The "Delicious" Generation

Thursday, 2006-11-09; 00:50:00

Why the functionality of an app should not be sacrificed in favor of its interface

Paul Kafasis over at Rogue Amoeba talks about the growing number of "delicious" apps: apps which put the interface before the functionality. He argues that while we can take good things away from this trend, especially in user interface design, it's a movement that should be resisted specifically because the real quality that comes out of these applications isn't high: while they may look good on the surface, they fall flat on actually filling a purpose for the user.

Jason Harris over at My Dream App fires back, saying that these apps do fill a purpose: providing a drop dead easy-to-use interface for people who don't actually need advanced functionality but can't easily get simple functionality out of more complicated products. What alarms me about Harris' post, however, is that he's emphasizing something called the "workflow", something that sounds ominously reminiscent of those horrible abominations in Windows called "wizards". I hate those things with a passion, and I hope that they really don't proliferate in Mac OS X.

To me, a well-designed application is one that can not only provide advanced functionality, but one that offers simple functionality with a minimum of fuss. It's not one or the other, it's both. And I think that's one of the hard-to-quantify advantages that the Mac platform has: talented developers that are able to accomplish that task.

Kafasis jokes about Disco, one of the prime apps that he cites that eschew substance in favor of style.

I've already touched on the major problem of style over substance. Without getting too many nastygrams, I hope I can say that these applications are a bit light on content. A fellow developer joked that Disco would be released to much fanfare, and then the developers would realize they'd forgotten to hook up the disc burning functionality, having been so busy with the Smoke. This didn't strike me as too far off the mark. Caring about the UI is A Good Thing. Focusing on it solely to the detriment of user interaction or even features, is not.

Harris defends Disco, saying:

I’ll be the first to agree that the Smoke is superfluous (by design), but I disagree that Disco itself is simple. It’s not at all - even though it shares functionality with other solutions, it’s workflow is superb. It makes a boring task that can be difficult for neophyte computer users fun and simple. Since neophyte computer users are the target market, making it pretty and fun serves as a form of additional psychological branding and as such, is completely warranted.

But that's not the point, at least not in my opinion. Disco doesn't just make a boring task fun and simple, it only makes a boring task fun and simple. There's no advanced functionality, and nothing really to offer over other disc-burning utilities besides pretty smoke. A new Mac application should not strive to be a Windows wizard: it should strive to be something that offers complex functionality which is exposed elegantly and intelligently. That is hard to do. Making smoke effects is easy by comparison.

In Paul Burd's review of Disco over at one digital life, he concludes:

Disco has the potential to be a really nice application. But, currently it [sic] biggest appeal is its looks and eye-candy (it’s a beautiful app). It’s [sic] actual feature set isn’t really anything all that special. You can get much of it’s [sic] functionality through the built in tools in OS X, or through a free alternative, like Liquid CD. If you need more burning power, then Toast is still your best bet.

I don't want eye-candy for the sake of eye-candy. I want eye-candy to be the icing on the cake, which is precisely where eye-candy excels. But at max, I'm going to spend a single minute or so looking at the smoke that Disco generates before moving on. And I might do that for maybe the first two burns using Disco. Beyond that, I want results, not smoke.

Disco only provides an easy-to-use interface. It doesn't provide any depth to the application. A well-designed interface is simple and belies the functionality underneath. Disco just tries to hide its lack of features behind a literal smokescreen.

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