Simplicity and Elegance

Here’s another note from Joel Spolsky on the relationship between simplicity and usability. We wrote before that simplicity, in terms of software or services, does not mean you should slash off features and functionality, but still keeping in mind not to give end-users headaches because of too many choices. One additional factor to note is elegance.

People, for the most part, are not playing with their software because they want to. Theyâ??re using the software as a tool to accomplish something else that they would like to do. Maybe they are using a chat program to try and seem witty, in hopes that the person they are chatting with will want to spend time with them, so that, ultimately, they have a better chance of getting laid, so that, ultimately, their selfish DNA will get to replicate itself. Maybe they are using a spreadsheet to try and figure out if they can afford a bigger apartment, so that, ultimately, dates will be more impressed when they come over, increasing their chance of getting laid, again, benefitting the DNA. Maybe theyâ??re working on a PowerPoint for the boss so that they will get a promotion so that theyâ??ll have more money which they can use to rent a larger apartment that would attract mates, thus increasing their chance of getting laid, (getting the idea yet?) so the selfish DNA can replicate.

A product (or website, service, or just about anything) can be simple, but that does not mean it should be devoid of features or functionalities. In the case of software and web apps, people use these as a means to achieve an end. And yes, sometimes that means getting laid (helping the DNA replicate itself). Joel argues that the end is more important than the means, and that the means should not be a hindrance to a person’s reaching his goal. Therefore, a piece of software, if too complicated and difficult to use, would be a hindrance from making its user happy.

However, one added argument is that a piece of software should not be void of functionalities that a user expects in order for him to reach his goals in the first place. What’s important is that while features are there to take advantage of, the user doesn’t have to fumble with the interface. Or at the very least, the user shouldn’t have to feel that he’s using such a complicated tool. So power should be matched with simplicity in how a user can harness this power.

If youâ??re using the term simplicity to mean â??grace and economyâ? or â??elegance,â? thatâ??s terrific. A great example of this is the difference between the way you search for music on Rhapsody and the way you search for music on iTunes. Rhapsody makes you decide if you want to search for albums, tracks, or artists. iTunes doesnâ??t give you any choice: it just searches all fields, which works just as well and is easier. Economy means power, in this case, and itâ??s a feature.

And that, folks, is how the selfish DNA replicates.

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