Simplicity vs power in product design

2013-08-28 2 min read

    Although I come from a backend background, I’ve been spending more and more time on the UX side of things and have been picking up quite a bit - a combination of using Twitter Bootstrap on my projects, subscribing to the Hack Design lectures, and following a ton of designers on Twitter.

    Something that’s been bothering me is this obsession with trying to make every product as intuitive and approachable as possible. That’s the right approach when focusing on mass market consumer products but if you’re building internal tools or targeting power users a simple, approachable product might be antithetical to what you actually need.

    The tradeoff is between a product that people can immediately start using versus a product that takes time to learn but becomes significantly more powerful when mastered. The developer equivalent would be using a basic text editor vs vi or emacs. The text editor is easy to start using but you hit a productivity ceiling quickly; vi or emacs, on the other hand, take a while to learn but you become significantly more productive than if you were using a text editor.

    The challenge is knowing your audience and building the product that will solve their problems. Sometimes it will need to be simple and other times it will need to be complex. This applies at multiple levels - the product may for the most part be simple but certain features will need to be complex in order to be useful.

    Many websites and apps have adopted the approach of where it’s extremely easy to get started but provide advanced features for the users that desire and discover them. Excel provides shortcuts for the power user that make it possible to do anything without touching the mouse. Gmail, in addition to shortcuts, provides a “labs” feature that lets users enable more advanced features.

    I’m interested in what happens as companies grow and try to increase their market. Some may have started with a complex product that solved a niche problem that they want to simplify in order to appeal to a bigger audience. Others may have started with a simple product that they now want to position to power users. In both cases the challenge is being able to support both use cases without negatively impacting either one. Maybe the right approach is to launch the new product under a different name but I’m curious to see creative solutions that aren’t about adding shortcuts or a settings page.