the car industry become a forerunner in this respect?
In the auto industry, it was clear from the start that the input required of the driver had to be minimized to allow her to concentrate on the traffic. The systems have to meet strict specifications with respect to how long the driver could be allowed to avert his or her gaze from the road. That meant that systems that required lots of attention from the driver were ruled out. If smartphone designers were subject to similar requirements, mobiles would look very different.

The latest technical tools and tricks are on offer the whole world over. Are there cultural differences between the different markets in terms of what people expect of their devices or what features they favor?
The technology used in most mobiles nowadays comes primarily from American firms like Apple or Google, so their forms and surface designs are products of Western aesthetics and tastes – sober and functional. In Asia, website design follows a completely different model. They tend to be more ornate and flamboyant – more Baroque, so to speak – and they strike us as being overcrowded. Indeed, this may well have had an impact on the design of untidy user interfaces. Many interfaces that offer a confusing array of options are designed and manufactured in Asia.

The control panels on smartphones are certainly colorful – and cluttered.
The proliferation of apps, which are written by hordes of programmers, has certainly come at the expense of clarity of design. There is no longer any final arbiter of good design. In general, diversity is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean that one has to install everything on offer. One can always delete superfluous apps. I just had my old smartphone repaired. It doesn’t have the latest operating system, but it can do all I ask of it. In this case, I deliberately decided to simplify things.

Your research group develops new types of intuitive interfaces for digital devices. Can you give me an idea of the things you are exploring?
The more complex technology becomes, the greater the threat to personal privacy. If I access a webpage today, I have no idea what kinds of personal information are being transmitted to the site without my knowledge. All I see is the advertising that turns up when I surf the Web the next day. At the moment, I can only choose between putting up with the distracting adverts and not visiting the website again. Here, we have an opportunity to combine new operational concepts with a view to increasing data security and protecting privacy. For example, one of our doctoral students is working on ways to enable a smartphone to recognize its owner based on the touch input – each person has an individual touch. It is all a matter of how the rules are formulated. Do they enable the machine to adapt to the user or must the user play by the machine’s rules? In the second case, I have to select and remember complicated passwords. I think the machine should do the heavy lifting.

Professor Andreas Butz holds the Chair of Human-Computer Interactions in the Research Unit for Media Informatics at LMU’s Institute of Informatics.