Saturday, February 04, 2012

Here I am again, making it up as I go along

Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror doesn't like it that Apple refuses to place more than one button on the front of the iPhone.
Apple's done a great job of embodying simplicity and clean design, but I often think they go too far, particularly at the beginning. For example, the first Mac didn't even have cursor keys. Everything's a design call, and somewhat subjective, but like Goldilocks, I'm going to maintain that the secret sauce here is not to get the porridge too cold (no buttons) or too hot (3 or more buttons), but just right. I'd certainly be a happier iPhone user if I didn't have to think so much about what's going to happen when I press my home button for the hundredth time in a day.
He is right, of course, and he also admits that what is "just right" is subjective.

However, I can think of at least one good reason why Apple might have decided to follow this rule.

Imagine you are leading a team of developers, and you tell them to design a phone. All existing phones and cluttered. Start with a clean slate, you tell them, think different. Your designers know what phones look like, and cannot unlearn that knowledge. You are likely to get a design which is very similar to what exists, with some minor tweaks. Alternatively, you get a radical, impractical design.

However, tell them to design a phone with exactly one physical button, and you give them something to start with. To make it work, they will have to rethink everything about the phone, but the people on your team are less likely to fight each other on behalf of their individual "visions" of what a radical new design should be like. The rule is one of those constraints which serve to goad creativity, and channel it.

As Eugene Wallingford writes in that post I've linked to above
Just as too much freedom can paralyze a novice with an overabundance of possibility, too much freedom can inhibit the competent programmer from creating a truly wonderful solution. Sticking with a form requires the programmer to think about resources and relationships in a way that unconstrained design spaces do not. This certainly seems to be the case in the arts, where writers, visual artists, and musicians use form as a vehicle for channeling their creative impulses.
I don't think "two buttons" would have worked as well. It wouldn't have distinguished their product quite so radically, and it might not have energized the designers as effectively.

Obviously, not all constraints serve to release potential creativity. Mediocre companies are great at creating constraints which serve only to irritate and frustrate. You need a master designer: we know that Apple had that.

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