The Guardian asks, "are our appliances getting too complicated?" No, they’re not

So-called "function inflation" can actually make our lives simpler.

There was a funny old piece in the Guardian yesterday that was of the opinion that household appliances like toasters and washing machines are getting far too complicated, leaving us baffled, bamboozled and befuddled as to how to use them. This is clearly errant nonsense, in my most humble of opinions.

Unlike the author of the piece, I have far more faith in the average consumer’s ability to comprehend that, for example, the Breville VTT377 4 Slice Toaster’s “high lift” feature is just that – the fact that when you want to get your toast out it lifts it slightly higher, so that you don’t have to burn your fingers trying to retrieve a smaller piece of toast.

“Variable browning” is scoffed at as if it’s some marketing mumbo jumbo, when in fact it just means you can alter how brown you want your toast. Get out of here – the brownness of your toast is variable? How over-complicated! As for the ‘reheat’ and ‘defrost’ functions, how dare anyone want to toast some frozen bread, or warm up but not burn some toast they made earlier? Heresy!

Much is made of the complexity of washing machines, which now have a supposedly bewildering array of programs. The author bemoans the fact that machines now have, “duvet", "sports", "bed and bath", "reduced creases", "allergy" and "freshen up" cycles. If this is terribly complicated for the average punter, I’m clearly missing something. The duvet cycle is for when you need to wash a duvet. Sports would be for sports gear, bed and bath is for bedding and towels, reduced creases is for stuff that’ll need an iron, and "freshen up" uses steam instead of water to take creases out of clean or very lightly-soiled items (depending on the exact model, natch).

None of this is exactly rocket science. It doesn’t take a genius to think to turn the dial to "duvet" if they have just stuffed a duvet in it. Or to turn it to "Cottons 30 degrees" if they want to wash some cottons at 30 degrees, for that matter.

Many of those who left comments are unconvinced. Some bemoaned the fact that washing machines used to have only three dials, for temperature, load and spin speed. “When this needed replacing the range of wash options available on the new machines was mind boggling,” according to a commenter called Thegecko. But let’s just think about that. Let’s say there were nine temperature options on one dial, two load settings on another, and five spin speeds on the third. How many possible combinations are there? 90, by my (I admit pretty rusty) maths. Makes the number of programs on a modern machine look positively sparse. Also, if I know little about laundry, where do I set each of those three dials to wash all my woolly cardies? On a modern machine, I would simply turn the dial to ‘woolens’. Which is really the simpler system?

Similarly, while an old toaster only had one knob, that one knob would get a lot of use. You’d forever be fiddling about with it depending on the thickness of the bread, whether it was frozen or not, whether you were reheating toast and so on. Would you remember where on the one dial is best for all of these? Or would it be easier to hit a ‘frozen’ or ‘reheat’ button and let the toaster do the rest?

The Bosch TWK8631GB Styline Kettle is in trouble too, for its ability to, “Heat water to your choice of 70°C (white tea), 80°C (green tea), 90°C (hot chocolate or coffee) or a familiar 100°C (boiling).” That’s right, there are four water temperature settings. How terribly, er, over-complicated. If you only ever want it boiling then – get this – you have to press ‘boil’ each and every time. Almost like, you know, having to press a single switch on a ‘traditional’ kettle.

Is it wrong for appliances to get more sophisticated, rather than less so? If you look at this kettle, it’s got a number of features many people might find useful. It has a large 1.5L capacity. The heating element is concealed, which reduces limescale build-up. It has a rapid-boil function for when you’re in a rush. A keep-warm function can keep the water at the desired temperature for up to 30 minutes. There is a limescale filter so the spout pours cleanly. In fact, I quite want one of these kettles (Bosch, I hope you are reading this). At £40 it’s practically a steal.

Also accused of being over-complicated is the humble vacuum cleaner. Take the Vax Zoom Family and Pet Bagless Cylinder Vacuum Cleaner, about which the article decries: “The ridiculous name aside, this £150 monument to excessive disposable income includes a "crevice tool", "dusting brush", "turbo tool", "stretch hose" and "flexi crevice tool". You know, for cleaning your flexi-crevices. Which, obviously, aren't a thing [sic].” I personally wouldn’t spend £150 on a vacuum cleaner either. But to say that the various flexible hoses and attachments are terribly complicated seems a bit of a stretch. It doesn’t require someone with a massive brain to put a small brush on the end of a plastic hose when they want to vacuum a narrow gap, whether Vax chooses to call it a crevice tool or not.

Various experts are drawn on to talk about ‘function inflation’ and ‘setting creep’. The iPod is held up as a shining example of making complicated things simple, and yet early iPod menu systems, as well as early versions of iTunes, were actually rather complicated. According to Amplicate, 60 per cent of a sample of over 75,000 consumers hate iTunes to this day. Even now, negotiating iTunes and its integration with the cloud and your various devices is not always a simple task – certainly not as simple as turning a dial to "duvet" when you load a sodding duvet into a washing machine.

The thing is, some appliances, gadgets and electronics are really badly designed. The issue isn’t the number of functions, it’s how well complexity is hidden from the user. Most people only use a fraction of the features and functions of Microsoft Word, but my five year-old can still create and save a basic document. You can bemoan the fact that you can no longer repair your "overly-complex" car all you like, but do you really want to go back to the reliability of a Hillman Imp, and hand back your air conditioning, ABS, traction control, engine management systems and a whole range of safety features? I wouldn’t. Want a toaster with only one button? Fine, you can still buy one. But don’t presume that the rest of us are too stupid to know the difference between frozen bread and toast.

Are we really baffled, bamboozled and befuddled? Photograph: Getty Images

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.