Less Can Be More

Some users are better off with fewer options.

I like ease of use. I like intuitive interfaces that make it possible for me to carry out the tasks I must do in whatever way is most efficient for me. For example, I like Web authoring tools that allow me to choose whether to edit in code, hierarchical tagged environments or full-on WYSIWYG. Basically, I like to have lots of options in an interface.

But there are a host of other users who hate having many options, whose idea of an intuitive, user-friendly interface is one in which each task can be performed only one way.

The interesting thing about these users is that they couldnt care less about many of the things that are often considered the hallmarks of easy-to-use interfaces, including context-sensitive menus, right-mouse options, even a GUI. In fact, users like this will embrace ugly command-line interfaces if they are less confusing and provide fewer options than the "intuitive" GUI applications.

I think a lot of you IT managers and staff out there know the types of users Im talking about—especially if youve been around for a while.

I once knew a highly experienced editor who was very comfortable and proficient with the DOS-based word processor XyWrite. However, when switched to Microsoft Word on Windows, she became confused and lost. Any suggestion on how to leverage the features in Word for Windows was greeted with fear and doubt. She never became fully proficient in Word and gained a level of comfort only when she reduced tasks to a set number of steps and processes and never varied from those she had learned.

Im betting that some of you more experienced IT people who have had experience with DOS-based applications such as WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 are nodding your heads right now, thinking, "I know exactly the type of person youre talking about." But Im also guessing that some of you, including some developers of applications, think this makes no sense.

After all, youve done studies and conducted focus groups, and everything points to people hating command lines and ugly DOS interfaces and liking flexible, interactive GUIs. And a lot of people do, including me. But you need to keep in mind that during these studies and tests, some users professed fondness for certain features but ended up hating them when they had to use them.

Yes, it does seem strange that some people prefer learning crazy key combinations and command structures. But what you have to remember is that once you learn these conventions, you know they will always work. Nothing is ever confusing, especially if you have a handy keyboard template or a cheat sheet hanging from the side of your monitor.

Some users hate choice and flexibility, and by giving it to them, you are simply increasing the amount of mistakes they will make and the amount of IT time and resources they will consume.

Chances are, you or your staff already know who these users are in your company; in fact, you probably know them a little too well. If you havent already done so, cut back the complexity of the applications they use and hide or turn off unnecessary menus, tool bars and features.

When training users on applications, emphasize step-by-step processes, rather than the multiple options available. Those who are inclined to figure out the options will do so no matter what, while the rest will be happy with knowing one standard way to do the task.

And when developing applications, think twice about seemingly helpful options, especially if the target audience may include novice users. One-way-and-only-one-way features might be the best tack, even if they include seemingly unfriendly interfaces like command lines. If you do decide to add more advanced and flexible interface options, dont make them the default. Hide them behind advanced configurations where novices wont stumble across them.

And while Im still inclined to prefer intuitive and flexible options, the converse isnt so bad. After all, I was able to write this column in an old copy of XyWrite.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.