One of the more popular posts that I wrote in July was “Designed Deterioration,” in which I observed that digital hardware is rarely intended to get more beautiful as it gets older.
Governed mostly by the modern business principle of planned obsolescence, today’s hardware products are meant to get scrapped and replaced when they age beyond the near future. By contrast, older hardware goods — like the cast iron skillet I mentioned in my original post — often seem to have been designed with their eventual deterioration in mind. As they get older and become more heavily used, they get better.
That post might have led many to believe that what I’m advocating is that digital products should all be developed with designed deterioration in mind. While I wouldn’t object to that, I wouldn’t expect it to happen any time soon. By now, planned obsolescence is too strongly rooted a concept to allow for that.
I also happen to think there’s a lot to be said for designing for the current moment, designing something that addresses today’s values without feeling the pressure to create something that will last for all time. Which is to say that I have a bias towards what I consider to be ‘timeless’ design, for sure, but I also believe that our craft and our culture don’t progress when everything tries to appear timeless.
There’s one more part of this discussion I want to bring to light. So far, I’ve been harping on hardware and industrial design. But my original thought, when I sat down to write that post, was that designed deterioration seems like an idea that software could benefit from, too.
Just Like Starting Over… and Over, and Over
For instance: I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop, for better or worse, since the early 1990s. And yet for every new computer that I sit down in front of, for every time I start off with a freshly installed operating system, or for every new version of Photoshop that I install, it’s like starting with a brand new copy of the program. Each time, all of the settings for Photoshop’s myriad of tools are reverted to their defaults again, as if I had never touched the program before.
Using the hardware paradigm again, you could say that it’s a good thing that it’s so easy to start over from scratch with software, that it’s a little like getting, say, a new iPod at regular intervals. But is it? To me, it’s more like every time you cook in a different kitchen, you get a brand new, unused cast-iron skillet that you must then season all over again — not so much starting fresh as it is starting back at square one.
In fact, to go back to the iPod model: buying a second or even a third iPod for yourself isn’t at all like buying the first one. That’s because Apple was smart about how it treats user preferences: rather than storing them in the hardware, they store them (at least partially) in the software — in iTunes. Your most frequently played and highest rated songs, your custom playlists, your volume adjustment settings — they’re all stored in software, where they can most easily be transferred from one hardware device to another.
That’s only part of the solution, though. The problem is that Apple, like Adobe or just about any other software publisher, doesn’t do a particularly outstanding job of helping users preserve their preferences. And that’s the core of what I’m talking about here: preferences are a terrible thing to waste.
One of the cornerstones of fixing problems on a Macintosh — even in the pre-Mac OS X days — is simply throwing away your preferences. Drag them to the trash, launch the program again, and chances are good that your problems will be resolved. Think for a minute though, about how irresponsible a programming decision this is. If you define a preference as a settings modification initiated by the user, then trashing these files as a troubleshooting strategy seems fundamentally disrespectful of the the time that users spend customizing their software.
To be fair, Mac OS X stores many of the settings previously lumped into preference files inside the user’s Application Support folder, which is usually excluded from disposal during the course of troubleshooting. That goes some distance towards resolving the problem, but it still places no overt priority on preserving preferences. There’s no mechanism to back them up, to transfer them, to get all of your preferences from one machine to the next unless you’re willing to devote considerable expertise, time and/or a software add-on of some sort.
In our more or less fully networked age, why can’t we store these preferences online? Some tools, like Google’s Browser Sync plug-in for Firefox do this for the fraction of a user’s customization data that is browser-related. Here again it’s necessary to turn to Apple’s continually deficient .Mac service as an ideal platform for just purpose — but it simply doesn’t address the issue at all. And I’m not holding my breath that it will.
To me, this kind of data is about more than convenience. Rather, it seems to be a core, missing element of software user experience; there are applications that I’m heavily reliant on, but there are few that I’m deeply fond of the way I’m fond of physical objects that incorporate the principles of designed deterioration.
Elevating preferences preservation to another level would be a meaningful first step towards that kind of deeper bond between users and software. The more that software reflects your priorities as a user, the more you’ll like it, and therefore the more unlikely you will be to switch to a competing application. And, to be clear, reflecting your priorities doesn’t mean enabling endless and arcane points of customization (e.g., Microsoft Outlook); it means recognizing the value of the customizations you’ve made, even if they’re from a limited array of options. You should only ever have to set up Photoshop once; the rest of the time you should be using it to get your work done — and liking it.