Home Commentary The Way I See It: Whatever Happened to Simplicity?

The Way I See It: Whatever Happened to Simplicity?

It may sound odd, but I am looking back fondly on the days of … dials.

Yes, dials. You know, those small metal or plastic knobs that were used to tune in a radio station; to flip for a TV channel; to turn on an oven or stove or clothes washer; or to “dial in” a thousand other things.

Dials are as rare as a normal winter these digital days, when a screen swipe or push button or slider is how we do things, or start and stop things. But after catching myself drifting off the road recently, dials are top of mind to me. As is the lost value of simplicity.

Let me explain.

I recently had occasion to drive a friend’s fancy, deluxe Ford Edge SUV, which is loaded with all the proverbial bells and whistles (well, actually, chimes and dings and beeps and flashing icons, to be accurate and up-to-date on the metaphoric front). 

This model includes a big vertical touch screen at the center of the console, where the lucky owner can do a lot of things with his or her finger, assuming you have read the 495-page manual, know which trim level you have, and can find the right pages. As for me, I had no idea where the manual was.

It being the winter season, the window started fogging up as I set off down the road, and I decided defrosting would be a good idea. Back in the day, of course, there were dials you turned: One for the fan, another to control the heat, and a dial or slider to direct the heat to your feet or windshield, and so on. 

I looked down to the center console for dials: Radio, yes. Heating, no. As the windshield continued to fog up inside, ever hopeful I turned to the infotainment screen, revealing a vast heating control complex at my fingertips, with interior visuals, heating/cooling zones, and many small icons and sliders to micromanage the comfort environment. 

All of which, of course, means that a simple, essential function — keeping the windshield clear — requires staring at the touch screen while you toggle sliders and touch tiny icons. Needless to say, this provides little comfort when attending to the primary task of safely keeping a 3,959-pound SUV on the road.

I am not alone in thinking this is nuts. A friend got rid of his Tesla because even the simplest task was only possible via the touchscreen. I now sympathize.

I wonder: Has the concept of simplicity and ease of use got buried, like the streets of Buffalo after that recent lake-effect storm, by a digital blizzard of touchscreen optionalities? Has a mantra that anything digital is better than manual colonized and eradicated manufacturing common sense? Do consumers really want the simplest task to now include more options than a Starbucks coffee menu? 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am hardly a digital Luddite. There is something to be said for digital convenience, as anyone holding a TV remote with a kitty or bowl of popcorn on his lap and a beer or mug in the other, can attest. 

But while there are only so many options in dial design, it appears today’s designers for cars, home equipment, and appliances are paid by the number of digital options they can cram helter-skelter into that infotainment screen, fridge, oven, washing machine, or even toaster. (For just $399, you can now get “the ultimate toasting experience with high-speed smart settings for 34 bread types.” Including, of course, gluten-free.)

If you ask me, it’s common sense that is toast. This is how we ended up with those infamous TV remotes with 65 tiny buttons randomly splattered on a plastic frame, with the most important button — “mute” — hidden somewhere between two indecipherable button hieroglyphics. Was there a thought to ergonomic design and arranging buttons by frequency of usage?

Apparently not.

My convection/microwave oven has just about every baking/roasting/microwave combo option known to man in its lengthy digital punch list, arranged alphabetically — except for “manual,” which mysteriously moves around so I have to hunt for it. Of course, it’s the one I use most and requires three moves down the selection trees. Did the designers and tech microchip experts ever think this was stupid? 

Apparently not. 

How about this idea: A new brand called Simplicity. No microchips to crap out, only bombproof dial knobs, thoughtful design (half the cost of digital), and a $5 hardware store dial timer or Siri or Alexa or the timer on your cell phone. Plus that way, no one can hack a $399 toaster to burn your gluten-free bagel.