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  • Charlie Jackson

It's Hard to Make It Easy


I’ve been around the block. In fact, quite a few times. I started doing consumer software in 1984 when the Macintosh was released.


I learned about user interface design from the people at Apple who were inventing the graphical user interface at that time. I used to have exhilarating conversations with Bruce Tognazzini and his folks in the Human Interface Group (he founded it). The guy is brilliant, and now is with the prestigious Nielsen Norman Group. (His blog is worth looking at if you’re interested in UI design: asktog.com)


A lot of what they talked about was figuring out what a user’s expectations would be about how a software program would work. It was also about making things discoverable, which could include using appropriate terminology.


I also learned user interface from the real world, making products for everyday people. When we would show folks some new things we were working on, if they didn't get it, it was back to the drawing board.


In fact, often it was back to the drawing board before we even showed it to anyone else. When the programmers came to me with something that I didn’t grok, I sent ’em back. I was pretty tough on everybody, but the result was always better software, and they knew it and did not complain.


The real fun has been bringing to consumers capabilities that previously were only available on very expensive, high-end computers. These types of programs were sold by “the seat,” thousands of dollars per seat.


The challenge has been making the crazy-powerful features accessible to everyday users. This boils down to user interface that is, well, usable. Sometimes it can simply be terminology. One example I often use is that page layout programs would refer to leading (pronounced led-ing) and kerning, terms that originated when type was actually set.


I preferred to call these two features line spacing and character spacing, the distances between lines and the distances between characters. Professionals who knew what leading and kerning were would certainly understand what character spacing meant. But everyday users, like me, would not know what kerning referred to. So, we called it character spacing.


When I was getting started, “image processing” was not available to the everyday user. Then we made Digital Darkroom, which preceded Photoshop, where we called it photo retouching instead of image processing.


Digital Darkroom did include Burning and Dodging. Wait, you don’t know those terms? Well, professionals did. This referred to how things could be changed on print photos in the darkroom. But again, we didn’t use them, we just called those features . . . wait for it . . . Lighten and Darken. Amazing, eh?


And a little later in SuperPaint, we implemented “raster-to-vector” conversion, which is where the program traces around a bitmap image (pixels) and creates vector line drawings. Although we were tempted to be pedantic, we much preferred the name that we coined for this process: Autotrace. (Adobe promptly used the term as well, even though we had attempted to trademark it.)


In Digital Darkroom, we also created a tool that selected an area of similar color. Instead of calling it by some fancy technical term, we coined the name The Magic Wand. People really liked that, and still do. And again, so did Adobe, putting it in Photoshop a little later. And here you thought Adobe was the innovator?


And now, jumping back to the present, SaviDraw features another innovation that will finally make it easy for everyone to use a vector drawing program. It’s the Path tool. We have banished the Pen tool, which makes every other vector program unusable for many people.


It takes a lot of words to describe, so instead just watch the Trailer video on our home page (s-beach.com) to see how cool it is. In particular, it makes tracing soooo easy when you have a touch screen to draw on. And now the wait begins: how long until someone else (cough, Adobe, cough, cough) copies this feature. Not too long, I hope, because this is really the way it should be done.


Yes, it was more difficult to program than the traditional Pen tool. But as noted in one of my other blog posts, we never take shortcuts. We don’t look for the easy way for us to write code to do something, we look for the way that makes it easy for the user. And, as I’ve often said to young entrepreneurs, it can be very, very hard to make it very, very easy (for the user).


Really, this isn’t rocket science, it’s more common sense. But surprisingly, I find this trait of common sense often lacking in the software industry.


Hmm, maybe this explains why my consumer software companies have been so successful in the past? Could it simply be common sense?

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