Friday, March 24, 2006

Designing for geeks and missing the mainstream

Nicholas Carr posts a fun rant called "The 'Neat!' epidemic" that rips on the focus of Microsoft and others on flashy but complicated features that benefit few. An excerpt:
Microsoft ... Google, Amazon, and Yahoo, not to mention all the Web 2.0 mini businesses, seem intent on waging feature wars that mean a whole lot to a very few and nothing at all to everyone else.

At this point, the whole tired affair seems to point not to an overabundance of creativity but to a lack of imagination.
This reminds me of what I said in an earlier post comparing feature bloat in Microsoft Word with MSN's strategy for web search:
What happened to Microsoft Word as features were added for convenience?

It became a complicated mess, so feature rich that even a technogeek like me doesn't know or understand all the features. When I use MS Word, I spend most of my effort ignoring its features so I can get work done. The effort required to exploit its power exceeds the value received.
See also my previous posts, "Tyranny of choice and the long tail" and "The mainstream and saving people time".


Anonymous said...

I love Carr's blog, and I agree with most of what he has to say, most of the time, including this particular post. But I think there is a danger in seeing the mess of tools and features, and going the other way by automating everything for the user. If you make everything that the system does based completely on machine-learning of implicit preferences, with no way for the user to take control the decisions the system is making, you run an equally dangerous risk of pissing off the mainstream.

I've never argued for more tools, for more tools' sake. I've always said to give the user access to a tool at times when the tool is most appropriate. Frankly, I don't see a problem with, say, Word, feature-wise. I don't like using Word for other reasons, but I've always found that if I just want to open up a document and type, there is nothing complicated about it. The mainstream would agree, don't you think?

And if I do want to do something more complicated, a simple selection of the text or table or figure, and a right click, gives me a great, small set of context-specific tools. That context menu doesn't overburdening me with too many choices, and still allows me to make my own decisions, instead of having decisions made for me.

When MS Word really starts to piss people off is when it makes decisions for you. Go to the middle of a paragraph, and type a new sentence that starts "e. e. cummings wrote a book..." It will automatically capitalize the "e" for you. That is just wrong. Or go to Amazon, and buy a kids book for your 4-year old. In three years, Amazon will still be recommending books for 4-year olds to you, even though your kid is now 7. (Assuming that you even have a kid, and the book wasn't for your nephew.. in which case the continued kids books recommendations are that much worse!) Amazon offers you no way, at least that I've been able to discover, of "turning off" that particular book within the recommendation decisions that it makes.

It is funny that you say "Microsoft and others" in your post.. when Carr clearly mentions not only Microsoft, but Google, Yahoo, and Amazon, too. Let's face it.. all these companies, even Google, have feature creep. It is just that some show you all the features all the time, and overburden you with choice, and others (Google, Amazon) show you none of the tools, but instead make all the decisions for you, based on what they think you want. The tools are all there. They just do not give you direct control over them.

That may be fine a lot of the time. But when I type "e. e. cummings", or buy a book for a friend or spouse, I want to be able to tell the system not to automatically "correct" me.

When I can't is when I want to throw the system out the door.

Ok, now I'm officially a broken record...

Anonymous said...

The "Neat" epidemic is what spells the doom of nearly all Web 2.0 sites, as far as their business potential. Much as this same phenomena ("look, a site where people can put up home-pages, must be worth $1 zillion") led to "dot com burst" in 2000.

Here's my analogy: You usually only upgrade Microsoft Office when you buy a new computer or if you are at a large company that upgrades as a matter of practice before official support goes out (every 4-5 years). In other words, no one really wants to pay for the new version of Office applications, they're just forced into it. It's not like the old version "wears out" or the new version offers things you really need (Infopath anyone?)

So, why, for example, would anyone pay for whatever "service" 43Things is offering? Does anyone really need to know that others are doing what they're doing? At least a site like "" explicitly exists to get people together. I can't even really explain the purpose of 43Things to anyone beyond my geekiest friends (who must represent less than 1% of the population). And I know what I'm talking about :)

Even massively popular sites, like myspace and youtube, seem to have limited appeal beyond being able to target people with advertising, or (I guess) theoretically to charge users for access to super-seKret info about their favorite bands.

The Carr article makes two very good points along those lines. One, the "sheer mind-numbing pointlessness" of all these web services. Seriously, even assuming the service is neat is sometimes too much. I often react to each new service with a, "OK, you used Ajax to build a site that allows me to see how many people read a blog entry, in real time. Woot! L33t! Now explain why would I come back or pay for that?"

The second point is "Life and work aren't all that complicated, folks. Deal with it." The real world is filled with people who want to earn a better living, get a better job, simplify the process of keeping up with their lives, stay in good health and enjoy entertainment for a reasonable price. If you're not enabling any of those, why the f* would anyone pay for your service? And don't get me started on the breathless netizens who think that real businesses would pay to access that info.

Sure, I futz around with all the blog sites, check out the occasional post on boingboing, etc. But I often think that if those things went away I just might spend more time doing actual productive stuff with my life. I certainly wouldn't miss/mourn the demise of those sites (beyond maybe 5 minutes)

Anonymous said...

Yet another update: Ars Technica just posted this article detailing a new interface to Google. The basic premise of the new interface is that when you type a query, Google will show a little display with some horizonal bars indicating how "relevant" to each of Google's vertical engines (images, froogle, general web etc.) your query is... with a little hyperlink to take you to that vertical with a single click.

Bingo! This is exactly the sort of thing I've been talking about. Google has always had all these different "tools" (the different verticals). But many of them are either buried or non-intuitive. So it's obvious Google wants you to use some of these services more. But rather than implicitly deciding for you which vertical you want (based on clickstream, or personalization, or whatever), Google instead shows you its estimate of how relevant each vertical is to you.. and gives you a way of simply selecting for yourself which vertical you ultimately want.

This is a perfect mixture of what we've been talking about. Personalization comes in, because you can adjust the categorical/vertical relevance estimates based on someone's past behavior. But you don't actually override the user's current intentionality by automatically selecting one vertical, and offering no way for the user to override that automatic decision. Instead, you let the user select for him/herself.

It's nice to see Google start moving in this direction.