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Software that both you AND your father can use? – Here’s how March 19, 2007

Posted by IntimatePower in design, interactions, interface, usability.

I learn a lot about user-interfaces when my father needs my help with accomplishing something on his PC.

The other day he wanted to move some videos he shot with a digital video camera from the multiple read-write 80mm DVDs (expensive) to standard write-once DVDs (very cheap).

He could describe it to me very easily — move the files from the small DVD to the big DVD, so I can re-use the small DVD in my camera — but, he couldn’t do it if his life depended on it, and thank god, it didn’t.

I admit I used to somewhat patronize my father, thinking that he’s not really trying or that he expects the computer to do too much.

I now see I was wrong.
I was seeing it with my own tech-savvy eyes, instead of looking at it from the point of view of my father, who only started using computers a few short years ago, and who only needs the most basic features of word-processing, emailing and web browsing.

Sure, the DVD-burning software that he uses has a nice wizard, but it’s not the first thing that you see when you open the program, nor is it so easy to use for someone who is really a beginner.

It’s not the user who is supposed to learn how to operate any application, or the computer as a whole, but rather it is the application who needs to lend itself to non-technical users such as my father, as well as to more experienced users who need easy access to some of the advanced features.

After nearly 20 years of the graphical user interface, and with the much-celebrated exponential rise of computer power vs. its falling costs, its disappointing to see how little technology has really advanced in lending itself to us.

I recall the inspiring words of Jeff Han when he presented his innovative touch screen at the TED conference last year:

“At this day and age, there’s no reason we should be conforming to a physical device… interfaces should be conforming to us”

Hi-tech devices such as interactive touch screens are just part of the solution, and are still a few years away from the mass market.

It is the whole concept of the graphical user interface that must be re-designed to allow for a natural, gradual learning curve.

Says Kathy Sierra, from the “creating passionate users” blog:

“I’m a big fan of splitting capabilities into different products, or having a really good user-level modes–where you use wizards or simpler interfaces for new users, etc. Yes, they’re often done badly, but they don’t have to be”

and in another post:

“What if instead of adding new features, a company concentrated on making the service or product much easier to use? Or making it much easier to access the advanced features it already has, but that few can master?”

While I resonate with the “user-level modes” concept, I don’t agree with Kathy that “splitting capabilities into different products” is a good idea, because most users will need to use only some of the advanced features, not all of them.

Offering a single product with a flexible set of features can also allow users to “pay as they go”.

How to design software that both you and your father can use

An application needs to have 3 main “profiles” or “modes”: Beginner, Normal and Advanced.

By default, a new product, service or application must arrive in the “beginner mode”, with only the basic features available. The interface needs to be similar to what you encounter in any system that serves as a public information-kiosk. The beginner mode is maybe the most challenging to design, because it involves a lot of thinking into which features are really the most important and how best to design the wizards that will take the user by the hand and lead him through the whole process.

The option to switch to the “Normal mode” needs to be visible, and when selected, at least for the first time, the application needs to re-check with the user that he’s really interested to access this mode.

The “Normal mode”, as you might expect, shows more of the product’s features, but still not all of them. Only the features that the typical user needs.
There should be an easy way to customize these features, as well as their display, so the interface will not be cluttered with too many features that the user seldom uses.

Some applications highlight the features you use often and grey-out or even hide those you don’t use, which is a nice feature by itself, but there should also be an option to permanently hide these features.

The application must be able to save these customized views and options in a user-profile, that should be easily accessible, manageable and transferable.

The “Advanced Mode” should not display all the features, but rather allow the advanced user fine-grain control over all aspects of the application, its features and its display.

The application’s HELP section needs to accommodate for both beginners, normal and advanced users, and include friendly HOW-TOs along side detailed instructions on how to customize various features.

Real-world examples

There are a few good examples that come to mind which implement some of these ideas:

Spybot Search and Destroy (an anti-spyware tool) creates two start menu entries – normal and advanced, and also displays this option in the menu bar as “mode”. When you switch to the advanced mode, Spybot warns you that it is only recommended to those who know what they’re doing, and that you might harm your system. The advanced mode lets you tweak many of the program’s features and to choose if you want to display them or not.

Azureus (a legal P2P content sharing tool), opens in the “featured content” page, with very few icons or menu options, but still allows you to do what you came here for – browsing content, downloading, managing your content library and even publishing. Pressing the “advanced” mode expands the menu, adds many expert features, and gives you fine-grained control over all aspects of the program.

It’s not only software, though.
Some digital cameras arrive in a “simple” menu mode, which you can easily turn into “advanced”, unlocking many features that novice users never need.


Software and product makers who adopt this attitude will appeal to a greater audience, and their increasing sales can help them make their products even better.

And maybe these products will be good enough to allow my father, and others, to interact easily and naturally with technology, and to derive more personal value from it.




1. None - October 18, 2007

You lost me at your examples.

