Everything is too complicated

It’s the very beginning of CES 2018, and the first trickles of gadget news are starting to come out. The flood begins tomorrow as the show floor opens and keynotes and press conferences begin in earnest. It’s easy to see the broad themes of the show and the tech industry at large already forming: smart assistants everywhere, sensors and radios in every device you can think of, and an eternal hope that something, anything, will be the reason people will finally upgrade their TVs.

All of that is exciting — I love gadgets and am one of the few crazy people that think CES is incredibly fun! — but I want to take a half-step back before it all begins and point out something obvious: most people have no idea how any of these things work, and are already hopelessly confused by the tech they have.

Think of the tech industry as being built on an ever-increasing number of assumptions: that you know what a computer is, that saying “enter your Wi-Fi password” means something to you, that you understand what an app is, that you have the desire to manage your Bluetooth device list, that you’ll figure out what USB-C dongles you need, and on and on.

What I’ve noticed recently is that the tech industry is starting to make these assumptions faster than anyone can reasonably be expected to keep up. I made a list over the holidays of completely reasonable misconceptions about tech I heard from friends and family of all ages and interests in tech. These were questions I knew the answers to, but that always seemed to quickly spiral into an explanation of what I imagine Verge readers think of as foundational knowledge. Here’s some of that list. Some of them are actual questions in quote marks, others are just the notes I made after conversations:

This list was sort of funny when I first started making it, but over the past few days I’ve started to realize it’s a pretty damning indictment of the tech industry. Why doesn’t all this stuff work together better? Why should anyone know why search works in some apps and not others? Why do so many people need to remember so many passwords? Why have all these smart assistants actually made things more complicated?

CES is great for seeing a little glimpse of the future, but real lives in the present are messy and complicated. Assuming that anyone cares about downloading one more app or creating one more secure password is a huge and potentially dangerous mistake. It’s fun to look at new products and check out far-fetched concept touchscreen refrigerators, but I think the most important questions we can ask right now are actually the simplest: how does it work? How do you set it up? What happens when people don’t understand something? Do I need to create a new username and password? Is all of that secure? Does it work well with other things I’ve already bought? What assumptions are you making?

These are all the same questions our friend Walt Mossberg started asking in 1991 when he first started reviewing personal technology, and kept asking through the end of his run with us last year. They’re even more important now. Everyone carries a computer around in their pocket and everyone’s lives are more dependent on technology than ever. Actually asking if things work should be a foundational question, not an afterthought.


A lot that people probably heard similar while home over the holidays. My favorites from my parent’s friend… "How do I get Netflix on my TV?" After getting a Roku. "So I need a Roku account?" After setting up Roku account. "Now do I have Netflix?" Sets up Netflix account and signs it in for them. "Now I just change inputs and click the netflix button?" Yes.

This skips over getting their WiFi password that they misplaced, and I’m sure others have done the above (I did this whole process twice for two of their friends). Really had to be patient since while they heard the terms they had no idea the context for anything.

Why should you need a Roku account to watch Netflix? There’s nothing remotely intuitive about that.

That’s not even the the worst part. If you try to setup a new Roku they request a CC now (appending ‘nocc’ to the url gets around this). That was skippable in the past.

What’s CC? I only know about Creative Cloud and Creative Commons, neither fits.

Credit Card

Oh … what can you buy on a Roku? Are there paid apps?

They have paid themes for sure. Not sure about apps. Not using anything but the basics.

There’s still a way to get around the credit card part. I forget what I did, but I searched for like 20 min at the time (April 2017). One of the many reasons I stopped using roku.

On my new Roku TV it was still skippable just the other day. YMMV

Got a Roku TV a year or two ago, didn’t want a smart TV but dumb ones don’t exist anymore. I was forced to create a Roku account and download one app to continue using the TV. So dumb, haven’t used my Roku account since, just plugged in my Apple TV and changed the settings on my TV to open on the corrected input when I power on. Bring back dumb TVs please.

