Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-thriller novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Constraints

design 4 min read

All technology imposes constraints. We tend to assess our devices based on an idealistic vision of the perfect machine, but in reality a strength in one area is usually a weakness in others.

There are many factors to consider. Performance and power consumption. Size and weight. Noise and heat. Beauty, durability, and portability. Connectivity and upgradeability. Compatibility and of course cost. At buying time, we presumably consider availability too. They’re all interrelated in various ways, forming a complex web of trade-offs.

The more powerful the machine, the more energy it consumes (and the more heat and noise it probably generates). It’s probably bigger too, and heavier, and thus less portable. Maybe it has more connectivity and upgradeability (and thus compatibility), but all those ports and hatches probably sacrifice durability and beauty. Balancing each factor against another involves choice, and that means compromise.

The result of compromise is constraints on the user. The device is powerful, but the user is constrained by where they can use it (or how far they can carry it). Or perhaps it’s ultra-portable, but its capabilities are constrained. That has always been the nature of our technology, and always will be - though some factors will inevitably dwindle towards unimportance as their deficiencies vanish beneath our limited human perception. We’re starting to get there already in terms of miniaturisation, I think.

So we must choose. This or that. What’s more important to you? But the users don’t really get to make a complete choice. Instead, we’re given perhaps a handful of customisation options, and little input into the overall design. That’s a sensible and healthy state of affairs, as long as the actual designers are doing their jobs properly. Many aren’t.

Constraints expose compromises, and we can judge products (and their designers) by the apparent wisdom of those compromises. Some are barely noticeable, like a laptop that lacks the (bizarrely prevalent) hardware wi-fi toggle switch. Some are minor inconveniences, like a badly-placed USB port. But some are thwarting. There are some compromises that sabotage the promise of the device. The ultrabook with an awkward and RSI-exacerbating keyboard. The tablet with a narrow field of view. The smartphone with a poor touch-screen.

These aren’t compromises, but rather flaws. They illustrate not only a damaged assessment of the choice that was made, but also a failure to grasp the product’s vision and intended usage scenarios. It’s an unforgivable sin, and we see it far too often. These constraints are terminal.

The most egregious example of a terminal constraint is the constraint of choice, and we see it in every electronics store. Devices littered with ports, switches and throwaway features. PC-Card slots, VGA connectors and modem ports can actually still be found. Internal optical drives, banks of USB ports, and ethernet jacks. Kickstands, and even a stylus. They look like choices for the user, but they’re actually choices that weren’t made by the designers.

The result is products that are riddled with cancer of the compromise. Yet our industry lionises the accompanying spec-sheets. Look at all these failures of imagination and commitment and judiciousness!

We deserve so much better. But we can’t just demand it; we also have to participate, by shifting our perceptions, and changing how we assess and buy technology. We need to stop looking for the fictional ‘perfect’ device, because it doesn’t and can’t exist. There’s only us, and our needs and context. That’s the beginning of a way to select candidates for consideration. Then, within that context, we can weigh up the compromises and determine what’s best for each of us.

I write. Sometimes it’s software, for which I have a battalion of performance-focused machines. But sometimes it’s words, and that’s a different matter. Performance doesn’t matter so much, but portability suddenly becomes key - and indeed endurance. Two different scenarios, each with their own overriding concerns.

If I tried to select a machine to cover both, my options would be limited to terminally constrained products, where the designers just threw their hands up in the air. I’d end up with something that performed each task at the expense of the other. What I actually need (and have) are two different devices. A very simple realisation, but one that we tend to forget.

All technology imposes constraints. The specific constraints exposed speak volumes about the company that made the device. What you want is a product portfolio that’s segmented along scenarios of use. A clean division between categories, reflecting choices the user wants to make. Like power, or portability.

What you don’t want is blurry boundaries, and overlapping choices. Eight options that differ only in one or two factors. Conflicting choices that are each worse at several things. Multiple options that you’d prefer to have none of. And above all, you don’t want products that justify a phalanx of terminal compromises by just being cheap. That can only end in one way: with dissatisfaction.

Generally, the best products demonstrate choice rather than offering it. Wise choices made on your behalf before you were even aware of them. Good compromises, made so that you wouldn’t ever have to make bad ones. We have a word for that kind of constraint: optimisation.

Devices that are optimised for ease of use, or endurance, or portability. Positive qualities that reflect the priorities of the customer. Factors that make buying easy, not hard.

I only know of one company that gives me options for the choices I want to make, and eliminates the rest. As a creative person who values my time, money and sanity, it doesn’t make sense for me to buy from anyone else.