Supersonic Man

June 12, 2014

getting through the Dumb Layer

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 1:38 pm

I am defining a new term, “the dumb layer”.  What I mean by the term is, any layer of human interface which is designed to deal quickly, or at low cost, with simple issues and questions that do not (or which someone assumes should not) require an intelligent response.  Some examples of Dumb Layers are:

  • voice menu systems that answer telephones, which you have to navigate through (or even actively outwit) in order to speak to a live person
  • software user interfaces which hide their more complex features behind some kind of gateway where you have to select “advanced settings” or “expert mode”
  • scripts which tell customer service workers to answer all incoming queries initially with a canned response covering basic common issues, so that you never get a relevant or thoughtful reply until you send in a followup query
  • bureaucracies which routinely reject legitimate requests for action until you show persistence in nagging them, or which ignore you until you submit lots of “required” paperwork
  • software which has a simple GUI to make it easy to use, but also a command-line or script-based interface which is more powerful
  • anything that appears when you click a Help button
  • anything that provides premade style templates as an alternative to manual styling
  • the Check Engine light in your car

There are lots more types.  A lot of times, a Dumb Layer is a feature of a machine, with the goal being ease of use for the majority, but there are lots of human institutions that also have a Dumb Layer, implemented formally as a set of rules that employees are instructed to follow in dealing with the public, or informally as an attitude of lackadaisicalness toward anyone who they think they can safely ignore.

Dumb Layer design wasn’t very common when I was young.  Nowadays, Dumb Layers seem to be everywhere.  And if you want good service, getting it depends on how adroit one becomes at penetrating through the Dumb Layer to reach someone who is empowered to think about what they’re doing.  This becomes annoying if one has to have an extended back-and-forth over several days, particularly over the phone, as you may have to redundantly re-navigate the Dumb Layer on each new call.

Sometime, designers and authorities are seduced into believing that the Dumb Layer should be able to do everything, and there’s no need to let anyone through to anything smarter.  This makes economic sense if you’re providing some service at a super low price and can’t afford to give interactive support.  But it can also afflict systems and institutions that really don’t have any excuse.  Such systems can gradually become acutely dysfunctional, even as superficially most business goes on normally with no problems.

Note: sometimes what appears to be a Dumb Layer is actually a security layer, and needs to be there to limit unauthorized access.  And sometimes it’s a safety feature, like traction control and antilock brakes.  (A Harley-Davidson has no dumb layer.)

I wrote a post here a while back about how Google and other search engines seem to actually be getting less useful as they “improve”.  I think this is an instance of the dumb layer taking over.  The smart layer of Google is getting more and more inaccessible, and Bing and the others don’t seem to be any better.

Lastly, I just want to applaud some organizations which have chosen to have no Dumb Layer.  Wikipedia is one: you search for advanced quantum mechanics or unsolved problems in mathematics, and you get the whole enchilada plopped down right in front of you, not filtered or simplified in any way — just as the ability to add new content is right there with no filter, as long as you don’t abuse it.  To me, this makes it not just the largest and most accessible encyclopedia ever assembled, but also the most genuinely useful.  People may put in facetious stuff, such as describing Solange Knowles as “Jay-Z’s 100th problem”, but every other encyclopedia loses far more value because of all the detail that the editors decide has to be left out as not of broad enough interest.

I don’t use Photoshop, but as I understand it, it has no dumb layer.  This is one reason people consider it the definitive tool.  (I use less expensive competing software such as DxO, which does have a bit of a dumb layer, but you can quickly un-hide all the smart bits.) Photoshop is an example of something common in many fields: the cheap products have thick dumb layers, and the expensive elite products lack them. Cameras, for instance: the more you pay, the fewer controls and options are hidden in “helpful” menus. The same applies to music gear: keyboards and mixers and production software get de-dumbed as you pay more. The ultimate undumb musical tool is, like, a Stradivarius violin: pay millions and it doesn’t even come with a chinrest.

One reason people often prefer Android to iOS is because its dumb layer is more permeable.

Anything that is shared as “open source” is a counterstrike against dumb layers.

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