I just need a big, flat, dumb monitor.

Bring back dumb TVs please.

Probably not going to happen because, if it did, companies couldn’t monitor your viewing habits for marketing purposes. (or make money by selling those profiles to others)

My Dad needed a new TV and so got an Insignia ROKU TV. What a pile of crap that was. They really are a ROKU with a screen attached. That’s just not a good thing. It was cheap and it showed it. The picture wasn’t great, the Speakers were complete CRAP, and the ROKU Interface on it really SUCKED!!! Slow to bootup when you turned it on. Pain to get around.

One of my brothers helped him pick it out ina best Buy out of town. He wasn’t happy with it. I wasn’t either. We boxed it back up, took it to the Best buy in town for a refund, and ended up getting a much better SONY TV that was a little larger, 1080P. 1000 times better all around. Picture much better. Speakers far, far better that he doesn’t need a sound bar. It’s for his Bedroom after all. In Interface is better. It has the Smart Stuff, but he doesn’t use it. He has a Apple TV 3 hooked up to it along with a Tivo Mini. Those are what he uses in his bedroom.

It’s almost Impossible to get a dumb TV these days. ROKU TV’s stink!!!!! I have a Roku 2 XS and a ROKU 3, which I rarely use these days as I have a couple Apple TV 4’s which are much better. The ROKU as a stand-alone device is fine. Built into a TV, stinks!!!

I completely disagree. I just purchased a TCL P605 (which is highly recommended as a bargain set by pretty much anyone who reviews TVs) and the Roku interface is pretty great. I mean, it’s possible that the Insignia model was crap, but it wasn’t because of the Roku interface. My TV is very fast (both turning on/off and opening apps. I find the Roku interface to be pretty great. Why would I bother getting an Apple TV when the only thing it adds is the ability to rent movies from Apple (I can rent movies from anyone else for the same prices so no big loss). And the interface includes a very nice OTA tuner and schedule with the ability to pause live TV. Not bad for a $600 TV.

Agreed. I think the real issue is they chose a insignia. Cheap TV = cheap components = god awful UX.

Dumb TVs have worse panels. You don’t have to setup the network to switch to another input.

This. Thanks, Nilay – this is arguably the most fundamental part of technology, yet something rarely, if ever discussed.

The funniest was someone who I actually thought was decent enough at technology… I saw his iPhone was really dark and I said what’s going on there? He was like don’t know but the screen got darker a few weeks ago.

Yup, he’d just accidentally turned the brightness down to near it’s minimum (and obviously didn’t have auto-brightness on)

It is a shame that a 1 second fix made this user’s experience so much better, but yet he didn’t even recognise it as a problem! Just thought, it went dark, and now it’s dark… that’s that.

Most of the older people do come to me in the office as I’m the youngest person here, but that’s more to do with computers/work stuff than personal devices.

"Full use" is a relative term. As long as the user is getting what they want from the device, does it matter? I’ve never used the tow-bar on my car, and I’m unlikely to before it’s replaced. That doesn’t make me feel like I’m not getting what I want out of it. I’m also highly unlikely to near it’s max speed.
On the other-hand, I do get your point with those who incessantly upgrade their devices when their needs are really basic… and I did introduce my mother to "let me google that for you"…

I feel like "full use" in most cases is more like:
Non-techie: "I love this car but it’s annoying that I have to put my groceries in the back seat"
Techie: pops the trunk
Non-techie: O.O

At least you know you have a tow bar and in case you would need it, you would be able to. But many people don’t understand basic things in a smartphone that would make their life way easier on a day to day basis.

I used to work at a 7-11. I don’t even know how many times I helped some normie find directions on their own iphone when they came up to the counter to ask me how to get somewhere. I’m pretty patient though, so I used moments like that to teach people how to use the tech they already have.

This could be an entire podcast episode that I’d thoroughly enjoy

Seconded – Somebody please produce this!

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