Alien Territory

This is post is a bit winded, so I’ll slap the moral up here first. It’s a reflection on one user’s struggle against an unfortunate (lack of) usability design. Here’s the gist:

  • Before adding a feature to a UI’s startup state, make sure it is essential. Otherwise, tuck it away until needed.
  • Group features by their necessity first, and by their function second.

Read the rest if you want the touch-feely stuff:

I spend a lot of my free time (and disposable income) on making music at home – writing, recording, producing – all of it on a computer. I often think of the first time I tried digital music creation: I had to make a 64-bar backing track to a piece of a Russian pop song for performance by a sketch comedy group. I had some college instruction in musical theory, composition, and orchestration, but had never arranged a pop song, especially on a computer. I had procured some software I’d heard of, geared specifically for home users. It looked something like this (click thumbnail to expand):


Meet Cakewalk Home Studio 2002. Never before or since had I felt so vulnerable in undertaking a creative effort. I was a new kid coming into a big man’s world of electronic music, and everyone who got in before me seemed to find his way around just fine. Each minute spent working on that track seemed like a concerted attack on my confidence. Did I bite off more than I could chew? Could I get something done even if I didn’t understand every button and slider? It seemed as if an understanding of the problem domain, music, was not enough… The application demanded its own understanding.

So why do I discuss it here? If you wanted to get into digital music today with the same product family, this is what you would see:


This little gem, Cakewalk Music Creator 5, will ship this Tuesday and costs $40 on Amazon. How many differences can you spot?

Curvaciousness aside, for a program geared toward novices, everything comes down to one big question: “How essential is this?”. All those extra sliders on each track, all those textboxes and toolbars – all can be done without. They’re simply hidden until needed. If you feel you need something that’s missing, you can click around or look in a help file to find it. But you don’t have to feel intimidated by what you don’t need.

The reduction of the starting UI to the mere essentials is what makes all the difference. But if you think this is common sense that goes without saying, consider the Office 2007 ribbon.


The ribbon was intended to help newbies. The intermediates and the experts were doing just fine with the menus, thanks. The intention was to provide quick immersion into as much functionality as possible, to expose features that novices would otherwise not find. But when you do that, are you not also exposing functionality that they might not need? What percentage of Microsoft Word users use bold face at some point? Do you think nearly as many people use box borders? Or sorting? For the life of me, I have never used the text sorting function in a Word document. So why are all of these features equally visible at startup? Do you think an average user is more likely to use sorting than clipart? I don’t. And yet sorting is available on the Home tab and clipart insertion is not.

So when designing for new users, don’t rush to divide features by their function. Rather, divide them first by their necessity. Keep the essentials upfront and tuck away the rest until needed. That’s how you properly welcome the new guy.


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