Accordance 10: Hidden, But Easy to Find
Interface design requires finding the right balance between two often conflicting objectives. An interface is intuitive if it is easy for a new user to understand. This typically requires hiding advanced features and options which they are not likely to need. On the other hand, a program's usability typically depends on having those features and options right at one's fingertips. The more the advanced user has to go digging to find those options, the more difficult the program is for him or her to use. It is relatively easy to create an intuitive interface by hiding all but the most basic features, but the result is a program that is clumsy to use for anything beyond the basics.
I like to illustrate this difference by using the analogy of a paint-by-numbers kit and an artist's studio. The paint-by-numbers kit is intuitive. It has a few options and a clear step-by-step procedure to follow. However, for anyone beyond a rank beginner, the paint-by-numbers approach is terribly confining. The artist's studio, on the other hand, is stocked with a wide array of materials and tools, typically arranged so the artist can use them whenever his creative impulse demands. The novice sees those things and has no idea when or how to use them, but the master needs them all within easy reach.
Accordance has always been a bit like the studio of a professional artist who teaches less experienced students. In order not to overwhelm his students, he must simplify his studio to make it less confusing and intimidating. Yet in order to be able to work efficiently when he is creating his own masterpieces, he can't hide the things he needs in a closet across the room; he must keep them in a cabinet which is easily within reach. They must be hidden, yet easy to find and easily within reach.
Like that artist's studio, Accordance has always sought to keep advanced features hidden, yet close at hand. When we've had to choose between the needs of the master and those of the novice, we have tended to err on the side of the master. This has made Accordance as smooth as silk for power-users, but with a moderately steep learning curve for new users. In Accordance 10, we strove to simplify the interface for new users without unduly complicating it for experienced ones. That has meant hiding a few features and options, yet in such a way that they remain easily discoverable to new users, and easily accessible to power-users.
Here's just one example. In Accordance 9, when the Words button was selected, you had access to several important search options, such as the ability to set the range to be searched and the field in which multiple items had to appear.
The natural language prompts made them relatively easy to understand, but they took up screen real estate and gave the new user two more options to learn right away.
Those options have now been hidden, but can easily be accessed through the familiar plus button to the right of the search entry box. Click the plus button once, and you'll be given the most used option: that of setting the range. If that's not the option you want, you can easily switch to a different one. You can also click the plus button again to add a second or third option. Obviously, this means an extra click or two on those occasions when you need those options, but it greatly simplifies the interface when you don't. They're hidden, yet easy to find and easily within reach.
In the next few posts, I'll show you some other places where we hid features and options to simplify the interface, while still keeping them easy to find and easily within reach.