26 December 2010

Complex and complicated

In Living with Complexity, Norman wrote, Our complaints should be directed toward technologies and services that are unnecessarily complicated, confusing, and without apparent structure. He also pointed out that complicatedness is a contextual matter.

I have 4 devices at home that store and play music the same music. I buy music from one service and use one internet radio service. It's not a complicated system, but it's unnecessarily redundant because I insist on not putting some of these devices out to pasture. Three of the four are 3+ years old. They function fine and that's why I use them.

The complexity I experience involves being mindful of my consumption and (e)waste habits. I take the disposable batteries out of gadgets I infrequently use to converse their life. I only own one such gadget anyway. I consider the "feature to hassle" ratio of stuff, knowing my tastes and needs change. I figure in time to learn how use a new device. What's the point of getting the latest widget if you don't have time to evaluate it.

When it comes to teaching and learning, all this applies. For example, the simplicity of Blackboard's functions, as a course management system, offsets the complexities of teaching a college course online. The feature/hassle ratio is for many instructors reasonable.  In comparison, using something like Mediawiki complicates the same scenario on a number of fronts (e.g., course management and web-site setup and management). Mediawiki is cool for the user who's into cool. It also  unnecessarily complicates an online learning experience for a lot of other people.

An educational experience is not well-designed, when it adds an unnecessary cognitive load on students and instructors, which can happen rather quickly and easily as more and more non-designers design education based on faulty beliefs about what works.

Mediawiki shouldn't be ignored, but to use it effectively would require A LOT of upfront instructional designing and ongoing maintenance. It's not worth it in many cases.

The complexity of my 4-device music system isn't confusing, because all the devices and the infrastructure behind them are expertly designed and because I understand how it all basically works. That was the other part of Norman's point: Understandablity and understanding go hand in hand. In order for complexity to not be confusing, technology needs to be understandable and the user has have the skills and knowledge to understand it.