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Monday, February 13, 2006

Seeking Simplicity

What is it about the human compulsion to replace simple, straight-forward, transparent systems with increasingly byzantine systems to perform the same function?

The new figure skating score system has caused me to think about this a lot this past weekend. In the wake of the 2002 judging scandal, figure skating admitted that it was in dire need of reforms. What appears to have actually been decided is that figure skating would never again be embarassed by a judging scandal...so they developed an intricate, randomized, anonymous system. The goal being not to prevent cheating, just to keep it from being discovered.

Despite complaints about the scoring in 2002, I think the system worked perfectly. By being relatively simple and transparent, it made the irregularities immediately obvious and the cheaters undeniably accountable, which is exactly what they should want. Under the new system, it won't be necessary for a judge (or judges) to do anything as obvious as scoring exceptionally high or low, all they'll have to do is shave a few points here and there.

It's also not obvious to audience members how many points are possible, so it's unclear what a good score is.

Plus, on top of all of that, it turns out that the new system may not work at all! Good grief.

Now, I'll happily admit that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a figure skater. I think minimizing some of the subjectivity in the old system was probably good, and I don't completely understand the new system.

Why is this a problem? Because people like me are their audience. Imagine how many people would be interested in watching baseball if the players were awarded 1 run for crossing homeplate, plus 0-3 additional runs based on a random selection of scores anonymously awarded by the umpires for how stylishly they tagged the bases.

If your audience can't understand the scores, they aren't going to care about them.

It's easy to sit on the couch and say, "Wow, I think a 5.2 was really too low!" It's something else to say, "I think a 59.2 was probably a little low, but they may have lost points for turning out of the jump too soon, or maybe it had to do with how the footwork in that middle section not being difficult enough...to...counterbal...snore........"

Put me down with the guys from 37signals who favor simplicity over complexity.

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