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See Inside Scientific American Volume 311, Issue 2

New Gadget Too Complicated? Try “Easy Mode”

Hidden menus transform complicated programs into simple tools—or vice versa
technology for novices


A problem often arises when a product is marketed to the whole world without specifying which audience it's for. Novices struggle with the complexity; tech-heads struggle with the inflexibility.
Credit: osaMu via Wikimedia Commons

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In my August Scientific American column I wrote about the rise of two populations with a growing mistrust of one another: the technologically savvy, and the technologically inexperienced—the Knows and the Know-Nots.

A problem often arises when a product is marketed to the whole world without specifying which audience it's for. Novices struggle with the complexity; tech-heads struggle with the inflexibility.

It's not that nobody cares. Over the years the big tech companies have taken stabs at making their products accessible to both crowds—by offering an option to use a stripped-down, simplified interface. For example:

Simple Finder has been a little-known part of the Mac operating system for many years. (It's the successor to an earlier feature called At Ease.) It attempts to make the computer easier to use. There's only one window. One click, not two, opens things. You can't create folders, move icons or rename anything. Most of the menus are gone. You're presented with a simple scrolling list of programs that you can open—a list prepared for you by a parent or administrator.

Easy Mode, a feature of Samsung's popular Galaxy S5 phone, is much the same idea as Simple Finder: It hides most of the Android operating system's complexity.

For example, there are fewer settings available to change. You get only three home screens. One shows weather, clock, calendar, plus the icons for six apps (including phone and camera). A second home screen shows icons for your most recently used contacts. The third is available for you to customize with the icons of your own choice of apps.

HyperCard (1987–2004) was a popular build-your-own-software kit for the Mac and Apple IIGS. It let you create "cards" that could be linked to one another.

It offered five different "user levels," each with more features than the last, to accommodate people of all different degrees of experience. In Level 1 you could open HyperCard files, search, print and save; in Level 2 you could also create, edit and delete cards; Level 3 let you create graphics; Level 4 let you edit the links and backgrounds; in Level 5, you could write and edit scripts.

Logic Pro X, Apple's professional sound-editing program, offers a fascinating setting in Preferences called Show Advanced Tools. Sure enough: it makes a whole new set of features, windows and editing tools available that Apple deemed overwhelming to the novice. (Similar Advanced modes also lurk in programs such as iMovie, Nero, Sony Movie Studio and others.)

Unfortunately, these bipolar software designs aren't a perfect solution. The first problem is that the software company decides which features are "advanced" and which are "basic," and sometimes it guesses wrong. The second problem is that many customers aren't even aware that another mode (either more advanced or simpler) is available. The third problem is that changing the software interface at all means that you now have to learn it all over again. You've just made the software even more complex, because you now have twice as much to learn.

The struggle continues.

This article was originally published with the title "The Two Tribes of Technology."

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