The Etch-A-Sketch User Interface

2006-11-07, Comments

My nephew Samuel turned 6 today. We bought him an Etch-A-Sketch. It reminded me of one of those old jokes which used to go around the web, the one about Etch-A-Sketch technical support.

The Joke

Here’s my condensed version of the joke.

Here are the Frequently Asked Questions for Etch-A-Sketch Technical Support:

  • Q: How do I create a New Document on my Etch-A-Sketch?
  • A: Pick it up and shake it.
  • Q: How do I delete a Document on my Etch-A-Sketch?
  • A: Pick it up and shake it.
  • Q: What’s the shortcut for Undo?
  • A: Pick it up and shake it.
  • Q: How do I turn my Etch-A-Sketch off?
  • A: Pick it up and shake it.
  • Q: My Etch-A-Sketch has all of these funny little lines all over the screen.
  • A: Pick it up and shake it
  • Q: How do I save my Etch-A-Sketch Document?
  • A: Don’t shake it.

My Own Additions

Here are some additions of my own:

  • Q: How do I find a Document on my Etch-A-Sketch?
  • A: Pick it up.
  • Q: How do I edit a Document on my Etch-A-Sketch?
  • A: Turn the knobs to move the pen. Shake to undo your changes.
  • Q: How can a friend view a Document on my Etch-A-Sketch?
  • A: Pass your friend the Etch-A-Sketch.
  • Q: How can my friend and I work on the same Document?
  • A: The preferred method is to take it in turns. Alternatively, you could each operate one of the knobs.

Negative Answers

Sometimes the answers are, simply, no:

  • Q: Can I draw a dotted line with my Etch-A-Sketch?
  • A: No.
  • Q: Can I change the pen colour?
  • A: No.
  • Q: Can open more than one Document at once?
  • A: No.

A More Searching Question

Sometimes the joke is on us:

The Real Joke

The joke, I suppose, is in comparing an Etch-A-Sketch — a simple child’s toy — with something as sophisticated as a fully-featured grown up desktop word processor. The real joke is that we continue to tolerate applications with bloated user interfaces, feature-creep, and enforced-upgrades. Worse than that, we actually encourage these applications by shelling out for them, year after year.

As a consequence, many desktop applications are now stuffed with so many controls, widgets and toolbars that you can’t see what you’re doing. And all you wanted to do was write someone a one page letter. Adding insult to injury, your word processor even gets in your way of doing that:

It looks as though you’re writing a letter. Allow me to interrupt and reformat it.

Does anyone else hate being bullied by a paper-clip?

There May be Hope

A new generation of applications is appearing: applications which are clean to look at and simple to use. I’m sure the simplicity derives in part from the constraints imposed by having to work within a web browser (within multiple versions of multiple browsers, even), and in part from the fact that these are applications whose features have had less time to creep. But I also like to think that some very bright people have actually started to realise how to best to design interfaces and interactions. It’s not about bewildering or dazzling us; rather, it’s about staying out of our way.

I’m talking about applications like Google, whose classic search page is brilliantly simple. Or GMail, which quietly revolutionises what an email client should look like — and gets it right. Google Maps is another favourite.

With a web-based application back-ups become someone else’s problem. Upgrading between versions also becomes someone else’s problem — you may not even notice many upgrades. You’re always using the latest version and your friends are too.

Etch-A-Sketch Einstein

Einstein Etch-A-Sketch picture

Parting Shot

  • Q: Why isn’t my word processor as easy to use as Etch-A-Sketch?
  • A: Maybe one day it will be …

Happy birthday Samuel!