[NOTE: This is another in the series of repostings of my previously-published articles. An earlier version of this article appeared in the September 1999 of my legal technology newsletter called "Legal Technology Strategies." Please note that parts of this article are dated, but I've not updated it to give you a sense of history. In many ways, I've long felt that this article captures most closely my general philosophy about technology and its use. ]
Blessed Rage for Simplicity: The Most Important Trend in Legal Technology
When you are around accomplished craftspeople for any period of time, you start to notice how easy their work seems to be for them. You also notice that they have a lot of tools, many of which you’ve never seen before, all of which seem perfectly suited for the task at hand. I’m often struck by the elegance of their function and how simple and well suited both to the task and to the individual doing the task they seem.
I’ve noticed this in a number of settings lately. The other day, I got on an elevator with a guy who was delivering five-gallon water bottles. He had a handcart that had a couple of shaped metal tubes that allowed him to slide the bottles securely onto the cart and unload them easily. He could also carry several more bottles than he could with a standard handcart. In fact, I tried to imagine how difficult it would be to hold these rounded bottles on a standard handcart and the time and effort that it would take to try to strap them on and keep them secure. I also pictured myself with a tipped handcart and the bottles rolling across the floor, something that would not happen with this specially-designed handcart.
But I also imagined a day when someone said, “Here’s what we need. Why don’t we try welding some tubes onto a handcart so the bottles slide right in and don’t fall out?” In fact, maybe one delivery person got so tired of bottles falling off that he or she welded the bars on a regular handcart. A simple idea makes a great tool. A better result comes from considering the user and the process and by limiting functionality rather than expanding it.
I was reading the story of the inventor of the PalmPilot and his efforts to make sure the first PalmPilot would work as he envisioned it. He focused not just on operating system and technical details. He also cut a block of wood in the same dimensions as the PalmPilot and carried it around for months to make sure that it really worked as a shirt-pocket device. He wanted to understand the user experience. Thinking about this story will help you understand what a Palm device can and cannot do well.
We are moving toward a time when we have technology that fits our tasks rather than having our tasks fit our technology. In other words, I think all the talk about “information appliances” means something.
Part of what’s driving this movement is the general sense that our lives, and our PCs in particular, have become too complicated and overwhelming. There’s a movement toward simplicity in other technologies we use. Want fresh-baked bread? Push a button on your bread maker. Microwave ovens have one button to push for popcorn and cooking sensors for one-button cooking and reheating. As more intelligence gets built into products, they become easier to use. PCs have even more intelligence built into them, yet it seems that using them is getting harder and harder.
In part, there are, in a way, too many choices – Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows 98, Windows 95, Macintosh, Novell, Linux, BeOS, WordPerfect, Word, 25 different case management programs, Palm, multiple product versions. You finally reach a state where you long for what Wallace Stevens once called a “blessed rage for order.” How do you make sense of it?
We are trying to make our PCs and the standard programs we use perform tasks for which they are not optimally suited. Another part of the problem is that clearly the PC environment does not always work for the ways that we work. You see a lot of frustration, primarily focused on Microsoft.
Now, some people seem to deal with this issue by adopting an anti-Microsoft method of dealing with complexity. It goes like this: I don’t care how much it inconveniences me, as long as I can avoid using Microsoft products, I am doing a good thing.
As a general rule, this kind of negativity gets you nowhere, in no small part because it does not focus on how you work.
I advocate another approach: a movement toward simplicity. Simplicity in the sense of what works best for the way you, not anyone else, work. And we are seeing some signs of that movement.
Windows can be a maddening environment, but I tend to like it. Microsoft has done some things that really work for me. I really like the right mouse button and knowing that I can click it and most of the things I want to do become available. Coming from a Macintosh background, I’ll always prefer a graphic interface. I also like the fact that you get a lot of consistency in the interface. I never liked DOS and DOS programs where F7 would mean “enter” in one program, “print” in another and “exit” in a third. Even if you argue that it is easier to press one key than to use a mouse, that doesn’t work for me. The good news, however, is that there doesn’t have to be a right and a wrong.
