Musings on the trade off between simplicity and power in a UI

Chris Messina and Fred Wilson have posts up today which both talk about the pros and cons of simplifying the user experience at the expense of limiting the options available, although they come at it via very different routes – Fred discussing the power of instant approval versus moderation and Chris focused on the trend away from using URLs.

The interesting thing here is the dichotomy created between power and flexibility on the one hand and ease of use on the other.  There is also the related question of balancing the needs of early adopters/power users with those of the consumers with simpler usage patterns who will really take an app/service mainstream.

Reading this back I’m struck that there is nothing new here, although APIs may be the joker in the pack here as they allow users to self select which interface they want to use.  Additionally I think the web has changed the game by enabling crowd filtering, at least for content oriented services (iPhone apps, YouTube videos etc.).

The other interesting thread is that simple interfaces limit options thereby making it harder for new sites/services/apps to get traction.  Chris’s main point is that because of this the trend in browsers towards pictures and lists of sites and away from using the address bar is a simplification that threatens everything that has made the web vibrant.

I can see the logic, but I think the trend to open is too strong.  People are used to being able to get at exactly what they want to when they want to, even if most of the time they are happy going with the suggestions of others.  Simplified interfaces which don’t offer this ability will have their place in the market, but I can’t see them dominating.  Open has won out over closed every time so far and will again.  Chris talks about the trend amongst television manufacturers towards walled garden internet experiences – they will have their time at the beginning of the internet television market, but will lose out to more open solutions eventually, mirroring what we have seen on mobile.

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