Do You Want the Complexity in the Tools or in Their Usage?

by mxshn2 min read31st Dec 20205 comments

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World OptimizationPractical
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Epistemic Status: Observation, Intuition, Not sure if there is something there

In "Living with Complexity", Donald Norman notes that complexity is inherent in a task and cannot be arbitrarily removed. In the following, I give anecdotes to show that complexity in the real-world is often shifted from a task into the tool used to achieve that task. Thus removing it from the usage/process. Borrowing from probability theory one could maybe describe it as the "Complexity Mass" being moved, where the entire complexity stays the same, but the distribution is changed.

There are tools for many tasks that are either bare bones and need a skilled user, or are simple to use, but complex. In the one case, the task complexity resides in the tool's usage and its user (muscle memory, experience, heuristics, ...), in the other case the tool itself is complex. What I mean by that is, that it contains a lot of interacting parts, and is thus difficult to repair, maintain, and reinvent.

Examples & Contrast

For example, consider traditional woodworking tools, such as chisel, saw, hammer, drill, or nail. Each one of these devices is either very simple or there exists a simple version (manual drill). A chisel needs to be sharpened to be usable, but you can sharpen metal on rocks, and you can prepare rock surfaces, just by using other rocks [1]. A saw is arguably more complex, but still only consists of one or two pieces. If using a saw-string, it is extraordinarily simple.

What is needed to render these tools usable is someone who knows how to utilize them, and who has the experience to know how to saw a particular kind of plank, where to attach the tool, what force to use, etc. Thus: tool simple, usage complex.

Contrast this to modern power tools: router, power saw, nailgun are all much easier to use. A router is much easier to use than a chisel, a power saw makes straight cuts much simpler and a nail gun is much faster than hammer and nail. And the nails are all straight. But this comes at the price of the tools themselves being very complex. Who could reinvent a nailgun? Who could even repair one? Tool complex, usage simple.

Or cooking: The traditional, simple, tools are knives, pots, cutting boards. They require you to know how to cut without endangering yourself, or how to cook rice. But they are simple to make, maintain, and clean. Complex modern tools: Food processor, rice cooker, egg slicer. All of them arguably much easier to use. But more complex in themselves, requiring power, microelectronics, injection molding.

Or in computing: simple command-line tools that can be chained together, but need some knowledge level of the user, on the one hand. On the other hand are complex single-use-case GUI applications, that are easier to use.

Trade-Offs

So the trade-off we are making is ease of use vs simplicity of the tool and ease of use vs maintainability of the tool. It's also ease of use vs versatility, since simple tools can be used for more, different things. But not only that, but it is also ease of use vs space usage, since fewer, more versatile tools use less space in your kitchen or workshop. Add to that ease of use vs repairability. A knife can be resharpened with a flower pot, a hammers' stick replaced by about anything. How about a nailgun?

I'm sure there are more tradeoffs, but the most important one might just be ease of use vs thinking. Since simple tools have so many more ways of being used, you decide what you can do with them to a larger extent, than a complex tool allows you to. In a rice cooker, you can only cook rice (and maybe a handful of other recipes). A normal pot you can heat to very high temperatures to melt aluminum cans, you can weld a new handle on it, you can wear it as a knight's helmet, you can hammer a nail with it, or you can put it on a gas stove. You can simply do more. By using it mistakenly, you might even discover new things you can do with it.

If you think that "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" is scary – considering how it reframes your thinking – imagine what a world of rice cookers' thinking will look like.


  1. https://ericweinhoffer.com/blog/2017/7/30/the-whitworth-three-plates-method ↩︎

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Generally agree with the point about there being a question of where the complexity lies and how much it's in the tool or the interactions with the tool.

The hand tool example fell short for me, though, as thinking about my experience with hand tools, both powered and non-powered, I think of power tools as more complex to work with than non-powered ones. For example, I have to know a lot more about how a power drill works to use it safely and effectively than a traditional hand drill. A power drill represents a general increase in complexity for both the tool and the user, not a trade off. Of course, we like power drills because they give us more power: we can apply more force faster with less physical effort, so they act as force multipliers in a job and are worth the added general complexity.

Same applies to tools like stand mixers in the kitchen vs. spoons.

I think the clearest examples of the principal you're addressing show up in software, where the trade off is often explicitly made about where complexity will live. A classic example might be between building software that "just does it for me" vs. giving the user a bunch of simpler software they can use to do the same thing if they combine them in the right ways.

I see what you mean, even though I haven't had this sensation yet. Good to note, and I tend to agree for indiscriminate tasks like "Hammer in a nail", "Somehow separate a board into two pieces". But do you think this still holds if you explicitly state the task more precisely as "Make a straight cut", "Puree something very finely", "Remove a precise shape from the top layer of the wood"? I.e. associate a quality with the task?

There are two separate distinctions. One is about the simplicity of the tool and usage and the other is about the amount of different use-cases of a tool.

My microwave/convection oven combo is more complex then a pure microwave while at the same time being able to used in a larger variety of ways. My InstantPot is more complex then a rice cooker, easier to use then the rice cooker I had previously and more vesatile.

On the other hand a fishknife is very simple but limited in it's usage. 

I agree, the InstantPot is able to do more things than the rice cooker, but it doesn't seem more versatile to me than a pot. This is mostly an intuition that I find hard to make into a clean argument, but the InstantPot, to me, looks to be specific, in more ways. There is a discrete (larger) set of particular functions it can do, while a pot is so simple, it doesn't have particular functions attached to it. Its function resides in the user.

I can cook my Black rice with my InstantPot either in the same time it would take with a standard pot or rice cooker or I can cook it in half the time. This means I have more choices.

I can't think of anything I can do witha  normal pot that I can't do with my InstantPot.

 half the ti