James Tanner, in his blog post Genealogy Programs and Features Creep discusses a problem with computer programs, operating systems, smartphones, cars, and for that matter, every commercial product in our society. He gives many examples of the problem and each time incorrectly identifies the problem as “feature creep”. He calls feature creep a “terrible disease”.
He is talking about a problem all right, but he has incorrectly identified the source of the problem. The problem is NOT feature creep. Feature creep is good. It is wanted.
You want to be able to spell and grammar check in your word processor. You want it to create contents and indexes and have advanced formatting and allow you to add equations. You want it, in fact to be able to do everything, in case you ever needed to do it.
You want the one device that does everything. Your smartphone that can be your camera and your note taker and your GPS and your music player and your portable computer.
You want your genealogy program to have the ability to do everything, too.
Mr. Tanner likes his new Prius. He says it has a lot of features and he doesn’t use half of them. I think he exaggerates by saying he uses 50% of them. I’ve read and believe that most users of software programs, including genealogy software, only use about 10% of the features of a program. So why then are the other features needed? It’s because the 10% that each person uses is different from what everyone else uses. We each have our own needs. The mathematician needs the equations in the Word document. The layout designer needs the advanced formatting, and the person writing the book needs the contents and indexes.
The problem is not feature creep. The problem is poor design. Too often new features are just thrown into a program, making a simple menu, window or interface much more complicated and uglier and harder to use than it need be.
New features are wanted and needed, but they must be added properly. They must be designed into products so that they are hidden away until needed. And then when needed, they must become apparent in a self-evident way.
Using Microsoft Word as an example, I agree that they have added everything but the kitchen sink. And they realized a number of years ago that people were finding it hard to use and harder to find the features they needed. They came up with a good solution and invented the Ribbon, a dynamic and context-sensitive method of bringing all the features you need in front of you. There was a cry of outrage about this “stupid Ribbon”, that it was different and appeared too complex. But you know what? It’s now been in use for years and has quietly become one of the best user interface designs available, embedded into many of the programs you use. It’s good and it works because it is obvious and you really don’t even know that it’s there. Adding it has made a multitude of features available and discoverable to people in an easy-to-use manner, and that’s a good thing.
Features need to be simple, not complex. Don’t mix up the addition of new features with the addition of complexity. New features do not have to be added in a complicated way. If they are thought through correctly, then they can be made simple. Every user would appreciate new simple features in their program. But they want their program to remain easy to use.
An example which all genealogists are interested in: Syncing of genealogy data, either with online trees or with other programs. We expect it to work correctly. We expect it to perform quickly. But most of all we expect it to be simple. If there was simply a “Sync” button we could push, and 0.1 seconds later a window would pop up saying “Your data is Synced”, that is what we want.
We don’t want a complicated input screen that gives us dozens of options to fill in making us make decisions we have no idea about, stops the process many times displaying info boxes that mean nothing to us, and then fails without telling us why or what to do next. That is poor design.
Apple indeed had simple and elegant products. They added features and they lost some of their elegance. Would you want them not to have added the features? Of course not. But, you’d hope they could add them in a way that can keep as much of the simplicity and elegance as possible. Like the Microsoft Ribbon, the design (or redesign if necessary) to incorporate the new features is what can allow this.
Otherwise, rather than enjoying 50% of the features of a brand new Prius, maybe it would be better to go back to the simplicity and elegance of a horse and buggy.