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Building Software To Be Both Easy And Sophisticated

October 9th, 2009 by Seth Kenvin

Convenience or Quality: A False Choice

The Good Enough Revolution” in Wired Magazine‘s September issue has sparked a meme. I have recently noticed people increasingly touting the merits of cheap prices, minimalist functionality, and straightforward usage as key attributes to get into users’ hands. We contend that just as important as feeling intuitive upon immediate usage, great products should also not feel limiting with more usage.

Above is an image of the Annotative Player module of video.Market7.com. This is our environment for collecting, presenting and assessing feedback about video footage during editing and post production. Most people find its usage easy to comprehend even though from first glance it’s clearly more than simply a video player or a messaging system. Largely that is because it fundamentally and clearly incorporates elements of both with attributes like conventional play control, timeline and volume settings in the expected places of a video player; and familiar messaging presentation like temporal stacking of comments along with the commenters’ avatars, names and relevant metadata such as when comment occurred. With dominance of these familiar motifs, more sophisticated data can be secondarily incorporated, like the fact that the top comment of the stack shown here has attachments indicated by a recognizable file folder icon, or that the comment currently highlighted, through which the playhead is passing, emphasizes a portion of the screen with a rectangle much like seen in photos on Facebook or Flickr.

When first timers use our Annotative Player they generally don’t pay mind to those more advanced features but naturally identify how to play video and watch the comments scroll. And when the thought of leaving one’s own comment enters the mind, we’ve tried to make that immediately accessible through the generous and bold “Add a comment” area, with “type comment here” shadow font in the player’s lower-right. Clicking that pauses the video and expands the lower right area to what’s magnified below. The user gets a blinking cursor in a teal-highlighted space and the most clear thing is to start typing a comment. The eyeball naturally proceeds down to OK or cancel the comment. If curious, or perhaps upon a subsequent use of the module, a user may notice some buttons above, which avail the more sophisticated additions comments can get such as the highlight rectangle, free-hand drawing and file attachment. Availability of these becomes even more clear if one mouses above the area of typing the comment and gets those buttons’ tooltip instructions.

Back when he was a consultant to us and before becoming a full-time employee, Shannon famously (at least in Market7′s corporate lore) advocated that we should endeavor to provide users with a small pond of infinite depth. The perspective of a swimmer surveying such a pond’s surface is that it’s a manageably sized area in which to wade. But once in the water and ready to check out something new, this swimmer realizes that there’s as much water to cover as desired for exploration. Similarly at Market7 we try to provide the most basic features in ways that they’re easily accessed first and have more sophisticated tools put into positions where a little more exploration reveals them, with all leveraging established motifs for quick learning curves.

During the past week I demonstrated the annotative player to a new customer after which I was asked if it wasn’t too much functionality to provide out of the box to users. After explaining our approach to how our software presents itself I received some tentative head nods, but a few days later can gladly report that this particular customer is confirming that all new users are able to be productive with video.Market7 immediately, while the most constant users are getting even more mileage by familiarizing themselves with more sophisticated features. The right presentation of functionality can reveal the apparent dilemma between ease and sophistication to be a false choice. Pick both and do better than “good enough”.

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