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blog.gkaindl.com » Let them think

blog.gkaindl.com

nerd nouveau

Let them think

One of the mantras when designing a product is that you should clearly define what specific problem you want to solve. For a software designer, this means defining a certain workflow model that your product will hook into and optimize.

In this model of thought, “niche” applications are more preferable than broadly defined ones. A tool to catalog your socks is consequently more fit for its purported task than a tool to catalog any type of wardrobe, provided that there’s a market of people who want to catalog their socks.

However, lately I’ve become fascinated with tools (rather than applications in the above sense) that are designed just with the opposite paradigm in mind: Providing a very simple set of functions and letting the user figure out how to use them in a meaningful way.

As an example, take a text editor. Of course, a text editor can be geared at a very specific category of tasks, such as writing programs, writing novels or designing websites. But in its essence, a text editor can be seen as the simplest of all tools a computer has to offer: Just means to display, write and modify text. No stylistic markup, no links, just text.

Nevertheless, people have figured out amazing things to do with this simple tool. Some may use text files as databases to store various types of information in a human-readable (or even computer-readable) format. Think of bank information, passwords, program registration codes, whatever. Others use text files as idea scrap books. There are infinite possibilities, and people are actually figuring them out.

Another example are lists, such as taken to the web by Ta-Da Lists. A list is another form of extremely simple tool with little meaning in itself, but they are versatile enough to represent just about any type of database-like information. The cool thing is, however, how people are coming up with ways to repurpose them to accomodate for more specific needs. For example, a friend of mine uses an online list system to manage his appointements: To specify the date, he just prepends it to the list item, so a particular entry may read like “11am : Go to the bank”. Practically, it’s still a list, but conceptually, it’s a timetable. Similarly, I’ve heard of people using such list as very simple, but persistent and asynchronous chats.

Or let’s have a look at how some people occasionally use Twitter as a simple chat by just prepending a message with an @ and the name of the recipient, like “@jenny what are you doing tonight?”. Again, while Twitter is not conceptualized to be a chat, but rather a micro-blog, it is simple enough to allow people to repurpose it in this way. All it took them was to figure out a way of how to do it.

Thusly, let’s add another dimension to the design constraints: Flexibility. If a tool is extremely tailored towards one class of tasks, it may be a godsend for some people, but completely useless to others. Conversely, if a tool is too flexible and thusly too general, people may be stumped what to use it for.

Rather than coming up with a thousand features to actively anticipate every possible task a user may want to use the tool for, let’s rather provide simple, flexible applications that users can adapt themselves. Even if it’s nice not to have to think about your software, it’s also nice if it allows you to think. Sometimes, the simplest tools paired with just a little bit of creativity can be more powerful than the full-featured behemoths that take you months to figure out completely. Never underestimate the ability of your users to be inventive.

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    blog.gkaindl.com » Feature Pressure
    wrote on Jun 11, 2007 at 0:43

    [...] Let them think | Jun 01 [...]

About

Hi, how are you? My name is Georg Kaindl, and I'm a twenty-something from Vienna, Austria. During the day, I'm a CS student at the Vienna University of Technology, but at night, I turn into an independent software developer for the Macintosh platform, social nerd, lazy entrepreneur and intuitive researcher.

I like to write about everything that matters to considerate technology enthusiasts, but humbly retain the right to go off-topic from time to time.

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