04 November 2005

Advanced Features Rant.

One of the historically wonderful aspects of the Macintosh R&D culture has been the recognition that less is often more. Unlike Windows mice, which have two buttons, Mac mice have just one. The genius of the iPod is that it has so few buttons, not that it has so many features. Mac people figured out that the 3.5" floppy had outlived its usefulness before its Wintel cousins.

This insight is not widespread. Extra features are often downright annoying.

For example, Microsoft Word automatically tries to format lists for you, rather than using a WYSIWYG methodology. Getting default formatting conventions out of MS Word documents requires persistence, the navigation of multiple layers of obscure settings windows in non-obvious places, and lots of time. While Word Perfect (which, alas, is not the industry standard) allows you to easily see every bit of formatting in your document and delete it from the main page if you don't want it, the reveal formatting function of MS Word is far less transparent. It can easily take half an hour or more to figure out why there is a blank line separating two footnotes, for example, despite all of your best efforts to delete it, for example. Indeed, that particular problem often can't be removed with the delete key at all, you often have to go to multiple layers of menus you wouldn't naturally even think to consult.

I discovered and finally disabled some other annoying hidden features in the track pad mouse substitute on my Toshiba laptop. It so happens that it designates an invisible portion of the interface to automatically trigger the forward and back buttons in internet explorer. If you are trying to fill in a comment box and need to move around it with the track pad, the result is often losing everything you've types in the process and not knowing why. Another hidden "feature" devoted parts of the pad to automatic scrolling, and another made the pointer move even when you weren't doing anything. Aaargh! To allow such features is, barely, tolerable. To make them defaults without mentioning anything prominently in the short version of the users guides is human systems engineering heresy.

Software designers (and hardware designers), please, keep your interfaces as simple and intuitive as possible. If someone couldn't easily figure it out without reading the instructions, then you shouldn't do it. The measure of a products quality is not how many features it has, but how many features the average user who doesn't have the instruction book at hand feels comfortable using on a regular basis.

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