Microsoft – are you listening? Grab a warm drink, pull up a chair, get comfy and, by all means, take some notes.
Right – pen poised? Here’s your headline: people don’t want the kitchen sink in every single application they use.
Two recent stories have got me thinking about simplicity in software and, by extension, web development: the upcoming release of Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac and the admission by Wil Shipley of Delicious Monster that the second version of their award-winning Delicious Library was just too complicated.
Delicious Library is a great bit of kit: it’s a media cataloguing application to manage collections of books, movies, CDs, and video games etc. You can add products by taking a photo of the bar code using a web cam, check out products when you lend them to friends and, if you so desire, export your library ‘shelves’ to the web. And for $40, it’s good value for money too.
So – what went wrong with version 2? In an interview with Ars Technica magazine last month, Shipley said: “Let’s say, for instance, 80 percent of these (new) features worked great. I’d think, ‘Yay, I did good, I added a bunch of great stuff to the new version, it was definitely worth $20 to existing customers.’ But, that’s not how the customers see it—they see the 20 percent that’s buggy, and they think, ‘This is crappy… he released software that didn’t work.’”
Shipley’s aims were to be applauded: he wanted to give his customers as much bang for the buck as he could. And he reasoned that stuffing the version two of Delicious Library with whizz-bang features was the way to do that.
“If I’d just cut the flaky features, and only shipped the stuff that was really solid, people would have had a much better impression of the app.”
Is anything of this sinking in Microsoft?
Every new version of Office seems to throw more and more and more features into the products: Word begins to resemble a desktop publishing tool, the dazzling array of buttons and options in Excel resembles the dashboard of the Space Shuttle and PowerPoint, well… PowerPoint appears to give you even more options to make creating the world’s dullest presentations even easier.
I know many people – on Macs and PCs – who use older versions of Office for one simple reason: they do what they need. The can write a document in Word, produce a spreadsheet in Excel and put together a presentation in PowerPoint. What more do they need precisely?
The trend in many software applications is for simplicity – not cluttering an interface with buttons and options that, frankly, are never used. In web applications, one of the chief proponents of this methodology is the Chicago-based company 37signals which produces the products Basecamp (project management), Highrise (contact management), Backpack (information management) and Campfire (online chat).
Each individual application does a job, and does it well. It doesn’t do any more than is required and has a clean, simple, intuitive interface that means the learning curve is almost flat.
With the lines between software and web sites increasingly-blurring, I’m glad to see the trend for simplicity carrying through to the majority of web sites. Don’t misunderstand, I like building a sexy-looking web site as much as the next developer but I never introduce features for their own sake. Everything on the screen has to do a job: whether that be to ease navigation, promote a product or service or make it possible to view a wealth of information easily. Code for code’s sake? No thanks.
The companies doing exciting things on the web and in software understand this. Microsoft, it would appear, still doesn’t.