Azureus and any extensions type of program in my opinion fall more under different products than one product of flexibility. How so? Well each extension requires almost a separate look and a separate manual entirely. It’s not natively there, hidden from unprepared eyes. I don’t “discover” it. I either unlock it, get exposed to a whole new set of options or I don’t. The best argument for these type of programs are that they come with pre-installed extensions but design wise, I don’t see how you can say they are designed for ease over their competitors.

I admit I don’t know much of Azureus’ advanced features but when I tried the program in the past even in it’s beginner mode, it still felt like the MS Word of bittorrent programs. I really could not pick it up as easily as utorrent’s ui.

Admittedly it’s not overly complicated by the standards set by the rest of it’s competitors but as an argument for great ui? I find that difficult to believe.

Spybot is also another program that doesn’t have good ui in my opinion. It’s so good at hiding it’s advanced features that a user can get away with not knowing about it or knowing how to gradually utilize it’s advanced features without already being an advanced user.

In that way, I think it hurt it’s exposure because everytime there’s a better spyware scanner than it at default, I find people tend to drop it like flies except probably for those who can utilize the advanced features and even then I wonder, if as an anti-spyware, it’s really that beneficial tinkering with it.

It’s not that it isn’t great mind you but I think a majority of both programs’ fanbase comes from their hype by them being great programs rather than their user friendliness.

As much as I’d like to agree with you personally, I think evidence shows the contrary and favoring Kathy’s suggestion of separate programs.

Several examples that show contrast:

Firefox/Thunderbird gets more credit for their user friendliness than Opera even if when you do a comparison, Opera is “pay as you go” and have their hidden features set aside to not get in the way more and can be configured to not get in the way more while both Firefox/Thunderbird rely on their extensions showing or not showing. Nothing “advanced” there. Just additional programs with additional options similar to a phone with an internet connection that while at first look like it comes pre-bundled, actually requires a separate “manual” in subscribing and services and then other manual for browsers/e-mail/etc.

utorrent gets more credit for it’s user friendliness than Azureus when it first came out because it for one, didn’t add a swarm view that made people wonder what it is about or how useless it is. Later on, it just didn’t stray far from a conventional program where options are where they are and properly described and advanced settings where set up just enough that it shows bits of information without making the user feel like there’s an option there that’s supposed to be important but isn’t. What little it have of advanced options, it really didn’t try to mask as a simple option and since there’s no extension system, there is no burden on the user to be confused at what the point the extra features have on a bittorrent program and the user would focus more on asking what the advanced options do rather than battle the question of searching for extensions because that’s where Azureus might be configured simplier or ask/read through support.

With a simple tweaking of Azureus’ look, utorrent end up becoming the newb friendlier advanced bittorrent program because it focuses on what it was good at.

Spybot is a special case because anti-spyware are supposed to be simple to use and it had advanced features which I read, no other anti-spyware have as much of but whether it’s ui was easy to use and adapt to? Yes, because anti-spyware are easy to setup for newbies. No, because there are prettier uis that can achieve the same thing or even add semi-advanced features that allow newbies to utilize them. In this case, Spybot is different from the other two above examples in that it’s lack of features were the things that hurt it’s quality as an antipyware. It missed the middle gap which allowed Spyware Terminator to be credited as having the best real time protection of the freeware antispywares or allowed BitDefender users to be convinced that they didn’t need any other antispyware because they were never oriented or tempted towards Spybot’s advanced features. It doesn’t mean Spybot isn’t still great right now but as a newbie user, it’s lack of evolution simply does not make it the only product to recommend anymore. Even back then, it was always Adaware and Spybot combined rather than Spybot so there it showed a lack of something on it’s part already. Even though it succeeded in the ui, it failed in that majority of it’s users would also be worrying about Adaware’s ui or other anti-spyware uis.

Even when the uis are improved, it still doesn’t guarantee that the users would embrace a full product rather than resent it. Just look at how many IE users hated IE7’s new look even though it in my opinion was more minimalistic, easier to pick up and had features that made it less tempting to install other alternative browsers.

Why? I could only guess that it was due to familiarity. Majority saw IE as a product. A portal to this thing called the internet. Majority weren’t looking at it as a secure web browser/a tabbed browser/an advanced browser and so when IE changed, the product changed and people just didn’t know what it was for awhile. It tried to evolve into something that ignore it’s pre-evolved form and copied things from other alternative browsers. For those users especially those who didn’t experimented with alternate browsers, this wasn’t the same product. This wasn’t “pay as you go”. It became a “packed” portal and I could only guess how many were confused by it’s new actions at first, much less “get” why a portal needs to be packed when it was working with the exception of security problems. (It had the most compatibility with sites pre-IE7)

Even in webapps, I fail to see how the trend doesn’t go towards the one with easier to use than one that tried being easier to use AND packing features.

Let’s compare Google vs. Clusty shall we? Clusty may not be detecting as much sites but can anyone say that it didn’t pack more features than Google in a “pay as you go” manner? Yet Google continues to be “good enough” for majority of the web.

Admittedly, there are still some that succeed like Google Reader (which isn’t the easiest to use rss reader) but at the same time, since majority were exposed to Bloglines, it can be said to be simpler too over the most well known competition yet packing just near equivalent features that it’s an alternative.

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