An interesting counter argument (and counter-counter argument)

Joel on Software discusses how Simplicity doesn't sell.

As I've said before, minimalism as a virtue should not be about deletion for the sake of deletion. Joel is right here. When I look at the new touchscreen iPod nano, with its lack of video support, I see a piece of hardware that is inferior to the iPod nano I own now. It's less powerful, has less features, does less things. It becomes a Swiss army knife with half of the tools removed. And while I pride myself on a minimalist outlook, I cannot say that removing those features was a great move on Apple's part.

Simplicity, like many things in life, need a motive behind them. A recursive definition doesn't work; simplicity is good because is simplistic is good? Nobody's going to listen to that.

Simplicity is good because it inspires focus. When (to paraphrase Joel here) 37signals makes their webpage with an HTML text block that everyone sees and calls it a web app, you're eliminating cruft that distracts from your mission. When the iPod deletes cumbersome menus and unimportant buttons, it's allowing the user to utilize the tool in a way that facilitates focus.

If the tool is more important than the task the tool is being used for, then the tool has failed. eBook readers should, in an ideal case, be completely transparent. You shouldn't even remember that you're reading something that isn't a book, because when you're reading a book you're not thinking, "Wow, THIS, this is the future of the world!" You're thinking about the plot and the characters and imagining the scene in your head. You're storing data on a new programming language or a historic battle in Waterloo.

The more features the eBook reader supports, the more the reader emphasizes itself, and this sets the reader up for failure. All anyone wants a reader to do is to display text in an efficient manner. I would side note and say that innovation in this department is good in moderation, and it's great that readers have cool features like RSS feeds and electronic voices that read to you, just because it's great when something becomes easier.

It's just important to remember why a tool exists in the first place. The reason why the new iPod nano was such a backwards revision is because it removed features, but it didn't help focus the user into what they were doing. The new menus and new size don't focus the user any more than the click-wheel concept does, and it removes genuinely useful tools the old versions had. The same goes for touch screen technology versus keyboard and mouse. The field of user interface may not be a plateau, but as far as touch screens are concerned, they're no more effective at immersing their user as any other sort of existing input technology, purely in the realm of focus. (They may actually be worse, because it gets the user's hands in the way of the screen)

Joel argues that software makes profit through features, and often that's true. While we know that most users don't use all of the options in a program, they all use a different subset of those features. What's important, I argue, is that these features never force themselves into a user's focus.

Sometimes deletion of a feature can increase focus. I'm pretty sure the majority of MS Word users would kill Clippy with a passionate vengeance if given the chance. But it is also true that features can increase focus as well, but only if they're implemented intelligently and with the virtue of simplicity. And not the recursive kind.

Most programmers will understand how important concentration really is; if you break that running water, you might as well be throwing productivity out the window. If, say, Eclipse were to pop up with a dialog box every few minutes asking the user what kind of class they were making, and what kind of outline they needed, and how the variables should be organized, nobody would use it. The flow of productivity is so important that if you break it even once the user will be cursing you all the way down to the inky bottom of the sea floor. You'd have dozens of posts on the internet about how IDE's are awful and how only real programmers use text editors, and to be honest they would be right, at least in this nightmare scenario.

So I agree with Joel that features matter. Even from an advertising perspective, it seems that most users are moved by shiny new gadgets and gizmos; sure, someone like me doesn't really upgrade his hardware all that much, but I'm certainly not a majority. But I disagree that simplicity is a fool's hope. It's a matter of keeping in mind the ideology of focus.

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