Design for the Novice, Configure for the Pro

baby at computer

Photo: Summer via Flickr

I recently wrote about my philosophy of minimalism that “less is more” with the mantra “when in doubt, leave it out.”I’ve had a long-standing rule of thumb in product design, which I call “design for the novice, configure for the pro.”  I started saying this back in 2001/02, long before the era of Web 2.0, lean startups or even the advent of AJAX.

My philosophy emanated from my days of programming and later designing corporate software in the early 1990′s.  We were smart kids straight out of college and were designing the systems that we’d want to use.  We were young, computer literate and interested in learning about or playing with new technologies.

I watched us build systems for large corporations whose employees were in their 40′s / 50′s and who were primarily concerned with completing their business functions rapidly and with limited errors.  In designing GUI interfaces for people coming from the green-screen world we built applications that would be great for desktop publishing, not customer service reps.  We built in too many clicks, too many features, too many distractions.  We were confident we had improved things until we got to usability testing and watched with horror.

Fast forward a decade and now I had a startup filled with smart web developers.  I was 31 and they were in their 20′s.  Invariably they would build in too much functionality and assume that users were both familiar with and interested in having tons of choice.  My mantra back then was “what would your mum be able to use?”  Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Of course the debates raged about not wanting to make the system less powerful.  My view – power users always look at all of the menu options to figure out how to juice up the system.  You can always hide complexity into configuration screens rather than the out-of-the-box features.

Even in 2010 I think most companies err too much on the side of complexity.  They try to strike the right balance between making the base product “useful enough” for the “average” user.  I think the novice needs to be able to walk right in the door and be able to start playing around with your product – without a manual.  More difficult still, you need to be able to accomodate the “light” user who comes by once / month and barely remembers the application when the log in.

Obviously this doesn’t hold true for every application but it does for many.  And as much as we’d like to think otherwise, most people don’t really care about our company or our product – most people come by infrequently.  And if you can make life easier for these people then more of them will convert to become more frequent users.

I think one of the products that does this best in my mind is Gmail.  They do an incredible job of hiding most of their functionality yet allowing power users to soup things up if they want to.

I’ll tell you, it has been a while since I’ve actually done wireframes and designs but you never really lose the feel for what the right balance is to create a good UX.  It’s why when I used Quora I instantly felt like it was the most innovative UX I had seen in years.  It is beautiful in its simplicity (although I think I could give them a few tips to improve usability if they ever asked


So when some of the younger guys at startups I’ve funded start teasing me about my grey hair and that they’re now designing products for me (as opposed to their mums!) I say, “bring it on.”  I recently argued with a team for 6 months that they were intellectualizing their product too much and that the masses would want a simpler version.  They fought me for months and later admitted they needed to reduce the complexity of their product.  It’s not that I’m smarter – it’s just that I’ve been through 10 more years of watching users play with products (and across many different tech stacks and form factors).

In summary, 2 quick rules:

  • Do usability testing.  Watch people use your product with little or no instructions.  Give them tasks to complete without instructions of how to complete the tasks.  Film them.  Learn from them.  Many companies do this these days – not all do.  You MUST.  It is so instructive.  It will blow your mind away how people use products differently than you’d intend them to.  You’ll pull your hair out.  And in the end I’m quite sure that you’ll simplify things – not add things.
  • Design for the novice.  Configure fo the pro.  The pro will always find the advanced options.

Tomorrow I’ll offer up design tip number 2: paying attention to iterative processes.

This post originally appeared at Both Sides of the Table and is republished here with permission.


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