Sunday, October 4, 2009

Simplicity is not a bug

Several people have made comments comparing the feature set of My Writing Nook to Word or Google Docs. They ask "why can't I just use Google Docs?" My answer to them is - you can. If Google Docs works for you, great! Personally, I found Google Docs to be too much tool for the job I wanted to do - something akin to using a pile-driver to nail two boards together.

Occam's Razor - the simplest answer is usually the best.

The longer I have been in the software business, the more I have come to appreciate simplicity in design. Just because an application has more features doesn't mean it's better - in fact, oftentimes the opposite is true. More features means more code, and code that is often more complicated. This makes the code harder to understand and maintain, leading to more bugs.

Let's look at things from the user's perspective. The user wants software that allows them to do their work easily and efficiently - that's their goal. They aren't necessarily interested in having all the bells and whistles - only the ones that are most useful for task at hand. Bells and whistles are for the marketing department, not the user. The user only wants to achieve their goal.

The goal for writers is to write. Any feature that does not help the writer toward that goal is an unnecessary feature, in my opinion. If an application forces the writer to wade through countless toolbars or menus to find the feature that they want, it is not helping them achieve their goal efficiently.

"I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter." - Blaise Pascal

For the users of My Writing Nook, the goal is stated right there on the home page - Write simply anywhere. I kept that goal in mind as I decided which features to provide and (more importantly) which features to eliminate.

The feature set for My Writing Nook is intentionally small. It contains only those features that allow a writer to write, simply, from anywhere. Anything else is superfluous.

To those people that still wish to compare MWN to Google Docs or Word, I offer the following hypothetical.

An illustrative tale of two tools

The scenario: A man is camping. He catches a fish and would like to clean it and cook it for his dinner. Let's follow him down two hypothetical paths:

Path 1: The man has a simple hunting knife.

1. He uses the knife to clean the fish, then cooks his dinner. Yum!

Path 2: The man has a swiss army knife.

1. He takes the knife out of his pocket and is immediately confronted with a decision - which of the blades to use.

2. He fumbles around for a bit, perhaps opening one or two blades to determine their applicability to the problem at hand.

3. Ooh! There's a magnifying glass here. He didn't realize that before, and spends a few minutes playing with it.

4. Getting back to the task at hand, he picks a blade and opens it. He starts to clean the fish.

5. While he's cleaning the fish, he wonders if perhaps another blade would be even better at cleaning the fish.

6. He cleans the blade he was using, closes it, and opens a different blade to try.

7. Finally, the fish is clean. Unfortunately, it's now too dark out to see what he's doing, and he trips over a rock, dropping the fish in the dirt.

8. The man goes to bed hungry.

Sometimes the lack of features is a feature in itself.


  1. I'd rewrite the path 2 as follows:

    Path 2: The man has a swiss army knife.
    The man takes out his swiss army knife, knowing he could build a tent or weave a parachute. More, he knows what he wants: Clean the fish.
    The man pulls out a blade and cleans the fish.
    The man cooks his dinner.

    It would be amazingly dumb to go to bed hungry with a fish, a swiss army knife to clean the fish. Maybe a third and a fourth scenario would proof your example of the logic of simplicity wrong.

    Path 3:
    A man and his camping gear
    He wants to carve a speer
    He pulls out his axe and cuts of a bush
    He pulls out his wood knife and carves the spear.
    He wants to make fire, and the sun is shining bright. No matches whatsoever.
    He has to do it the old fashioned way, rubbing two sticks till they gloom. Or maybe he has a fire stone.
    Hell, life is difficult for this man.

    Path 4:
    He's got a Swiss Army knife now.
    He can make a speer simply by cutting branches and shaping the.
    He can make fire with sunlight and his magnifying glass.
    And more... ALL in a tiny simple utility. Only catch, you have to know how it works ;)

  2. Path 5: The man looks at all the knives in the shop, finds that none of them will do exactly what he wants, so goes home, packs up his pocket smelting kit and smelts himself a knife as soon as he knows which fish he's going to be gutting.

    See the problem with analogies?

  3. The idea of "simple is better" has a lot of adoption nowadays. One of the downsides of this idea is that you may end with too many simple tools to do your job, which can be confusing to the users. Another thing is that if you have a product or service that has many features but these features work fine you won't bother the user. Anyway, good post!

  4. Your story would have gone a lot better if "the man" wasn't a total idiot.

  5. Spot on.

    As with any analogy it can be carried too far, but I identified with your second example.

    I always prefer to have a single solid tool to do the job at hand over carrying a multi-tool that does 12 things in an equally mediocre fashion.

    Keep at it.

  6. Just wanted to throw my two cents in and say that I love Writing Nook -- I'm using it for my novel. I was looking for something clutter-free and online, since I switch computers a lot. In addition, I have a netbook in my future, so hurrah for the new netbook friendly version!

    Best, s.

  7. I love simple tools for the job, and I will.

    Google Docs can't even format a novel manuscript correctly as a Word document, not even OpenDocument. Lots of quirks. And it's slow too. I use OpenOffice for formatting simply.

    I only wish there were a tagging feature in My Writing Nook.