I got up this morning and, like on most mornings, one of the first things I did was brush my teeth. It’s a simple process, just part of the minutiae of daily life. But as with so many of those little things we do every day, it’s a less-than-ideal experience. After fumbling to pull the toothbrush from the cup — where its bulbous, rubberized handle was wedged against the bulbous, rubberized handles of the other toothbrushes necessary for a household of four — and nearly dumping them all into the sink along the way, I took my frustration to Twitter:

It got me thinking about a recent post on Daring Fireball, where John Gruber expressed his frustrations that some people — even Apple Store “geniuses” — were telling iPhone owners that they need to occasionally force-quit all of the apps in their recently-used items tray. He followed up on that post on his podcast, The Talk Show, where he described the experience of operating systems where you are expected to manually monitor and adjust their states as being “fiddly.”

I’ve been thinking about that word, “fiddly,” a lot since then. I think it applies to a lot more than smartphone OSes. I’ve spent a great deal of my life dealing with overwhelming frustration at the clumsiness, the fiddliness, of everyday objects: cheap plastic toys that break easily, things that stick to other things when they shouldn’t or don’t when they should, tools that cannot adequately perform the tasks they are expressly intended for, etc.

As someone who’s not inclined to tinker with objects, much less invent solutions to their shortcomings, that frustration usually just burns off as simmering rage. But as I pondered the nature of fiddliness, and the ideal of the iPhone as a “non-fiddly” object, a couple of thoughts occurred to me:

1. It is the purpose of design to reduce the fiddliness in the world.

2. Very few makers of physical objects today follow #1.

Gary Hustwit’s documentary Objectified is focused on the design of everyday objects, and those who have excelled at creating objects that are, for lack of a better word, as non-fiddly as possible. Two people featured in the documentary are Dieter Rams, the legendary German designer who led Braun’s industrial design team in the 1950s and 1960s, and Jonathan Ive, the head of Apple’s industrial design team today. Both Rams and Ive share a passion for making objects that work. Form not only follows function, form is function. It’s a seamless integration of purpose and style that makes the objects a delight to use.

And that’s a very rare thing today, indeed.

4 thoughts on “Fiddly

  1. Nice post (and fiddler picture). Like you, I also despise the fiddliness of everyday objects. I wonder, is it all just a lack of mindfulness and failure in design? I can’t help but think that some people find comfort in being able to fiddle and to have objects that fail or are difficult to use. In thinking about the potential value in fiddliness, I also wonder, is the purpose of (all) design to reduce the fiddliness in the world? Not knowing that much about design, I’d be curious to read about how various designers describe what they do and why they do it.

  2. Two things:

    1. I think people want/need to fiddle. Not all the time, but enough that I don’t necessarily see the harm in having a sort of placebo fiddle function on a device. It feels good to clear the history, even if there’s no explicit reason to do so.

    2. I got the most idiotic looking toothbrush for Christmas, but damned if it doesn’t feel amazing on my teeth. Seriously, I opened it up and was almost offended, but gave it a shot and it rules. Make no mistake, it is ugly as the devil’s nuts.

    Toothbrush design is 99% useless, but I guess if along the way of adding another flashy nonsense bit, they come accross a better head design, that’s fine.

  3. Thanks, Sara, for raising the issue of mindfulness (or lack thereof) in design. I was kind of running out of steam by the end of the post and didn’t explore that as thoroughly as I had intended.

    Design is notoriously subjective, of course. My opinion is that the purpose of design is to make objects that serve their purpose, are durable, and are satisfying to use. Cost is also a factor, as well.

    I think a big challenge that designers face is that the fiddliness has to be dealt with somewhere. If it’s not dealt with by the designer, it’s dealt with by the user, but I see that as a failure of design. A designer’s goal should be to do the work of overcoming the cumbersomeness of the task the object is used for, so the user doesn’t have to. (Tools, after all, were invented by early humans to make tasks easier, not harder.)

    The problem is, it’s hard to build a good tool. And that can become expensive. So it’s also hard to build a viable business that can create and sell objects that are both high quality and reasonably inexpensive. That’s been a huge push for Apple over the past decade, streamlining their supply chain and cornering the market on components, whatever it took to make objects that were both better quality and less expensive than what their competitors could deliver.

    But as you say, some people want to fiddle with their objects. Many Android enthusiasts, like Windows enthusiasts before them, claim one of the main benefits of their chosen platforms over Apple’s is that they can customize the experience. If that’s important to you — more important than simply having a good experience, even if it’s not something you’ve tweaked to your liking — then that’s going to be a factor in your choice. It’s just too bad that it ends up producing things like this:

    OK, that’s an ancient desktop theme from Windows 3.1, but I still think it illustrates my point. (I was delighted, incidentally, when I googled “ugly desktop” and this was one of the results it returned.)

  4. Josh: Concerning the need/want to fiddle, this is something Sara brought up offline as well (and which we’ll probably be talking about in the next episode of our podcast, which we’ll be recording either tomorrow or Thursday). I’m of course talking about my perspective on design, my aesthetic and my goals, even if I sometimes convey them as if I think they’re absolute facts. I do know some people who prefer fiddly objects, as perfecting their function is a satisfying endeavor for them.

    But I guess I tend to think of that as being the difference between fiddling and tweaking. I think of “fiddling” as something you have to do to get something to work, like the rabbit ears on an old TV or the starter on our 25-year-old lawn mower. But I think of “tweaking” as fine-tuning the experience to one’s liking. That’s not something you have to do to get the thing to work at all, it’s something you want to do to get the thing to work just perfectly for you.

    I suppose my example in the previous comment of desktop themes is a bad one, as that really is tweaking, not fiddling. Then again, I think anyone who willingly subjected themselves to the “hot dog” theme back in the Windows 3.1 days deserves whatever ridicule I throw their way, even if it’s not entirely intentional.

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