Don’t Make Me Think


A view of a car's dashboard with both a GPS receiver and iPod set up.

Photo by Sandor Weisz

You know what I like? Not using my brain. Sometimes, I find it refreshing to just hand over control, and enjoy a pre-established solution. Consider GPS navigation systems in cars, as an example – here we have a device that is capable of directing us, and as long as we follow its instructions (with common sense), there’s really no need to know every single step in the trip. We can just have faith that the automatic directions are gonna get us to where we want to go. If we miss a turn, no problem – the GPS adjusts itself to the new trajectory, and once again, no need to worry, no need to think.

Now, of course, the brain is kind of completely essential when driving vehicles, so don’t take this as an official endorsement from me to drive around wearing an Occulus Rift, or anything like that. All I’m saying is that is can be refreshing to outsource certain responsibilities, and to me, directions seem like a good candidate, especially considering the state of modern mapping technology. And in the end, all of us are better than one of us: regardless of the service provider we’re talking about, you can probably bet that their solution is the sum of many competent minds. Probably.

So even if I devise the ultimate path to a given destination, mapping software will likely be better. After all, mapping solutions are built on a foundation of data, and the exploitation of that data is always getting better. Sure, there’s the basic concept of calculating the shortest path to a destination based on the distance alone. But then there’s other elements, such as traffic, something Google, for example, improves over time by having its Android phones automatically relay their positions. Not only that, but Maps also shows live traffic incidents like accidents and construction. Microsoft has a similar offering with its Bing Maps, where it uses artificial intelligence known as ClearFlow to predict the best routes. Altogether, it leads us to a point where mapping software can quickly suggest the fastest path, with a good chance of it being accurate. And if anything’s wrong with the directions, we can report that to our almighty mapping overlords, and the service improves for all, not just us. And that’s if no one else reported the error first.

A blue and white Montreal STM bus with "En Transit" written on its screen.

Photo by Matt Johnson

Now, I don’t have a car, as some of you know, so I generally don’t get to use GPS navigation for that. Instead, when I have multiple errands to run, I tend to make use of Montreal’s public transportation: metro and bus, all the way. Often, I have to drop by multiple spots on my trip, but here’s the great part: if you were to ask me in the middle of my day how I was going to get home, I wouldn’t know the details. That’s because I figure out what my next step is only when I’m ready to act (lazy loading). So, for example, if I’m at my first destination, and I want to go to my next destination, I’d ask my phone how to do that (via Google Maps). My phone then calculates based on my current location how I would get to my next destination, and it’s at that moment that I actually find out what I’m going to do. Oh, I have to walk to that corner and wait 5 mins for bus 93? And pay $3? Sounds good to me. And if I miss it, no problem… I can see alternate buses that will get me to the same destination.

In the past, a multi-stop day like that would have to be planned carefully with bus schedules, maps, all that jazz. These days, I find it one of the most relaxing endeavors – I don’t even need to know what’s going to happen, exactly, and I know it’ll all get done anyway. After all, if I get to a destination, there’s a good chance I can find a way back… and if all else fails, I’ll pay for a taxi… but I have yet to be in a situation where that was necessary. The biggest hurdle I faced so far was having to walk a good 20 minutes to get to a particular destination from a bus stop, which, in my mind, is just another happy moment to torch some calories, and also, this time of year, to accumulate a fashionable amount of skin damage.

A woman stands in a laundry facility with her back turned. Black and white photo.

Photo by Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen

Altogether, I’m the type of guy that dislikes stress and needless complication of my everyday life. If I can delegate certain tasks and responsibilities, I’m all for it – as long as it gives me more time to do what I truly enjoy doing. I like that I can generally trust my phone for directions, that’s progress… but what fascinates me further is the innovations that have yet to appear. For example, I really want to see a solution to the modern day need of doing one’s own laundry. Now, I know, some of you may joke and say “isn’t that what women are for?”, and while your comedic exploitation of a ridiculous stereotype would amuse me… I’d still disagree completely. I rather have some sort of automated solution where I drop all my dirty clothes in a machine that sorts through colors, has all the detergent, and uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to know when to do a wash, and when to present me with automatically dried, folded clothes, and a free mint. Okay, maybe not that last part.

Overall, I see my desire to simplify as a reflection of my interest in usability, originally fostered as a web design interest. I spend a good deal of my life interacting with software and websites, and when there’s a lack of intuitiveness, or needless complication, as I sometimes call it, it just adds that little bit of stress in my life that I feel I could really do without. Most of the routine stuff we do should be straight-forward, and with little to no thought necessary to figure out. It is in this spirit that I titled my post after Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability,” a great guide that helps developers and designers avoid usability mistakes.

So it’s all about technology, if you ask me, folks. I’m always looking to simplify, and as along as companies develop great ways of helping me do that, I’m on board.

Google Maps on iOS saying "No routes found."

Well, shit. Guess I’m walking.

Jokes aside, sometimes, there are bugs – but that’s to be expected. The issue above had something to do with my phone being confused about my current location. I got around it by just typing in my location manually.

BONUS: Notice how I included a laundry photo in this post, and it just-so-happens there’s a woman in it? As part of my usual approach to finding photos, I considered many options on Flickr – but that one was the best quality option given my licensing needs. Unfortunately, the woman’s presence kind of looked like it played into my whole “woman doing laundry” joke, which I didn’t want it to do. And when I clicked through, I laughed at my bad luck – the description even had a quote from Burt Reynolds about marriage being the most expensive way to get someone to do your laundry. Anyone that spends enough time with me in real life knows that my enjoyment of stereotype humor is derived from how completely ridiculous I think it is. The idea that a person of a particular gender should be destined to fulfill a certain role is so incredibly ludicrous to me – and that’s exactly why I find it funny – it’s totally warped and out of place, in my mind.