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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.
1 comment so far

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.