Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Software Design: Ease of Use vs. Discoverability

Almost every product you pick up, whether it's a hot glue gun or a $1000 impossibly complex piece of software, says this on it somewhere: "Easy to Use!"

But many products aren't so easy to use, as we all know. So this term has almost lost its meaning, like "intuitive" or "all natural". So what do you say about your product if it truly is easy to use? And what does that mean, anyway?

I want to make a distinction between ease of use, and ease of learning or discoverability.

Here's a simple example in software products: drag and drop. It may be easy to use, but how the heck do you discover that certain areas of certain windows can have things dropped on them? And just what kinds of things can you drop on them? The inverse of this is the File/Open menu item, which brings up an open panel in which you hunt around your hard drive in a tiny little modal window. That functionality is easy to discover (it's right there in the menu) but very tedious to use, particularly if you have a lot of files, in different places.

Another example is the use of styles in programs like InDesign and Word. They're really easy to figure out what they're supposed to do, and really hard to use. The problems range from scope (what in the heck will change when you click Apply) to the tedium of repeatedly selecting text then going back to the palette to click the style. NeXT Computer innovated in this area, it's now in many MacOS X apps, and still nobody has noticed: "Copy Style" and "Paste Style". You can load up the style you want to use and then, with one hand, select text; with the other, you "Paste Style" with the menu key equivalent. It's amazingly efficient and easy to accomplish. Why isn't this idea all over the place, in every product? Or Adobe Illustrator's "Transform Again" menu commmand. Brilliant.

In my view, the right choice is "easy to use, hard to discover", with some way to make it more discoverable. Tool tips, horrible as they are, were invented for this reason, to help you discover stuff that you might not otherwise have noticed. The dreaded "Tips" that pop up, with the handy check box, "Don't show me this again", are actually a really good idea. If they're telling you something you already know, at least you won't have to suffer through it again; and if you didn't know whatever it is they're telling you, often it's truly helpful. Microsoft really pioneered this approach, and, other than overdoing it with dancing paperclips and puppies, did a very good job of integrating it into their products. Their only mistake, I think, was having 38 small opt out preferences, rather than one big giant "leave me alone!" preference (I'm thinking of Word here, with all its helpful grammar checkers, date suggesters, "You seem to be writing a letter; want some help?" and stuff like that).

Ease of use boils down to this: can you remember, a month after you last used something, how to use it efficiently?

Discoverability is a bit different: can you figure out most of the functionality of a program within the first 10 minutes, "cruising the menus"?

I think one of the best (simple) ideas of all time in this category is, I believe, Microsoft's. It's the Recent Documents menu. It does exactly what you want 99% of the time, bringing back the documents you were most recently working on, regardless of where on your computer they might be living—and it is obvious how the feature works.

Monday, September 19, 2005

AppleMatters vs. iMovie

If you read this posting on the "AppleMatters" web site:


You would think that iMovie was just a modest adaptation of existing movie editing software. As the original author of iMovie, I wrote a comment on that site, which required me to register.

I received some spam as a result of registering, but my comment was never posted. This bothers me still, as it seems not to be such an open forum if comments are silently not posted. So I responded to the spam, which went as email to Hadely Stern, who never responded, and my comment is still not posted. I lost my original comment, but here's the text of my email to Hadley. At least I can comment over here on my blog and maybe somebody will read it :)

To: hadley@applematters.com

From: Glenn Reid <glenn@fiveacross.com>

Subject: Re: Win a Mac mini forum contest (really another issue)


Hi Hadley,

Your site requested that I registered in order to post a comment, and you have no problem sending me spam as a result of my registration, yet my comment never appeared on this article:


As the author of iMovie at Apple, I was trying to take issue with Chris Seibold's contentions that iMove was somehow derived from Final Cut Pro. It wasn't. It was written ground-up (by me). iMovie 1.0 was a dramatic sea change and ushered in the era of Digital Media. I and a very small team (3 total) wrote iMovie in just 9 months in 1998, and it first shipped on the iMac DV. It was DV-only, brought a copy/paste metaphor to the previously hobbyist-only marketplace that was video editing, and the iMac DV showed for the first time why you might want a PC with a large hard drive (though it was only a 6GB drive!). To say that this was not innovation is a bit short-sighted. To say this:

"Not only was the original iMovie limited it was also a program based on an application conceived outside of Apple. The Cupertino giant did not invent iMovie they merely purchased an existing program and polished to a point where the masses would fall in love. Far from being the exception to the rule this is the norm."

Is just plain wrong.

iMovie was the first ground-up application in a very long time at Apple (10 years maybe?). Big companies do usually just buy and repurpose apps. Apple, starting with iMovie, is writing some new ones. I also was the principle author of iPhoto, also written from the ground up (iTunes, it is worth noting, was an acquisition: it was originally called SoundJam). iMovie, iPhoto, Keynote, and Pages were all written from scratch and are trully innovative. Even Adobe and Microsoft don't write apps from scratch any more, as far as I can tell, with the possible exception of InDesign which took probably over 5 years.

Glenn Reid
Five Across, Inc.

>To the many hundreds of you who have registered over the past couple of days

>welcome to Apple Matters!


>To our older members hello! In case you haven't heard yet Apple Matters is

>having a competition running from now until October 31st. Each time you post

>to our new forums you get an entry to win a Mac mini setup worth over $700. 


>Details can be found here:




>Why are we doing this? Well, because we want your help building the best

>forums on the Apple web.


>So keep posting!



>Hadley Stern

>Publisher, Editor-in-Chief