Simplicity is a Feature

The past couple decades of computing have seen an explosion in apps on all platforms. VisiCalc might have been the killer app on early PCs, but development didn’t start there. Today, many of the apps we use on a daily basis didn’t even exist several years ago. For that matter, the platform we’re running them on may have not even existed more than a few years. Whether you’re using web apps that are powered by HTML5 or native apps that sync with Dropbox, these have only been even possible for a few years now.

Through decades of development and increasingly fast and portable computers, developers have rushed to add features to their apps, often seemingly just for the sake of adding features. Then, as new platforms came along, critics dismissed early apps on them as being too basic to get real work done. Surprisingly, though, it’s usually the simplest apps that we use the most, and few people are fanatical about complicated programs with confusing, outdated interfaces.

What makes the difference between a bloated app and something you’d love to use? There’s a fine line between enough features and too many, so let’s take a look at some examples and see why most of us gravitate to some of the simplest apps available.

Back to the Beginning

Computers can often be too complex, but they haven’t always been that way. The first computers had a command line interface, which may have been confusing to new users but was quick and simple to use once you knew a few important commands. The earliest applications were basic as well, with text-based interfaces and minimal distractions. The power wasn’t in the interface, but in what you could do with your data. Being able to manipulate numbers in spreadsheets and format advanced documents showed users that computers were more than toys.

Soon enough, higher quality graphics and windowed interfaces gave developers much more liberty to create amazing interfaces and fill their programs with tools and features. Many of us wouldn’t have ever used computers without modern interfaces, and we often still base our app purchases on how an app looks. But the problem was, programs added more and more features without finding ways to efficiently expose them to users.

Feature Creep in Action

Microsoft Word is one of the best examples of this. It may have started out as clean app for writing, but it’s turned into a huge application capable of everything from writing your store list to mailing customized letters and envelopes to your whole city. That’s not bad in and of itself, but the interface struggled to show features that you really needed. Microsoft coped with this by adding new toolbars, menus, collapsing menus, palettes, and Clippy, your helpful assistant.

In 2007, Microsoft took it even further, and redesigned the whole office interface with a ribbon that was designed to show you only what you need, when you need it. On the whole, I think it was a good move for an advanced desktop program, but it showed that Word had far more features than the average user really needed. Then, in a comical misstep of bringing desktop interfaces to the web, they brought the entire Office ribbon to the Office Web Apps. The web app included far fewer features, and could have had a much clearer interface designed for the web. While the Word Web App could be a decent online writing app, few are using it since the online storage interface is confusing and the app itself simply takes up too much space on your screen.

Microsoft Word Web App takes up an incredible amount of vertical space

The Right Tools for the Right Job

But Microsoft’s not the only one with this problem. In the world of web browsers, we were long stuck with bloated interfaces that became harder to use the more we used them. Firefox may have been popular for being extendable and customizable, but it only took one glance at a user with 13 toolbars and 3 social media sidebars to see that something was wrong. Then Google came along with Chrome, and stripped out all of the features, toolbars, and fluff that had become seen as essential to browsers over the years. 3 years later, its clean interface’s influence can be seen in every other major browser, making it easier today to focus on your web content without being distracted by the browser.

Turns out, toolbars aren’t so important for browsing the web. And mail merge features aren’t essential for writing a letter to your mother. Sometimes, we simply need the best tool for one job, and that’s why simpler apps like Simplenote are gaining popularity. It’s almost free of features: all you can do is write plain text, add markdown formatting, and organize the stuff you’ve written with tags. But plain text can be powerful, especially when it’s synced between all of your devices with a service like Simplenote. You don’t have to have advanced formatting and 4.5 million buttons to write notes, all you need to do is write.

An even cleaner writing experience with QuietWrite

That’s what Dropbox did right, too. For years, people had worked to make advanced file syncing and sharing apps that would let you share any file or folder on your computer with anyone. And for the most part, they were absolute failures. No one wanted to manage complicated syncing systems and fuss over what folders to sync. So when Drew Houston decided launch Dropbox, the web greeted his product with a collective yawn. Then people started using it, and the genius struck them. Instead of syncing everything, Dropbox cut the features to the bone and made the very best way to keep everything in one folder, and only that folder, synced. It was obvious, and anyone could figure it out.

Simple App + Simple App = Synergy

Just because apps are simple to use, however, doesn’t have to mean that they’re not powerful. Google Spreadsheet may not be as robust as Excel, but its sharing features make it much more powerful for working with teams around the globe. And when simple apps work together, they can become even more powerful. Pinboard is a great example of this. This popular new bookmarking service looks about as basic as it can be, but it’s a powerful way to keep up with everything you come across online. It integrates with similarly simple apps such as Instapaper, Read it Later, Google Reader, Twitter, and more so you can automatically bookmark links without having to open Pinboard. It’s done this without adding a cluttered interface and zillions of import features, since the power is under the hood. There’s no reason more apps couldn’t work together like this, and we’d love to see an entire infrastructure of simple web apps that work together to help us be more productive with the tools we need for our own unique jobs and lives.

Pinboard is a simple app that integrates with tons of other services


The team at Zurb has taken this inspiration seriously, and that’s why they warned recently on their blog:

Forget to focus on your core features by adding too many too soon and you might just confuse your customers enough to lose them.

And that’s exactly true. When we need to sync files, or save notes, or send emails, we don’t want to be bombarded with 3.5 million features, requests to like the app on Facebook, and the latest news from MSNBC (hello, Hotmail). Instead, we want apps to make our lives simpler.

Web apps have the potential to be the simplest apps to use. The browser is a clean slate, unsaddled from years of File menus and odd notifications and all the other problems we equate with PCs. That’s why apps like Gmail and Simplenote and Dropbox and more have won by cutting unnecessary features and inventing a new interface for the age of the web. In fact, sometimes single-purpose apps really can be the best for the job, just like screwdrivers are usually better than Swiss Army knives.

As users, we should try to find these apps that will make us more productive and help us get the things we need done, done. Then, developers need to take this seriously, relegating the cluttered designs in the dustbin of history and pressing forward with simpler ways to manage our increasingly complex lives. It’s not impossible, but it does require apps to be simple and focused. That basic feature by itself, though, just might turn into the next killer app.