Simplicity is ultimate sophistication

by Kenny Hemphill on May 13, 2010

Kenny Hemphill

Kenny Hemphill

Most people don’t care about technical intricacies – they just want their kit to work with the minimum of fuss, and that’s where Apple is hitting the mark.

Search Google for the term ‘Facebook login’ and unless it has had a dramatic re-shuffle in the days between my writing this and you reading it, among the top 10 listings will be one for the website ReadWriteWeb. This site describes itself as providing an ‘analysis of web products and trends to an intelligent audience of engaged technology decision makers, web enthusiasts and innovators’. And it does a sterling job of just that.

The article to which Google links in its results is entitled Facebook Wants to Be Your One True Login. It details a deal agreed by Facebook and AOL that allows Facebook users to integrate their friends with their AOL Instant Messenger contacts. It’s a lengthy and thought-provoking piece that analyses what the deal may mean for other social media. It’s not, however, what the vast majority of those searching for ‘facebook login’ were expecting to find when they clicked on the link.

A quick scan of the comments on the blog post reveals that ReadWriteWeb has inadvertently tapped into a very different audience, one made up of people who expected to be taken to Facebook’s login page when they clicked on the link and were keen to make their displeasure known when they found themselves reading a post they didn’t understand on a blog they’d never heard of. It’s very clear from those comments, which presumably represent only a small sample of the total number of Googlers who mistakenly arrived at ReadWriteWeb, that a significant number of people had expected to find Facebook’s login page and couldn’t understand why they hadn’t. This despite the fact that Google, in its results pages, displays both the URL and a description of the page to which it has linked.

It would be easy to dismiss this as an anomaly brought about by a few stupid people who don’t know how the web works. Why, for example, would anyone bother Googling ‘facebook login’? Why not just bookmark facebook.com? And why when the displayed URL clearly shows readwriteweb.com would anyone click on it expecting to find Facebook?

That in itself would, however, be to misunderstand how most people use and interact with the web and the rest of the Internet. A great many people, for example, type URLs into a Google search box rather than the address bar in their browser. And it’s testament to how well Google works that for the most part they find what they want by clicking on the first search result. It’s understandable, then, that they should be confused when the third result for ‘facebook login’ doesn’t go to Facebook’s login page.

The comments on ReadWriteWeb tell us more about how far the web still has to go before it becomes as user friendly and intuitive as, say, your local shopping mall. No one walks into WHSmith to buy pharmaceuticals, despite the fact that in almost every way that matters, it looks and operates identically to a pharmacy. The differences – people in white coats and a green cross on a sign outside – are relatively tiny. Yet most of us are conditioned to understand the difference.

Conversely, most Internet users aren’t yet conditioned to understand the difference between a search box and an address bar, and why using one over the other may lead to the same conclusion in most cases, but cause head-scratching confusion in others. Web address shortening services such as TinyURL and bit.ly only add to the confusion. They’re great for Twitterers and for those of us who want to share URLs in email or in the pages of a magazine.

Try typing a short web address into a search engine, however, and you’ll get nowhere. Now try to explain the reason for that to anyone who doesn’t spend their days engulfed in technology or on the Internet. Not easy, is it? Now try to imagine explaining the issues surrounding Apple’s spat with Adobe over Flash on the iPhone and iPad. Or the issues that some iPhone developers have with the approval process for apps. You wouldn’t get very far. Why? Because most people just don’t care.

That doesn’t mean these issues aren’t important: they may well have implications for the long-term future of the platform. But they aren’t nearly as important as far more mundane issues like how best to find what we’re looking for on the web.

So while we can criticise Apple for its determination to control as much of what we do with the iPhone and iPad as it can, we should take a step back and remember that for most people that doesn’t matter in the slightest. What matters is that they can do what they want to do and go where they want to go easily and with the minimum of fuss. And Apple, particularly with the iPad, is doing more than anyone to make that happen.

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