Smart Software Should Get Out of Your Way

I shudder when I hear about how software needs to be “smart.”  It’s not because I think today’s software is smart enough already (it’s not), but because all too often “smart” translates to “intensely annoying.”

If you believe the tech pundits, “smart” software should predict what we’ll do so it can perform the next action faster.  “Smart” software should automatically correct our mistakes.  And “smart” software should adjust its user interface based on the features we’ve used in the past.

Sounds nice enough, but I’ve rarely seen software do these things without causing even more frustration than it attempts to solve.  It ends up being less like a helpful coworker and more like that annoying braniac every office is plagued with who constantly interrupts you with advice on working smarter by doing things his way. 

We all know that guy – he’s textbook smart but socially inept.  Which is a good description of much of today’s software.

In the semi-perfect world I keep in my head, “smart software” is software that gets the hell out of my way.  It doesn’t try to guess what I’m going to do next, doesn’t constantly offer me “helpful” tips, and doesn’t move things around on me in an attempt to suit my needs.  And above all, it doesn’t try to predict what I’m going to do, because that only makes the software less predictable.

(Side rant: smart software also doesn’t give me any “tips of the day,” and unless shutting down the application will cause a widespread power outage, it should never ask whether I “really want to exit” when I try to close it.)

Truly smart software shows me some respect by letting me tackle the task at hand with minimal interruption.  Instead of confronting me with a myriad of settings and customization options that I’m unlikely to need, it helps me focus by giving me less choices and fewer reasons to have to make those choices in the first place.

So far, my iPhone gets the overall prize for being smartly designed.  Yeah, it’s got some annoyances (please, give me cut/copy/paste!), but it’s so damn simple to use that I rarely have to think about what I’m doing.  The iPhone also made me see tons of flaws in the software I’ve created – the biggest being that I’ve tried to please power users by making too many non-essential details configurable, and doing so in a way that intimidates new users.  I mistook complexity for power, and that wasn’t smart.

18 thoughts on “Smart Software Should Get Out of Your Way

  1. The iPhone (and Apple in general) has taught me tons about smart Software. I remember the days of studying, configuring and maintaining very complex Outlook configurations designed to simplify my workflow and ultimately my life. In the end it only frustrated me and took additional time.
    Today I am the happy user of and Remember The Milk; which on initial review is horrifyingly simple and without question missing some “key” features of Outlook. But I must say, after 6 months of steady use, I’m not missing anything (especially that annoying paperclip Office Assistant). Keep software simple!

  2. I fully agree with your comments on ‘smart’ software. I found that that is some of the things I’ve liked least about Windows Vista and the newest office suite.. It tries to do too much for you to be helpful…
    Darnit, when I unplug my network connection and plug it back in, I don’t want my firewall reset. Sure, the default settings are find for some people, but not for me :P
    Another great example of a simple, yet very functional UI is the Blackberry. Those guys, like Apple really have figured it out.

  3. Should software that offers editing functions (photoshop, text editor, etc) not at least allow an option of ‘confirm exit’?

  4. Rijk – Of course, but you wouldn’t really be confirming the exit as much as confirming any unsaved edits. If all edits are saved then it would just exit.
    Nick – Playing devil’s advocate here, isn’t this a bit contrary to what NG and FD do with attention and trying to recommend feeds I might be interested in based on what I’ve read in the past? I don’t want my software guessing what I might be interested in. There seems to be a very fine line between guessing “what I want to do next” and “what I want to read next.”

  5. What a succinct and honest post Nick. Thanks for cutting through my angst about providing for very power users feature recommendation in my next development phase. Do we get too much handed to us on a plate? What does this do for our human evolutionary process? I would rather be learning, making more connections and firing up further afferent pathways then handing over responsibility to a smart software helper.

  6. Nick,
    A simple set of options really depends on your target customers.
    FeedDemon can be targeted for a wide range of customers, hence a simple set of options.
    But something like TopStyle really needs a rich set of options since most people using it will be computer experts anyway (or with a higher then average computer knowledge know what HTML is, let alone coding it)
    In the end of the day, the line between what you describe as simple (smart) software, and poor software is a bit tiny. I’m sure Apple has a lot of money invested on interface study’s, but then again, so does Microsoft and they still can come up with the irritating UAC dialog box.

  7. @Andre: That’s a valid point about the type of software dictating the number of options. I’d still argue, though, that even geek-centric tools like TopStyle have too many options (take a look at TopStyle’s options dialog – wow, is that overloaded), and that cutting them back would simplify things for everyone, regardless of experience level.

  8. @Peter: I guess I look at recommendation features differently. Apps like FeedDemon are supposed to bring you information, so recommendations are fine (as long as they’re not intrusive – no popups, etc). What I’m really referring to are features that get in your face with their helpfulness, requiring effort to dismiss them and get on with the task you’re working on.

  9. ack. I couldn’t agree more on the “smart” features. I find that most of them are annoying and merely get in the way. sheeeshhhh… Do I really need menus that collapse to only show “most used”? Do I really need the system files to be hidden? Do I really want virtually every program I install to put a sub-folder in “My Documents” and an icon on my desktop? argggggg.
    The problem is that most new computer users want to be computer users without without being computer learners.
    It will probably only get worse. The “smart” software continues to encourage computer illiteracy.

  10. Hi. I’m new here. Feed Demon looks very impressive. So I was wondering if you are planning on releasing a Linux version any time soon.

  11. @lisa – In the past, I have been able to get FeedDemon 2.1 going in Wine without a hitch. Now I haven’t tried to get any of the versions going since then, so I don’t know if newer versions can still work, but I didn’t have to do too much fiddling with Wine to get it done.

  12. I hate smart software too. I haven’t gotten the Iphone yet, but the few examples of smart software that I have encountered have been utterly and extremely annoying.
    The best example is MS word’s auto correct. I work in a niche where many terms aren’t standard dictionary terms. So when I’m writting, it automatically changes some words it doesn’t recognize, to common words with totally different meaning. I must say it drives me crazy.

  13. I think that configurability or simplicity is a false dichotomy. Leads to the worst sorts of Apple-ish irritations.
    The key: have smart defaults that configure things nicely for folks who never want to go near configuration controls. Never present configuration options unless the user asks to see them.
    But don’t throw the config controls away. Power users need them.

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