There's a great example of the power of simplicity in the sitting rooms of nearly half the homes in the UK. It's lurking under the TV in the form of the Sky+ PVR box. Sky+ has been around for over ten years now, but it's still one of my favourite examples of restraint in product design.
What I think is especially great about the Sky+ design is not how easy it is to record a programme by highlighting it in the on-screen guide and pressing the record button. That is great, of course, and it's become so natural now that most of us have long-since forgotten what a nightmare it was to program our VCRs. It's also not the near-magical ability to pause live TV that I especially like. Wasn't that a "wow!" feature when you first saw it though?
Instead, what I like is the way the recorded programmes are organised – in one long list ordered by the date and time of the recording. Nothing else – no folders, no options to sort by size or category, or channel, or programme name, or whether they're in HD or 3D, or by whether they've been watched or not, or by who recorded them and why. Not that those capabilities wouldn't be valuable, of course. When I'm searching for a programme I think I recorded, it might be very useful to be able to see an alphabetical list of my recordings. I might even like to file all the costume dramas in one folder, and all the motoring shows in another.
But all of this would have to be controlled through the buttons on the remote control. Can you imagine how complex it would be to navigate a folder hierarchy that way, and to activate all the various different ways of looking at the content. And yet because we're so used to this kind of "power" experience on our desktop and laptop computers, the temptation to include it in a device like Sky+ must be nearly irresistible. I can imagine the debate taking place numerous times in the history of Sky+:
"We should put folders into the system so each member of the family can keep their own programmes separately. Then we could put quotas on each folder so everyone could share the disk fairly. Then we could put passwords on each folder so people couldn't mess with each other's recordings. But someone would have to be an administrator to set the quotas and in case someone else forgot their password. But then the administrator might forget their password…"
Before long the complexity of all this starts to overwhelm the basic function of the product – which is to record a programme that I mark on the planner with the red "record" button, and to play that programme back when I press "play". Some vendors of competing products have gone down that feature-rich route, and their users – a minority I suspect – love them for it. But for Sky's mass market, it's ease-of-use that counts above almost everything else. And so I congratulate the designers, product managers, and engineers who work on the Sky+ box for their admirable restraint in the face of what I imagine must be almost continual pressure to add more features to their product to make it "better". Long may such judgement reign, and please don't change that box.