More Dancing Bearware

Joel Spolsky in his blog today links to a devastating critique of that annoying help setup wizard you get in Windows every time you start up an application’s help for the first time:

The first problem with this dialog is that it’s distracting. You are trying to find help in the help file. You do not, at that particular moment, give a hoot whether the database is small, big, customized, or chocolate-covered. In the meanwhile, this wicked, wicked dialog is giving you little pedantic lectures that it must create a list (or database). There are about three paragraphs there, most of which are completely confusing. There’s the painfully awkward phrase “your help file(s)”. You see, you may have one or more files. As if you cared at this point that there could be more than one. As if it made the slightest amount of difference. But the programmer who worked on that dialog was obviously distressed beyond belief at the possibility that there might be more than one help file(s) and it would be incorrect to say help file, now, wouldn’t it?

Spolsky’s rant is right on track with Havoc Pennington’s “Free software and good user interfaces”, which much influenced me on these issues. From Pennington:

A traditional free software application is configurable so that it has the union of all features anyone’s ever seen in any equivalent application on any other historical platform. Or even configurable to be the union of all applications that anyone’s ever seen on any historical platform (Emacs *cough*).

Does this hurt anything? Yes it does. It turns out that preferences have a cost. Of course, some preferences also have important benefits – and can be crucial interface features. But each one has a price, and you have to carefully consider its value. Many users and developers don’t understand this, and end up with a lot of cost and little value for their preferences dollar.

Now Spolsky:

It has been said that design is the art of making choices. When you design a trash can for the corner, you have to make choices between conflicting requirements. It needs to be heavy so it won’t blow away. It needs to be light so the trash collector can dump it out. It needs to be large so it can hold a lot of trash. It needs to be small so it doesn’t get in peoples’ way on the sidewalk. When you are designing, and you try to abdicate your responsibility by forcing the user to decide something, you’re probably not doing your job. Someone else will make an easier program that accomplishes the same task with less intrusions, and most users will love it.