How do you work? Learning to dictate for voice recognition does not make sense if you can type 100 words a minute and have an unusual accent. Learning to type is no solution if you can’t type but can dictate 100 words per minute. “Simple” depends on how you work best.
How you work best can vary with each task. It now drives me crazy to wait for Windows to boot. Especially if all I want to do is enter a phone number, make a note to myself or jot down some ideas for an article. Here, the instant-on Palm device is perfect. When I want to write an article like this one, however, a Palm device is not the right tool. A handheld Windows CE device might be perfect for on-the-road presentations because it is so light and will run PowerPoint presentations. If you have to edit your presentation on the fly, however, it’s the wrong tool.
Other examples? Bill Coplin, at NetTech, thinks that the “killer app” for attorneys will be the perfection of handwriting recognition on a device like the CrossPad [NOTE: Today the example would be a Tablet PC.] because attorneys are so used to carrying legal pads. On the other hand, Bob Wiss and Greg Krehel at CaseSoft want CaseMap to “replace the legal pad.” I’m excited by the cordless flat panel web appliances due out soon from Cyrix and others that will allow you to access the Internet while sitting in your favorite chair. My notion of the perfect simple device has full-time Internet connectivity. [NOTE: These deviices never made it, but a Tablet PC with WiFi access does the same thing I had hoped for.]
The fact is that getting to simple is not so simple. In fact, the whole notion of simplicity is quite complex.
How do we begin to move to simplicity in our computer technology. I want to talk about four possible solutions, all of which open up the paradoxes of simplicity.
One solution is to create simplicity through multiplicity. There’s always been a strand in predicting our technology future that focuses on making computers “ubiquitous.” An excellent recent discussion on this point of view can be found in an article on MIT’s Oxygen project by Michael Dertouzos in the August 1999 issue of Scientific American (http://www.scientificamerican.com/1999/0899issue/
0899dertouzos.html). The notion is that we can make life easier and simpler by having many computers instead of one and scattering them all over our houses and offices and matching function to location. Lately, this notion includes the idea of having “Internet tone,” just like dial tone, so we can plug into the Internet anywhere and anytime.
As an example, we might have a PC on the desk, a Palm in our pocket, an electronic phone book in a cell phone, an electronic book on the night table, and so on. The right tool will always be at hand because there will be many location- and function-specific devices.
This approach becomes more possible as hardware prices continue to drop. In my opinion, the Palm gives us a taste of this approach and it is an attractive one.
A second solution is to create simplicity by standardizing on one interface (and that interface might even be Windows). The most-talked about candidate is the browser. The browser is simple. What if we can use the browser as the main interface and treat all the information we use as if it were a series of web pages? Click on a hyperlink and access information anywhere and retrieved information from other programs or even get Java applets to do word processing and other functions.
This approach really appeals to me because I sometimes feel that I’m one of the half dozen people outside Microsoft who really likes browser integration in the operating system. Think about it: whether you are accessing files on your local computer, your network or the Internet, all you’re doing is accessing files. Why use a different program? This approach to file access and management is so obvious and desirable to me that I literally cannot even understand the arguments to the contrary.
But the browser is not the only option. Look at is how you use your computer. In what program do you spend most of your day? It might be Outlook (check out Microsoft’s Digital Dashboard initiative), ACT, a word processor, a PIM, a case management program, an e-mail program. An approach to simplicity would be to add functionality and access to your data to that program.
A third approach is to create simplicity by limiting functionality. Palm computing is one example. Another example is something like a Java-based approach that would allow you to grab as much functionality as you need at the time.
Here’s an example. As I write these words, I’m looking at a screen that has shockingly close to 100 buttons and menu items on the screen as I simply type text. If I step back from writing and look at the screen, I feel a bit like a jet fighter pilot.
