On discoverability and power users

Rands in Repose has a post comparing learning how to play the popular game Portal to learning how to use Photoshop.

One of them requires no manual and the other a lifetime to master (or a lifetime of looking up how to do things again):

The plethora of online Photoshop tutorials demonstrate its power and its flexibility, but I believe they also demonstrate its poor design. Think about it like this: what if each time you plunked down in front of World of Warcraft, you had to spend an hour trying to remember, wait, how do I play this?

Great design makes learning frictionless. The brilliance of the iPhone and iPad is how little time you spend learning. Designers’ livelihood is based on how quickly and cleverly they can introduce to and teach a user how a particular tool works in a particular universe. In one universe, you sport a handheld Portal gun that cleverly allows you to interrupt physics. In a slightly different universe, you have this tool called a cloning stamp that empowers you to sample and copy any part of a photo.

Computers and software aren’t new. There should be a certain amount of intuitiveness and discoverability to software. If experienced computer users constantly find themselves frustrated with your software, the issue probably lies with you.

However, sometimes non-discoverable gestures and commands make us more productive. I don’t think the mark of great design is always how little time it takes to learn how to use something. Some things inherently take time to master and learn.

Anyone who knows how to drive a manual transmission can tell you that driving an automatic is certainly easier to do and more discoverable. Any idiot can figure out to put the transmission into the D for drive position.

A manual transmission offers a much higher level of control over a car. It gives the driver more feedback, and is more pleasurable to use.  But the learning curve is much steeper.

I would never say, however, that driving an automatic transmission is a superior experience. It’s simply the easier route. The thing is, eventually you figure out how to drive a manual transmission really well and you start to do things that you simply can’t do with an automatic transmission.

Computers aren’t cars, however, and there has to be a balance between being able to pick up a piece of software and quickly use it and being able to do powerful things with it. Simple hotkeys like control-c and control-v aren’t discoverable, but they are invaluable to those of us who work with text for a living.

I could not imagine using a windowing operating system without hotkeys, which make us more productive and faster, while putting less strain on our bodies. The beauty of a modern windowing OS such as Windows 7 or OS X Lion is that there are multiple ways to get tasks done.

Anyone can move a mouse around, click on things and fumble there way through a computer. Others learn the hotkeys and install programs like Alfred that help get even more done with the keyboard.

The iPad has taken ease-of-use and discoverability to a whole new level. An iPad makes using a Mac feel like using an IBM PC from the 1980s. The big challenge for the iPad and other tablets is find ways to mix in power-user features that help make experienced computer users more productive.

The iPad supports gestures like the four-finger swipe to go between apps that is faster than the standard switching model. There is also the hand-close swipe to get back to the homescreen. I would expect to see more of these gestures that help power users move around faster. This video of a proposed way to highlight and select text on an iPad is the perfect example of a feature that shouldn’t replace the default text selection behavior but would really aid power users.

Getting back to the post in question, I find Photoshop too much for my needs. The program has too many features, costs too much money and feels too bloated to me (I can’t stand how long it takes to load compared to newer graphics editing programs). I’m perfectly happy using Pixelmator for my graphic design needs. It’s much cheaper, runs much faster and is easy to use for the tasks that I need to accomplish.

The biggest knock on Pixelmator and similar apps is that they try too much to be like Photoshop. The more they distance themselves from Photoshop and find ways to make graphic design easier, the better. If people want a Photoshop experience, they’ll for the real thing.

The tension between discoverability and powers users is not going away any time soon. With easier to use and more-locked down devices, that tension is only growing.