Monday, March 4, 2013

My Favorite Software Limits Me Well

When I think about the software I enjoy using and return to frequently, one of their commonalities is their great execution of limitations. Some examples:

140 characters. That one is a gimme.

I love the way HotelTonight constraints my choice to only 3 – 9 hotels in a given city (depending on density of the city).  Even better than HotelTonight’s attractive pricing, the constrained choice helps me save time, which is more valuable than the $15/night in savings for me. It saves me the endless optimizing of a hotel aggregator website.

The Wirecutter – my favorite gadget review website – just lists the best of any given product in a category.  “Want the best laptop? Buy this one.” Don’t show me a myriad of options goverened by a parametric search interface (yes, you CNet). Just show me the right one. I bought my TV based on The Wirecutter’s recommendation and it is one of the best purchases I have made in recent memory.

Uber and Hailo.  There are no different car options… no prices to consider.  It pre-loads your location with GPS, so there’s typically no need to fuss with that either. It’s just a big honking button that says “Pick me up!” All the choices are hidden away behind intelligent defaults. It’s wonderful.

And, don’t forget Top 8 friends (myspace) or just one photo upload per day (fotolog). Success from good limitations in design is not a new concept.

Sometimes even just two choices is one too many.  I recall when we redesigned the homepage at Homestead (a website hosting and editing company – contemporary to Geocities and AngelFire) to give users the choice between either a lightweight web-based editing tool, or a heavyweight desktop software editing tool, most users just bounced and never returned. Our conversion rate plummeted back on giving a user a choice in how to proceed.

Back when I was playing Product Designer at Homestead in 2005, I often recited an expression defending my design choices that tightly constrained options: “When you give a user too many choices, many will choose nothing at all.”