Features and remote controls

Jimmac posted a very interesting journal entry about “more features” and a comparison with remote controls. I thought about it a bit and started typing a comment to his blog, but as it grew longer and longer I decided to move it here so that I have a bit more space…

This nice comparison with a remote control made me think about how I use mine. The device that controls my TV (and VCR) has a little flip hiding the “advanced” buttons. I do not have a photo of my remote control, but I found one that is reasonably similar. The top part until the red power button can be opened to reveal more buttons.
(photo of a remote control)

The basic buttons such as channel selection, volume and start/stop for the VCR are always visible. If you lift the flip, you get extra buttons for selecting input sources (e.g., DVD player or camera) or outputs, changing the parameters of the display and other exotic stuff. As it turns out, two of the “advanced” buttons on my remote control are as worn out as the channel and volume selection buttons that are among the “normal” buttons. So I am very glad that these buttons exist, otherwise the device would have been far less useful to me. On the other hand, I understand that they are hidden under a flip because some other people (whether they are a majority or a minority is irrelevant) would probably never use them. Even myself, I do not need to see all buttons all the time.

The comparison with this little device that I use almost every day is very interesting to me. And I take some lessons from it: the designers of this device could not predict which buttons I would use most frequently. They modeled this device for a slightly different class of users, yet I enjoy using it because the “advanced” buttons that I need are still within reach when I need them.

In case you cannot guess where I’m heading yet, let me add that the “advanced” buttons are not visible by default so that they do not confuse those who do not need them, but they are easily discoverable and once you get to them, they look and behave exactly like the other buttons. I do not need to open my TV and flip a few DIP switches to get to the advanced options. Translated in the GNOME or GIMP world, this means that I would have a default set of features that I can play with but also some advanced settings that are easily accessible from the application without having to resort to some other obscure tool such as a gconf editor.

I do not really need to have “everything at my fingertips” and be confused by huge configuration dialogs for every little feature. In fact, I prefer to have the less frequently used options hidden away, as long as there is an easy way to access them whenever I need them. It is essential for these advanced options and features to be discoverable, so the dialog that contains the basic options should give a visible hint that more stuff exists but is hidden (using an expander for the dialog or an “advanced options” button or whatever).

Also, even if I do not use some of the other “advanced” buttons on the remote control, I do not think that I would have bought that TV set if I had not seen that these options were available.

Update: moved the image and its description up a bit.

4 Responses to “Features and remote controls”

  1. Luca says:

    Hi, I was going to post the very same reply to Jimmac’s blog entry. I think that a lot of happy GNOME users will be even more happy with a little more power under their fingertips (me included) and eventually some unhappy users of other systems will become happy GNOME users. So I have made a first mockup of a possible improvement for GNOME UI.


  2. Luca, I do not know if your mockup was intentionally funny or not, but it looks like many people consider that the current GNOME UI for preferences is very similar to your example except that it lacks the “Advanced” button.

  3. Luca says:

    Of course my mockup was just a funny pic :), but what I wrote above is exactly my point of view of the GNOME situation.

  4. Marcos Dione says:

    I don’t think an analogy between functionality and settings is ok. Most of the time, settings are set once and never ever touched anymore, unless they’re settings that change from work to work (i.e., the concept of `projects´ or `sessions´). Functionality, in the other hand, is often put `at the fingertip´ of the user just in case he needs it.

    Now, the discussion whether it’s better follow the unix-way (do a simple task, and do it well) or not: I don’t think it applies well for graphical inteface. That paradigm is well suited in environments where you can chain several programs easily (think in a pipeline in bash).

    For graphical environments, where pipelining is not so easy to achieve, you gotta find a balance between `this IM client is really a text editor, an account manager and a central IM send/receive server that communicates with the other two´ (not that such a nonsense exists) and `this program can burn your dvd’s, do your school exams, feed you children and discuss with your boss about a promotion/salary raise and get it´.

    Also, it is obvious that you can’t please everybody. By example, I decided my parents will be using gnome, while I love so much kde and I know it to the bone, because I think that’s better for each one.

    More in a rant mode: Given that I love to custom the apps to my needs, I don’t find the use of an external program to fully tweak the programs I use very attractive. Maybe if instead of a separate app, an embeddable widget in the `advanced settings´ page with just the settings for that app…

    PS: this blog doesn’t have a preview button! where is it?!? :-)