What if I could grab versions of a word processing program that gave me only the functionality I needed for the task at hand? A couple of fonts, spell checker, word counter. When I needed more functions, I could just grab that specific functionality as, for example, a Java applet. [NOTE: Sounds a little like AJAX and Web 2.0.]
Or, maybe I could rent the additional functionality or even other programs only if I need them from an Internet-based service. Presumably, a limited-function version of our standard programs would run faster and cause fewer glitches.
A fourth approach is to create simplicity through customization. A custom approach tailored to how we work might require the underlying programming to be more complex, but what we will see and use will be much simpler – to us. It’s going to be more expensive, and more work to set up and get right, but it gives us some interesting possibilities.
Consider this example. Think of a lawyer who doesn’t want to use a computer, but when pushed, says that what really frustrates him or her about computers is that they can’t do what would be most useful to him or her: calculating settlement figures. When an opposing party makes a settlement offer, it might take days and several people using several programs to put together disbursements, fee arrangements and the like into a form where the lawyer could decide whether the offer was “reasonable” or not. Far too often, these settlement calls come on a Saturday or after hours, at a time when the lawyer can not get any information. That lawyer might very well say that if you could give him or her one button to click on that would produce that information, he or she would immediately buy whatever technology that could make that happen because the technology would solve the lawyer’s business problem.
A programmer might be able to give the lawyer that button to produce that customized result. Clicking on that button would set of a process, invisible to the lawyer, that pulled information transparently from a variety of underlying programs and then displayed the necessary result in an understandable and usable form.
Custom approaches are funny things. Most people have a reluctance to go that route. The upfront costs are certainly higher than off-the-shelf solutions, especially where you don’t put a cost on frustration and wasted time. In this country, “custom” seems for many people to be synonymous with “decadent,” or seen as a luxury.
On the other hand, custom can bring us closer to getting the right tool for the job, Just as the carpenter has a specialty router jig for certain cuts that saves a great deal of time, gets the job done right and allows the carpenter to enjoy the craft, a settlement calculator may do the same thing for a busy personal injury attorney. Ironically, the better the custom design and the more upfront work put into it, the more effortless and simple the results.
I’m fascinated by this notion of simplicity and the “complexity” that seems to underlie it. My friend Howard Smith is a serious cyclist (he owns 15 bikes) and was helping me buy a bike recently. He ended up building a bike that he thought would work best for me and I learned a lot during the process.
At one point, Howard introduced me by e-mail to Grant Peterson, something of a legend in bike design circles. We had an interesting discussion about handle bars and other things, all in the context of how I would actually use a bike. After I got my bike, I began to subscribe to Grant’s great newsletter (www.rivendellbicycles.com). Even if you don’t ride a bike, the newsletter is fascinating for the glimpse it gives into how a gifted designer sees things. Grant’s comments on things outside the realm of cycling are often incisive and profound. Another great source of ideas about simplicity is Jakob Nielsen’s writing on web design at Useit.com.
Both Peterson and Nielsen advocate a highly user-focused approach that moves you toward customization, where it makes sense, and lots of upfront effort in the design stage of a project. Both leave you with a sense of simplicity and effortlessness in the actual use of a bicycle or web site that you will want to apply in other areas.
There’s a lot to think about on this subject. I recommend taking a look at the technology tools you use and thinking about how they work for you and how they could better fit what you do. It’s that aspect of simplicity that I would suggest that you focus on and make a guiding principle. Resist the urge to make a dislike of Bill Gates your motivating principle in making technology choices. You still may end up miles away from Microsoft, but do so in a way that reflects the way you work best.
The great news is that there are so many technology choices and so much power in those choices that we can come much closer to finding the tools that suit us best than we ever have before. And that trend is likely to continue. Paradoxically, it may be in more complexity and looking forward rather than backward, that we move to a simplicity most of us crave.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
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