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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mute Switch Bike Sheds

A few days ago there was a big kerfuffle about the ring/silence switch on the iPhone. People have been coming out of the woodwork with their thoughts and opinions on the matter. Don’t worry. I’m not going to post my thoughts on the issue here. Yes, I have an opinion, but really what I want to highlight is the debate itself. More importantly, I want to discuss why this is such a polarizing issue.

But first, a little background

If you’re reading this post anywhere near the posting date you can safely skip this section.

During a performance of the New York Philharmonic a very distinctly iPhone ring started to play. It continued making noise for quite some time. Finally the conductor had had enough and stopped the performance to confront whomever had their phone ringing. Unbeknownst to the owner, his phone had an alarm that was set to go off during the performance. He didn’t know about the alarm as he was given the phone just prior to the performance and thought he had set the phone to mute.

Due to the design of the iPhone, alarms will sound even if the mute1 switch is turned to off. Pundits and non-pundits alike have been arguing the finer points of the switch and the design over the past few days.

Should the mute switch prevent the device from making any noise, or should it make noise for some select or important events? That’s what everyone seems to be focused on. What I’m interested in is: why does everyone have an opinion on this issue?

Why does everyone and their dog have an opinion?

The mute switch is a bike shed. No, it’s not literally a bike shed, but as a solution to a problem it is. What is a bike shed problem exactly? A bike shed is a problem that’s reasonably well understood by the common person. Since the problem is well understood everyone feels that they are entitled to an opinion on it. In fact, it’s been said that the amount of noise in the decision making process is inversely proportional to the complexity of the problem.

From the definition of a bike shed:

Parkinson shows how you can go in to the board of directors and get approval for building a multi-million or even billion dollar atomic power plant, but if you want to build a bike shed you will be tangled up in endless discussions.

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far. Richard P. Feynmann gives a couple of interesting, and very much to the point, examples relating to Los Alamos in his books.

A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is here.

Since everyone has a stake in how the mute switch on the iPhone should work, and the complexity of the problem is low, everyone has an opinion. Those following the debate will point out that the complexity of this problem is anything but low.

It’s a difficult problem with no 100% correct solution. Regardless of the choice made by the designers there would be some class of user that the solution was wrong for. However, that won’t stop people from arguing over what colour this bike shed should be.

  1. I say mute switch because that’s the common term for it. In actuality it’s call the Ring/Silence switch. The difference between the terms is splitting hairs as far as customers are concerned.