is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Not long ago I downloaded a new productivity application that recently emerged from a prolonged beta period. Finally, the 1.0 version had arrived, and I was eager to get my hands on it, play around with its features and see what it had to offer. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to use it.
To be fair, this application, which shall remain nameless, had clearly been designed with great attention to detail. Its interface is not unattractive and its fit and finish is commendable; you wouldn’t be remiss in regarding it as a completely professional product.
However. I kept staring at it, and kept clicking on interface widgets and pushing buttons, but the more I explored, the less likely it seemed that I would ever really master it. I’m sure that its workflow makes sense, that with some investment in time, a user could realize some significant benefits from it. I just had a hard time thinking that one of those users would be me.
Too Much Is Not Enough
Ultimately I decided it was just too intricate a program for me to bother mastering. I have no wish to denigrate the many hours of dedicated, quality labor invested in its design and development by talented, well-meaning people, but I think I’m getting too old to learn anything more complex than the level of, say, ToDoist.
I no longer find the kind of satisfaction that I used to in laying the groundwork for better productivity, in acquiring complex tools and spending copious amounts of time learning them and setting them up in preparation for the productivity gains they promise to yield for me. I just want to get stuff done with simple, reliable tools and methods that are easily comprehended straight out of the box, and then go about my business. (So, no thank you to the tremendous waste of time that is GTD.)
But it’s not just me. I also think that we’re at a stage now where software interfaces just have to be more immediately intuitive than ever before, have to tell a story with extreme compactness and on first pass. There’s still a long way to go in raising the bar for good interfaces, but it’s much higher now even than where it sat at the end of the last century. In the intervening years, there have been too many good interfaces — still not enough in general, but enough to show us that software design can accomplish much more with much less.
End of an Era
And I guess that’s what left me so cold about that application I tried; it had all the trimmings of a modern Mac OS X or Windows Vista application, but its level of pointless complexity was so clearly from another, earlier era. The sheer number of controls available, and its apparently steep learning curve recalled for me a time when software purchases were planned and researched weeks ahead of time, and software itself was physically shipped in boxes with copious user manuals, and mastered over time with significant dedication and instruction.
Contrast that with how we’re experiencing much of the newer software being released at version 1.0 today: downloaded in an instant, installed at one’s leisure, flight tested and evaluated sometimes within just a few minutes before being carelessly discarded. Or, even more ruthlessly, oftentimes clicked to and experienced entirely within a browser; Web applications have tremendously abridged the opportunity window for all new software, whether it resides on the desktop or the network.
Much of this is not news to many readers, I’m sure. But sometimes, in the midst of change, it’s easy to overlook the fact that we’ve moved from one era to another. Maybe two years ago it would still have been passable to ship an application like that. Today, it’s puzzlingly anachronistic. In a few more years, it’ll just be completely unacceptable. Get ready.+