I have the greatest admiration for designs that truly succeed in combining ease of use with power. This is extremely hard, and very few organizations and designers have succeeded. Some products and services start out good but fail to keep stuff simple as the feature set grows, but most just suck from the start.
If you are old enough you may remember the AltaVista search engine. It was launched by Digital (later Compaq, now HP) as a project much to prove the superiority of the Alpha processors. It indexed more web pages than anyone before, it returned search result faster than anyone before, and it had a pretty good, simple design: A one-row search field, and a Submit button. Sound familiar? It didn't even have a domain name of its own at the time since altavista.com was already taken, but in spite of this AltaVista became the de facto standard for searching the web. Results ranking and speed could be improved, as we would later learn, but at the time it was pretty much the best search engine on the Internet.
But one day the age of the Internet portals arrived. Everything had to be a portal. Including AltaVista. Unfortunately the search functionality drowned in a sea of portal junk. This portal move really is ironic; with a really good search engine, why would you need a portal page with edited content?. The previously clean first page became so cluttered that you almost had to search the page to find the search functionality. Good thing Google came along to help you with that. AltaVista lost, both due to inferior interface design and inferior technology.
An other example. The iPod. Not particularly original as an example, I know, but this is for a reason. Apple designed the iPod as a music player, nothing else. They provided it with a simple to use piece of software to rip, organize and play music, as well as to transfer it to the iPod. They also gave it a very attractive design, being small, stylish and easy to use. The iPod really only did one thing, it played music. But did it really well. Every time a gadget blog or an online magazine writes about a new iPod model there inevitably has to be someone complaining loudly in the comments section of the article that the iPod sucks; it doesn't have a radio, the only supported way of transferring music to it is using iTunes, the battery performance is poor, it has no recording function, etc. But for the absolute majority, including myself, these things do not matter. We prefer the ease of use, the great sound quality, the small form factor. We rather not sacrifice the user experience the iPod provides for more features, as a matter of fact we are even prepared to pay a little extra for not having them. In this case less really is more. Sales figure speak on their own. There really isn't much of a competition. Yeah, sure, clever marketing didn't hurt either.
When a new iPod generation is released, the battery life is typically barely improved, instead the product is made smaller. Someone made a conscious design decision here: Battery life is good enough, size, however, is more important. Slowly new features are making it into the product line, first photos, later movies and games. But perhaps this isn't good enough in the long run. Perhaps the iPod users really want to consolidate their gadget collection, giving them less stuff to carry around? I sure do. This is nothing that escaped Apple, hence the iPhone. One would think that Apple is out on deep waters here, when they now enter a new market. Fortunately for Apple, there isn't much of a competition.
The Sony Ericsson p990i is the latest flag ship smartphone from Sony Ericsson. It is everything the iPod isn't. Sony Ericsson's design team has crammed pretty much every technology they could find into the p990i. It has support for GSM, WCDMA, WLAN, Bluetooth, an FM radio, USB, two cameras, and MemoryStick. It has a pen-based user interface and features software out of the box to make phone calls, send and receive SMS, MMS, and e-mails, synch with Exchange servers, read and write Office documents, read PDF files, play music and movies, surf the web, read RSS-feeds, a business card scanner(!), an alarm clock, and of course organizer tools such as calendars, contacts management, and tasks. And the list goes on. Looks good on paper huh? Too bad it sucks. It is badly designed, badly built and the software wasn't even half baked when the phone was released. The support documents even instructs you to reboot the phone (which takes 90 seconds by the way!) every now and then as a maintenance routine. And would you forget, the phone will do it automatically for you. When you least want it. We have suddenly moved more than 10 years back in time to the era of Windows 95 and pre OS X! Seriously, it is so bad it isn't even funny.
To add to it all, the arrogance shown by Sony Ericsson towards their customers that paid a premium price for this product is just sad. It shows every sign of a company that is immature in its customer relations and that has failed to embrace new CRM ideas and technologies that have emerged during the last few years. Things such as blogging and direct end user interaction. But that could be a good topic for a later post.
If the iPhone is even half as good as it looks, and if there is any justice in the world, Sony Ericsson will be in deep trouble over their smartphone product line.
Well designed products must be simple yet powerful for the novice user, but it must also prove effective with the experienced user. That's why the Wizard style of user interface programming doesn't work that great for everyday tasks. Consider the Google GUI as a wizard:
Step 1: Select what you are searching for 'a', a web page, 'b' an image 'c', a PDF document. [Next->]
Step 2: Enter a search string, then select 'Submit'. [Next->]
Step 3: The search string is presented to you, if it is correct, select 'Continue'. [Next->]
Step 4: Chose 'a' if you would like to show the first ten results for this search string, or 'b' to immediately go to the highest ranked item based on your search result. [Search]
Step 5: Show result.
This is not something that would be used that often... Come to think about it, it is not far from this: Award for the Silliest User Interface: Windows Search.
The AltaVista example shows us a design that started out good, but, as features were added, started to fall apart. So how do you expand the feature set without ruining ease of use and the user experience? Very carefully. This is what Apple has done with the iPod, this is what Google has done with its search engine.
Google has done a decent job with the search engine. Adding a few tabs for images etc is OK, the search is still the centerpiece, easy to use and extremely fast. Adding the 'Personalized Home' feature made me a bit worried, but it is still OK since you have the default option of not using it. Although, it did also add a bit of unnecessary clutter to the page. AltaVista, on the other hand, failed completely and eventually reverted their design to what it is today.
Carefully consider if a feature is worth adding, and how it fits with what is already there. Perhaps skipping a new feature is the best choice. I believe these are often the really hard choices to make.
I am not a designer. I believe I am pretty good at telling when a user experience works, unfortunately that doesn't mean I can design one from scratch. But it doesn't mean I wont try either. Read about how we try to apply these ideas when we develop sventon in part II.
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove."
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry