Many technology products are like the old “Sea Monkey” advertisements in comic books.
Remember Sea Monkeys? One day, you were gonna get those monkeys, and there’d be a king, and a queen, and a civilization that would build pyramids and worship you as a god. Or maybe that last part was just me. Anyway.
If you were unfortunate enough to actually buy sea monkeys, you ended up with a cloudy container full of brine shrimp, and a lingering bitterness in your heart that even now sabotages your ability to trust.
And now we are surrounded by sea monkeys.
The computer in my car promised that it would integrate with phones over bluetooth and display alerts and text messages, so the phone could stay in the driver’s pocket. And, technically, it does. Provided that you’re willing to laboriously click, scroll, click, scroll, and click into six nested menus for each text message: an interface requirement that I have scientifically estimated to be approximately six billion times worse than pulling my goddamn phone out and looking at its screen. Which I don’t do, Mom, so stop worrying.
But it sounds great on a checklist. It’s better than the other cars. Right?
Here’s another example: where I work, we use these robots, which are marvels of engineering, crippled by some of the worst software I have ever encountered. This software promises to read certain esoteric CAD formats and generate programs to probe and inspect the parts with sensitive little robotic fingers. And yeah, it does… kinda. The programmer then has to spend six to twelve hours pounding it into submission, which is longer than it would take to program the thing manually.
And that’s if the system doesn’t crash midway through and corrupt the saved file and the backup, which it used to do approximately four times a week.
So they don’t use it. I’m so glad we bought it.
The interaction design world uses the term “Dancing Bear” for a feature that exists, but works badly, but which you’re kind of happy it works at all.
The Kinect is a great example: it’s a dancing bear! Look at it dance! Oops, no, I was just waving at my nephew, didn’t mean to… well shit, which screen am I on now? Where’s the controller…
Still, it dances.
A “Sea Monkey” is worse. You’d be better off without Sea Monkeys: they perform their function in a way that works directly against the actual thing you wanted to do with the product. They’re the scanner/printer that you stopped using a year ago. Or that document software they bought at work to scan everything… how’s that working out?
Feature checklists are where Sea Monkeys live. Stop making them.
If we deprive the Sea Monkeys of their natural habitat, maybe they’ll die out. And then maybe we can learn to love again.