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Limitations in toys and software

One of the first things you notice when you have kids is how bad the toys are. Everything is electronic, makes too much noise, and is quickly discarded when the batteries run out or when everything you could possibly do with the toy is exhausted. The great toys are the ones that allow an infinite number of possibilities. Each game experience is different, whether it’s building something new with blocks, or play-acting a different story with dolls.

How do you tell the difference between a great toy and a bad one? If the toy is made to do a few specific amazing things, with a bunch of bullet points and exclamation marks on the side of the box, be weary of it. For example, modern LEGOs come in all sorts of pre-molded shapes. If you buy the pirate set, it will be great fun for the first few days until you realize that it can only be a pirate ship. But if you buy a bucket of LEGOs (yes, they still sell these), you can build a pirate ship one day and a barn the next. Even better, toys should interoperate with one another, something that feels forced if the types of toys are so specifically designed that they don’t fit well together.

This is especially true for younger children. Visiting the Waldorf School last year they used the example of a silk scarf. It can be a cloak, hat, river, cloud, hair, bed, rope, or the wind. A scarf seems so limited, but it’s the extreme simplicity that gives it life through a child’s creativity.

Keith Lango discusses limitations in animating a scene: “The next time you have a scene and you’re told all the limitations that come with it find the thrill of making it work great anyhow. […] Let the limitations be your friend.”

No one knew whether the original Star Wars (episode 4) would be a success or not. George Lucas used what cheats he could to make the special effects work, forcing himself to be creative within the confines of the budget and limitations of technology at the time. Instead the focus was on the characters and on the story. Twenty years later, with the huge budget of the prequel films, one could argue that he was so distracted with what he could do that the important lessons of what made the first film a success were forgotten.

37signals talks about constraints and doing more with less. I agree with that, but there’s something else. Some of the greatest software out there is designed in such a way that it can be used for purposes that the designers and programmers did not intend. The software introduces simple concepts that can be stacked and rearranged not unlike those LEGOs. There may be an implied workflow but it is not enforced. Instead maybe the interface flows around documents, which can be named anything and stored in any structure. Or maybe there is an editer that was written for one general purpose but which is simple enough that it also allows editing of other formats.

Microsoft has been pushing for what they call an inductive user experience. It is task-based, context-specific interfaces that attempt to remove the bloated menu and toolbar clutter that the Office apps are known for. The latest phase of this is the Office 12 user interface, which introduces ribbon controls. Microsoft has been going down this path for years though, trying to expose features to the user that would otherwise be lost and buried. They are learning from what works about the discoverability of web applications.

But you want to be careful to not force a certain workflow on the user in these cases, because by doing so the abstract usefulness of the software could be crippled. You don’t want to go too modal or too restrictive. That’s one of the reasons wizard-like interfaces were annoying. It’s not just the idiot-proofing that bugs people, it’s that there may be some truly useful features hidden behind those “easy to use” screens, waiting for a UI to come along and let users use the features on their own terms.

On the other hand, GarageBand is a good example of a focused app (create or record music) that also had broader uses (edit and mix any audio file), which allowed Apple to go one step further and embrace what the rest of us without guitars and keyboards were using it for (podcasts). Basecamp is another flexible app that works because 37signals made the conscious decision to make communication the center of project management, above timelines and charts. Flickr, Odeo, 43 Things, and other so-called Web 2.0 apps will be successful not because of a string of buzzwords, but because they take a very simple concept (“upload photos”, “write goals”), mix in some communication and sharing, and build it in a way that encourages many different uses.

Most software is just like poorly designed children’s toys. It might solve one problem well for a time, but it is eventually discarded when it fails to evolve with the user’s needs. Simple software that solves broad problems can be used for a variety of tasks, and is small enough that it can continue to be improved or integrated well with other applications.