Are appliances too complicated? Pic source: Getty Images
There was a funny old piece in the Guardian yesterday that was of the opinion that household appliances like toasters and washing machines are getting far too complicated, leaving us baffled, bamboozled and befuddled as to how to use them. This is clearly errant nonsense, in my most humble of opinions.
Unlike the author of the piece, I have far more faith in the average consumer’s ability to comprehend that, for example, the Breville VTT377 4 Slice Toaster’s "high lift" feature is just that – the fact that when you want to get your toast out it lifts it slightly higher, so that you don’t have to burn your fingers trying to retrieve a smaller piece of toast.
"Variable browning" is scoffed at as if it’s some marketing mumbo jumbo, when in fact it just means you can alter how brown you want your toast. Get out of here – the brownness of your toast is variable? How over-complicated! As for the ‘reheat’ and ‘defrost’ functions, how dare anyone want to toast some frozen bread, or warm up but not burn some toast they made earlier? Heresy!
Much is made of the complexity of washing machines, which now have a supposedly bewildering array of programs. The author bemoans the fact that machines now have, "duvet", "sports", "bed and bath", "reduced creases", "allergy" and "freshen up" cycles. If this is terribly complicated for the average punter, I’m clearly missing something. The duvet cycle is for when you need to wash a duvet. Sports would be for sports gear, bed and bath is for bedding and towels, reduced creases is for stuff that’ll need an iron, and ‘freshen up’ uses steam instead of water to take creases out of clean or very lightly-soiled items (depending on the exact model, natch).
None of this is exactly rocket science. It doesn’t take a genius to think to turn the dial to ‘duvet’ if they have just stuffed a duvet in it. Or to turn it to ‘Cottons 30 degrees’ if they want to wash some cottons at 30 degrees, for that matter.
Many of those who left comments are unconvinced. Some bemoaned the fact that washing machines used to have only three dials, for temperature, load and spin speed. "When this needed replacing the range of wash options available on the new machines was mind boggling," according to a commenter called Thegecko. But let’s just think about that. Let’s say there were nine temperature options on one dial, two load settings on another, and five spin speeds on the third. How many possible combinations are there? 90, by my (I admit pretty rusty) maths. Makes the number of programs on a modern machine look positively sparse.
Also, if I know little about laundry, where do I set each of those three dials to wash all my woolly cardies? On a modern machine, I would simply turn the dial to ‘woolens’. Which is really the simpler system?
Similarly, while an old toaster only had one knob, that one knob would get a lot of use. You’d forever be fiddling about with it depending on the thickness of the bread, whether it was frozen or not, whether you were reheating toast and so on. Would you remember where on the one dial is best for all of these? Or would it be easier to hit a ‘frozen’ or ‘reheat’ button and let the toaster do the rest?
The Bosch TWK8631GB Styline Kettle is in trouble too, for its ability to, "Heat water to your choice of 70°C (white tea), 80°C (green tea), 90°C (hot chocolate or coffee) or a familiar 100°C (boiling)." That’s right, there are four water temperature settings. How terribly, er, over-complicated. If you only ever want it boiling then – get this – you have to press ‘boil’ each and every time. Almost like, you know, having to press a single switch on a ‘traditional’ kettle.
Is it wrong for appliances to get more sophisticated, rather than less so? If you look at this kettle, it’s got a number of features many people might find useful. It has a large 1.5L capacity. The heating element is concealed, which reduces limescale build-up. It has a rapid-boil function for when you’re in a rush. A keep-warm function can keep the water at the desired temperature for up to 30 minutes. There is a limescale filter so the spout pours cleanly. In fact, I quite want one of these kettles (Bosch, I hope you are reading this). At £40 it’s practically a steal.
Also accused of being over-complicated is the humble vacuum cleaner. Take the Vax Zoom Family and Pet Bagless Cylinder Vacuum Cleaner, about which the article decries: "The ridiculous name aside, this £150 monument to excessive disposable income includes a "crevice tool", "dusting brush", "turbo tool", "stretch hose" and "flexi crevice tool". You know, for cleaning your flexi-crevices. Which, obviously, aren’t a thing [sic]." I personally wouldn’t spend £150 on a vacuum cleaner either. But to say that the various flexible hoses and attachments are terribly complicated seems a bit of a stretch. It doesn’t require someone with a massive brain to put a small brush on the end of a plastic hose when they want to vacuum a narrow gap, whether Vax chooses to call it a crevice tool or not.
Various experts are drawn on to talk about ‘function inflation’ and ‘setting creep’. The iPod is held up as a shining example of making complicated things simple, and yet early iPod menu systems, as well as early versions of iTunes, were actually rather complicated. According to Amplicate, 60% of a sample of over 75,000 consumers hate iTunes to this day. Even now, negotiating iTunes and its integration with the cloud and your various devices is not always a simple task – certainly not as simple as turning a dial to ‘duvet’ when you load a sodding duvet into a washing machine.
The thing is, some appliances, gadgets and electronics are really badly designed. The issue isn’t the number of functions, it’s how well complexity is hidden from the user. Most people only use a fraction of the features and functions of Microsoft Word, but my five year-old can still create and save a basic document. You can bemoan the fact that you can no longer repair your ‘overly-complex’ car all you like, but do you really want to go back to the reliability of a Hillman Imp, and hand back your air conditioning, ABS, traction control, engine management systems and a whole range of safety features? I wouldn’t. Want a toaster with only one button? Fine, you can still buy one. But don’t presume that the rest of us are too stupid to know the difference between frozen bread and toast.
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This article also appeared in The New Statesman.