The top of this Sony NEX-7 mirrorless interchangeable lens digital camera looks wonderfully clean and simple, doesn't it? Maybe a bit too clean and simple... As far as size and weight are concerned, though, the NEX-7 actually weighs about half as much and is 20% smaller than the Nikon FM3A below.
One of the things I have to think about in my day-job as someone who designs and scripts web-based training is user-interface design. User interface is a techy term for “controls.” I generally try to make the user interface as obvious, intuitive, and simple as possible. One of the complicating factors is that simplicity isn't always as simple as it seems.
For example, take a look at the top of the Sony NEX-7 above and tell me if anything jumps out at you. No? Well, let me put it another way: Can you tell by looking at the controls on the top of the camera how to set the exposure mode, aperture, or shutter speed? Do you have any idea how you would find out? Can you tell for sure which one of the two buttons on the top of the handgrip is the shutter button, short of pressing one of them to see what happens? I've only shown you the top of the camera, but trust me, you won't find any more clues on the back either.
Nothing jumps out at you because this is a classic example of a hidden interface. The NEX-7 has so many features and functions that the designers decided not to “clutter” the camera with dedicated buttons, dials, levers, and switches. Instead, they created dials whose functions vary depending on what mode you’re in. That’s what the button to the right of the shutter button is for, by the way: It cycles you through the NEX-7’s various modes. What to know what mode you’re in? You have to look at the menu on the LCD display. It’s therefore impossible to set anything directly. You first have to be in the right mode, then you need to know which of the dials to turn and in what direction. Keep in mind that I've never handled an NEX-7, so for all I know it's a lot easier than I'm making it sound--but I doubt it.
The dial on the left is for setting the ISO and exposure compensation. The dial on the right is for setting either a specific shutter speed or aperture-preferred mode. The only other controls would be on the lens: focus and aperture. This may look more complicated than the Sony above, but to some of us it's actually a lot more simple.
Contrast this approach to the user interface of an old school Nikon FM3A (or the many other manual film cameras that look pretty much the same). Even if you didn’t know what each of these dials did, it would be pretty evident that each one does only one or two things and they are the same every time. The aperture ring controls the aperture, the shutter dial controls the shutter, the ISO dial controls the ISO. Period. There are no menus, so the interface has to be clean, simple, external, and self-evident.
As for which approach is “better” than the other, well, that depends. Some people like having almost limitless combinations of options they can program into their camera and then let then program run with an occasional tweak every now and then. Others would rather use their brain as the software and exercise direct, real-time control with their fingers. Either interface approach can produce fine pictures. From what I hear, the NEX-7 has been a hit for Sony. The more retro-designed Fuji X-100 and its recently introduced sibling, the Fuji X-10 have been hits too. May they all continue to do well. As for me, well, let’s just say I plan to hold on to my Nikon FM3A for as long as I can still get film for it.