DevDays – Joel Spolsky on simplicity and power

Stack Overflow DevDay 21 October 2009 – Benaroya Hall, Seattle

Joel –

How much we get interrupted by our computers that want us to make decisions – especially Windows, which wants to know whether we want to make the decision we just made?

Sometimes software makes you make decisions that are just stupid – like on Rhapsody where the only way you can search is to choose which index (artist, song, etc), unlike iTunes.

Can’t even turn your computer off without deciding from among six different ways.

The debate between simplicity and power – simple apps that are highly simplified and do one thing well, obeying the 80/20 rule, vs. the Powerful software with lots of capabilities, features, and options. Example: the Swiss Army Knife that comes with a saw so small that you can’t use it for anything, vs. the hardwood floor nailer that only does that function.

Features lead to choices. Choices are the negative side effect of features. Quotes the famous experiment from Stanford where they set up sample tables at a deli one with 6 flavors and one with 24 flavors. 60% stopped at the 24 flavors, while 40% stopped at the six, but the opposite is true of actual purchases. Book – The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz.

37 Signals advocated less choice, simpler apps in their book Getting Real. Do less than your competitors – solve the simple problems and leave the rest to Microsoft.

Every time you have option in a dialog box, you’re asking someone to make a decision. People don’t like to make decisions – e.g. look at Tools/Options in any big app. The only reason those boxes are there is so you can accidentally get one wrong, so your computer will behave strangely until you get a new one.

The end result is these decisions make people feel stressed out and blame themselves.

Why is simple so popular?
When you’re a two person startup, the only thing you can advertise is “simple!”

Everybody tells you they love the simplicity, but…
They’re surprised by what your version of simple doesn’t include.

At Fog Creek they’ve discovered that the more sales you have, the more features you have – because you have customers that are asking for features, and when you give them what they need, they like it. Everybody only uses 20% of the features, but everybody uses a different 20%.

Conclusion – Powerful software does sell more and make more money.

What do people care about? Specifically, your users.

Long tangent about all human motivation coming down to DNA wanting to replicated itself – your use case should be there’s a 22 year old student living in a dorm room – how will your software get him laid?

People want choices and features that support their work. When you’re a programmer on a team you think it’s important – you think the user thinks about the same things you do, which is completely untrue. The computer does not have the ethical right to set the agenda for users. You are not in charge of what your users do. You do not have the moral right to put up a modal dialog box – ever.

Good design is making decisions. When you make the right decisions, that is good design.

Definition of Elegance. Example of iPhone silent ring switch, vs. Nokia’s 4 choices that require menus to set. By eliminating two choices you eliminate all the mnus etc. Lots of choices are disappearing – Apple’s driving a lot of that. Elegant takes a lot more work – especially user interfaces. Example of Amazon 1-click. Worth doing – give people the power in a simple way.


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