It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Simplicity and Octopart

I like simple things. While I often like gaudy, baroque, Victorian, overdone decoration, I like things I use to be as simple as possible. I don’t feel the need to make arbitrary rules like, “no buttons anywhere on the product”, but I try to make things simple and keep them that way.

Visually, this is a pretty boring journal. But journals are about words, and because I stay focused on words, it’s easy to read this journal on just about any device, from my XV6800 phone to a high-end PC. (Just checked and it looks pretty good in lynx as well.) I spent very little time making it simple, I just started ripping things out if I couldn’t justify their existence. So, there’s no autobiographical photo, no fancy widgets showing what music I’m listening to right now, no countdown-until-W-is-gone clock, do dynamic code generation, Flash animations, or any of that. True, if I were a freelance graphic — sorry, “communication” — designer I’d probably put a lot of effort into having a rockin’ web site that shows off my chops. But I’m not, so I don’t.

So, back to simple. If you’ve ever ordered anything from a supplier like Grainger or DigiKey, you know what a nightmare it can be to find what you’re looking for. For awhile now, McMaster Carr has gotten more of my business than, say, MSC Direct, simply because the McMaster Carr site is so damn simple and easy to use.

McMaster Carr is great for the hardware I’ve needed for some metalworking probjects, but in the past year or two I’ve also gotten back into tangible computing (aka “making electric things with embedded CPUs”). The work I’m doing now is mostly based on the Arduino, an AVR-based single board computer. The Arudino does for physical computing what high level languages did for programming — open the field up to more people by simplifying the interface and the programming environment. Yea for simplicity!

Getting back into tangible computing also means dealing with the dreaded mail order supply titans like DigiKey, Newark, Mouser, Allied, etc. Typically when you’re ordering parts, you make a list of what you need, then try and find each part in each catalog, get the price, sum everything up, figure out shipping, then go find out if the parts are actually in stock. It’s an hour or two with a spreadsheet and often both the online search engine and the printed catalog.

Octopart changes everything. It’s a search engine for electronics, but more importantly, it pulls data from all the major vendors and shows you — in real time — pricing and availability. You can make a parts list, then easily compare prices and availability across most major vendors then build individual shopping carts and place orders.

It’s an amazingly useful resource, but most importantly, it’s simple. Simple, simple, simple. There are no garish colors, no image maps, no egregious animations, no masses of corporate logos showing everyone they are affiliated with. Just plain text, thumbnails for search results to help identify parts, and navigation that doesn’t require FPS-developed reflexes.

Go play with it — even if you don’t know anything about electronics — and see what you think. If you think you’re ignorant of things electronic, then search for something you’ve used or heard of, like “9v battery” or “transistor” and just poke around a bit. By keeping things simple, they’ve taken something very complex — component selection and ordering — and made it a much easier task.

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posted by jet at 17:42  

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