April 2010

Volume 25 Number 04

Don't Get Me Started - In Praise of Dumbing Down

By David S. Platt | April 2010

A typical geek hurried up to me after a talk I’d given, elbowing other attendees aside to get first crack at me. Red-faced, he spluttered, “You just spent an hour telling us to dumb down our programs. That’s awful, and you ought to be shot.”

I had praised a particular automated disk backup program. Like seat belts or birth control, disk backup programs only work if you use them. The hassle of configuring and running backup (or birth control) is the main reason it fails. The program I was praising avoids that through seamless automation. The user doesn’t have to touch it after installation, ever. He doesn’t have to specify which files to back up; the program automatically copies all data files to a remote server, then automatically copies every new or changed file thereafter. Users don’t control very much: they don’t supply their own encryption keys, don’t set compression levels, don’t even schedule when the program runs; it’s always there in the background. The geek objected strongly to this lack of control, not just saying he wouldn’t buy it, but insisting that it was sinful and shouldn’t exist and I was evil for praising it.

I have more experience being heckled than most hecklers have doing it, so I slammed right back at him: “Was it dumbing down when Ford removed the spark timing lever from the Model T? Was it dumbing down when they replaced the hand crank with a self-starter?”

Geek: “No, those are reasonable. Anyway, cranking the engine is a hardware problem.”

Me: “Does your car have GPS?”

Geek: “Yeah, and it’s really cool!” 

Me: “Is it dumbing down when it gives you directions—‘Move left one lane and take the middle fork’? No, you say, ‘Wow, one-meter precision, cool.’ How about when the power seat remembers your reclining settings, or the stereo remembers the songs you like?”

The geek didn’t give up: “But it takes brains to drive a car, and to use a computer, and if you’re not smart enough, you shouldn’t be doing it.” 

Perhaps, but less every year for both, and I welcome both decreases. I was taught years ago to pump the brakes when my car skidded. Today’s cheap automatic anti-lock brakes do that far better than the best human drivers could. And today’s automated traction control systems greatly reduce skidding. Does that make the world a better place or a worse one? I say better, unless you own a body shop. 

So don’t get me started on the term “dumbing down.” It’s a loaded, judgmental term that reveals our prejudices. We geeks are proud of ourselves for being smart. We respect people who can remember command keys without a keyboard template, or shout out each line of the boot script half a second 
before it appears on the screen. The most toxic word in our vocabulary is “stupid.”

Some geeks today resent making their programs easy to use, wanting users to struggle as we had to. It’s like your Depression-era grandparents resenting today’s coddled youth: “When I was a boy, we didn’t have air-conditioned school buses with cushy reclining seats and personal video screens and 87 satellite dish channels. No! We had to walk 10 miles through the snow, uphill both ways …” There’s no place for that attitude today in a profitable company. If your car could magically drive itself, or we had transporters so we didn’t need cars, wouldn’t you use them?

Of course, dumbing down has to be done well, which requires a smart interaction designer—someone who knows how to think like a user, to make main use cases easy by omitting obscure edge cases, to choose helpful default values, to explain choices in terms of the user’s thoughts rather than the program’s implementation. The designers of the Windows Move Maker did this well, as I wrote in my blog posting at suckbusters2.blogspot.com/2007/02/another-application-that-just-works-at.html.

The “dumbed down” backup program that so infuriated my listener means that many more users actually will back up their data, so they won’t lose it when their disks crash or their offices burn down or their laptops get stolen. I find that extremely smart.

image: GPS interface
Is this smart or dumb?

David S. Platt  teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” and “Introducing Microsoft .NET.” Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.