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Two choices

I don’t normally write about higher level software design for a couple of reasons. For one, I don’t consider myself to be an expert in the field. I’m not sure there is any one expert in the field, actually; it’s a little bit like saying there’s an expert in string theory, a field that’s less that fifty years old and every bit as complex as software design. However, I don’t really consider myself above average at it either, and if I’m not above average at it, there’s not usually anything I could say that you couldn’t read somewhere else, better explained and more original.

The second reason I don’t normally write about software design is that since most of my projects are small (projects at work are either designed in collaboration or already designed), I don’t waste much time on design. Today I modified a GreaseMonkey script Mike wrote to remove ads from GrabUp posts; he wrote it because he was sick of looking at ads, I modified it because I was tired of the refresh caused by redirecting to the direct image. I didn’t write out a vision and scope document, I didn’t create a design document, I didn’t diagram it – I just wrote it. Another example is my recent weekend project TooLongForTwitter.com. It’s a little larger in scope, but rather than figuring out how everything was going to work beforehand by diagramming it out, designing a database, etc., I just started writing it and it all just kind of came together. Even back when I was writing McJournal, I had an idea in my head of how the final product would look but I never wrote it down anywhere, I just started writing.

Point is, it’s pretty easy to skip that design process which can greatly influence the success of your product. As I thought about it this evening, I realized that all software products fall into two categories.

The first category are the applications that are designed not to suck. We all use software for many different purposes, but a lot of times, we’re using it for work or productivity. Hence, products like Microsoft Office, Quicken, GMail, TextMate, etc. are designed as software that stays out of your way. Either it lets you perform tasks the way you want, or it gently nudges you once and then leaves you alone. Nothing is more annoying in this case than the application that’s trying to do too much (Clippy: “It looks like you are writing a letter…” anyone?). Applications that are designed for productivity usually fall into this category, because normally you want to get your work done, then get off the computer and head out to the golf course. The key word with these types of applications is intuition: it should be intuitive for the user to use.

The other category is the applications that are designed to rock. As you might imagine, these are normally entertainment applications like video games or multimedia applications. These are applications that the user wants to use, applications that the user wants to learn, and applications where the user may want helpful tips. For example, take Halo 3. The game would have been a bestseller without adding a bunch of new weapons, a bunch of new gadgets and a bunch of new customization options in multiplayer mode, but because the game added those little features, it was smash hit and is still played today. Entertainment applications can’t be simply functional to be successful; they’ve got to be immersive.

Ever wonder why Twitter is emerging as a more popular social networking tool for professionals and celebrities compared to Facebook? It’s simple. Using it is as simple as sending an SMS message from your phone or typing 140 characters in one form field on the web. Want to share a link? No problem! Just copy and paste it in there and done. No captchas, no conversion to “shared items” like Facebook likes to do, just shows the URL and makes it a link.

On the other hand, Facebook is complex enough already, and it’s gotten more confusing for the average user over the years. Over the last couple of months I’ve had the pleasure of introducing my dad and my aunt to Facebook (seriously, Mark, I’m fighting for you here, how about throwing some of that money my way?) and I’ve seen the site through new eyes: even with the wizards, hints, etc., a cautious user may feel overwhelmed when visiting the site for the first time. Facebook realizes this, that’s why they’re rushing out Facebook Lite to their 250 million users. Interacting with friends, profiles, streams and comments is hard enough; adding Pages and Ads to the equation makes it even more confusing. Thus, professional users or less computer-savvy users are using Twitter for their business communication.

Another example is in web browsers. As many of you may know, Internet Explorer 6 is still alive and kicking on the web. As someone who has faced a ton of IE 6 errors and quirks, I am definitely in favor of getting this browser out of circulation. But generally, people are using IE 6 for one of two reasons: a) it’s an office requirement, or b) it works for checking e-mail, news, etc. and that’s all it’s needed for. For these users, a browser is a productivity application, not an entertainment application, and IE 6 (unbelievably) “doesn’t suck” too much for them and it requires zero installing, configuring or tweaking to get up and running.

On the other side of the spectrum, Firefox is more of an entertainment browser. Clearly, users use it for productive purposes too, but it’s clear that Firefox is used as an application that rocks rather than an application that doesn’t suck: tabbed browsing, add-ons, and a prettier interface are just a few of the reasons younger users tend to use Firefox.

I guess the point of all this is, next time you’re writing an application, no matter how big or small, ask yourself the following question: do I want my application to rock or not suck, or better yet, do my users want my application to rock or not suck? Hopefully it helps you iron out your feature list and make it one that your users will expect.