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Joel on Software

Introduction to Great Design (First Draft)

by Joel Spolsky
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Confession: I'm afraid to turn off my cell phone.

Not because I'm afraid of being out of touch, mind you. Heck, I could care less if people can reach me. If you have something to tell me that's so important it would be worth interrupting Will and Grace, well, I think I'd rather have another 45 minutes of ignorant bliss before I find out about it. That's my motto: Will and Grace First, Earthquakes and Floods Later.

Picture of Motorola RAZR Cell PhoneHere's why I'm afraid to turn off my cell phone: because I can't always seem to muster the brain cells necessary to turn it back on.

It has two buttons on it, a happy green button and a scary red button. They have funny icons on them that don't mean very much to me.

You might think that the green button turns it on. Green means go, right?

Wrong.

I tried that. Nothing doing. I tried pressing and holding the green button, because sometimes these phones want you to press-and-hold so that you won't accidentally take a picture of your ear, or disconnect the phone call in the middle of an important job interview, or whatnot.

It turns out it's the red button that turns it on.

When you press the red button, usually, nothing actually happens, so you suspect you might have done something wrong.

It turns out that you have, actually, turned on the phone, and if you're in a dark room, you would have noticed that the keyboard flashed when you turned it on. In a bright room, nothing happens for six seconds. That's usually long enough to think that you've done something wrong. So that's when I start trying the other buttons, like the happy green button. In any case, I wind up feeling frustrated and not in control of my life.

Once you do learn that the red button turns the phone on, and you don't have to hold it, you start to get frustrated that the time it takes the phone to boot up and load the pretty background picture and get on the network is something like 30 seconds. That's frustrating, too. It seems like in the Olden Days you didn't have to wait for half a minute to turn on an appliance. There was a switch, up was on (unless you lived in Europe, where they had a terrible war and couldn't afford appliances), you switched it, the thing went on and started spinning or shining or whatever it is that the thing was supposed to do. Instantly. End of story.

Indeed, it's surprising just how many of today's devices and gadgets and remote controls have actually made TVs, stoves, and telephones harder to use. Suddenly, bad computer user interface design is seeping into the entire world.

Six years ago, with the total dominance of the consistent GUI interface of Mac and Windows, it seemed like the state of the art in software UI design was getting pretty good. Nothing fabulous, mind you, but pretty good. You could sit down with a new Windows app that you'd never seen before and have a pretty good chance of being able to operate it correctly.

Cover Image: User Interface Design for Programmers (book)That's when I wrote a book called User Interface Design for Programmers, thinking, great! It's time to get everybody on the same page here on how to design user interfaces, and then life will be wonderful.

Unfortunately, that was about the same time as there was a huge wave of new consumer gadgets, and, of course, that web thing hit us.

The web didn't really have a standard UI. You could make anything be a link. We didn't have dropdown menus, so we made do with all kinds of differently-behaved simulations of dropdown menus.

Gadgets? Gadgets were even worse. They had tiny keyboards and tinier screens. Combined with rampant featuritis, these damn devices did more and more things but just figuring out how to do them took a degree in engineering (or a bright 12 year old, but slavery has been abolished, especially for 12 year olds.)

Maybe nobody told the people who design gadgets and gizmos and websites (and even software) that they need to work on their user interface skills.

So, this is their wake up call.

While most products were became increasingly incomprehensible, like the typical home entertainment remote control, with dozens of mushy little buttons marked "MTS" or "SURR" or "PTY" that nobody has any hope of understanding, something else was happening: a very few, very good designers were, somehow, coming up with truly great designs that were beautiful, easy to understand, fun, and which made people happy. You know who they are because those products became bestsellers. The Apple iPod. TiVo. Google. Even the Motorola RAZR, which is so hard to turn on, is, in most ways, a great design.

Over the next weeks and months, if all goes well, I'm going to write a series of articles right here, on this website, on UI design for the modern age. The whole series will be, tentatively, named Great Design.

If all goes well, we're going to look at some of the original principles of good UI design, much of which I covered in the first book, and revisit them and see how they apply to today's world of miniature gadgets, websites, and street-corner garbage cans.

Then, if we're really lucky, we're going even farther. We're going to look at what it takes to make the leap from a servicable, decent product design to a Mindbogglingly Great, Earth-Shaking, History-Changing product design. I have some theories about that, too.

Administatrivia

First, one change that you'll notice. I'm going to publish each article twice. The first appearance will be a rough draft. Later, I'll revise and edit the article, taking into account some of the feedback I received, and republish it as a second draft. I'm doing it this way because it lets me publish something almost as soon as I've written it, without too much editing, secure in the knowledge that I can edit it to death later.

There are three ways to follow along:

  1. Come back to www.joelonsoftware.com regularly
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