Why we need more control, not less when it comes to software

Martin Brinkmann
Jan 20, 2014

In the past few years, companies have started to simplify their products. In the browser world, it started when Google emerged on the scene with its Chrome browser.

It was a bare bones browser at first, that provided virtually no customization options. And while some liked that, others did not like it at all.

But browsers are not the only programs where simplification has become a norm. Operating systems too try to automate as much as possible for the user, or make decisions for the user based on company strategy or what the company thinks is best for users of its products.

Microsoft for example shipped Windows 8 with two interfaces, which was bad enough for desktop users who had no use for the touch-centric Start Screen interface. To make matters worse, Microsoft decided that it would be a good idea to load the Start Screen interface by default for all users.

There was no switch -- it came with Windows 8.1 - to change that, and while you could install programs to boot to desktop, it was reserved to users who knew what to look for.

Companies do have an interest in that, as less options or features means less support requests about something that is not working, or a broken program because someone played around with settings that should better be left alone. The other interest is to push something into the market no matter what, which is something that Microsoft tried with Windows 8.

The loss of control over functionality may not look like a big deal to many. The main issue that I see here is however that this generation of computer users is trained for consumption only. Many devices are consume-only, most tablets or phones for example.

Yes, you can run apps and games on them, and use Office programs and others, but that is all consumption.

That's not a problem for regular users for as long as everything works, but as soon as something falls apart, or returns a different result, helplessness may be the result.

I remember back in the days when I first started using PCs, that we would sometimes connect them for a LAN gaming session with serial cables, and that we sometimes spend more time setting everything up than gaming.

Things are a lot easier now in this regard, and that is a good thing, but in the software world, simplification not only means that you have less control over the program, it also means that you may not be able to troubleshoot issues on your own.

Removing options from the browser, such as Mozilla removing JavaScript controls from Firefox, may protect a couple of users from running into errors while browsing the web. One would think that someone who is switching of JavaScript would know how to switch it back on if errors occur after doing so, but Mozilla apparently thinks otherwise.

Good thing is, in regards to Firefox, that you can get back those controls, but that is reserved to users who know what they are looking for. Not exposing users to these controls may reduce the number of issues and support requests that Mozilla gets, and may keep some users from moving to another browser, but it also means that many users may never know about those features in the first place.

Chrome is probably the archetype of a simplified browser. You notice that when it comes to the browser interface, which you cannot modify at all, aside from displaying a bookmarks toolbar, and also when it comes to changes that Google introduces. If your first browser is Chrome, you may think that this is the norm. Unless you switch to a browser with better customization options, you will never know what a difference to your day to day browsing this can make.

Chrome users do not have control over most changes that Google makes. With that I mean that there is usually no option -- or only a temporary one -- to restore the "old way" of doing things. Firefox users on the other hand do have options. Previously, Mozilla made sure usually to add a config switch to the browser to give users a choice.

Recently, which means since the minute Chrome landed, the organization has started to mimic Google in some regard. As far as Australis is concerned for example, Firefox's new design that ships in version 29 of the browser, it is extensions that users need to install to restore old functionality.

Many computer users lack experience, and part of the reason why that is the case is that companies put them in a bubble so that they won't hurt themselves -- or the program they run.

But if you never try and experiment with things, you will never gain experience either. While that may not look like an issue at all, you may think different the moment something stops working the way it used to be.

Google removed the arrows of the scroll bar recently in Chrome, and it seems to have irritated users of the browser. Switching to another browser, as suggested by some, may seem like the easiest way out, but it does not really make sense to do so for that.

There are dozens of other options, from using the arrow keys or page up and down, the mouse wheel (if available), or browser extensions.

I think that the removal of choice is always a bad thing for a program's usability. Why not provide users with options in regards to the scroll bar design? This ensures that those who like the arrows can keep using them, while those who do not can use the new layout.

That on the other hand would mean more work for the development team, and it would also add to the complexity of the code and the browser.

What's your take on this?

Image source: XKCD


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  1. joncr said on January 30, 2014 at 12:32 am

    People don’t want capabilities delivered to them in large complex toolsets which give them the freedom to bend and shape them to do their will. If that was the case, people would be running character-based Unix, batch spell-checking ASCII files with a pipe, and running their business letters through troff.

    The market does not want to learn how to leverage its computing devices. It wants cheap, simple, focused applications it can use with little or no effort. It’s willing to put up with behemoths like Office and Photoshop because of momentum and precedent.

    A minority is interested in the *how* of computing and will take the time to noodle around with their software. For the majority, though, that’s eyeglazingly boring and a losing investment of time and energy.

    1. Jaroslav Matura said on January 31, 2014 at 6:14 pm

      >The market wants cheap, simple, focused applications it can use with little or no effort.

      Then hide the features under some kind of “Power User Mode”, like about:config (and something like “browser.addonbar_enabled”, or “toolbar.icons_mode”), don’t remove them completely. If it is possible – and it certainly is possible in Firefox’s case – you should please all of your customers/users, not just the majority of them.
      The Add-on Bar is already hidden by default, just like the Small Icons option is, so I can’t see why did the developers decide it has to go. Slimming (read “dumbing”) down the browser has no beneficial effects; standard users don’t know the options even exist, so they cannot appreciate the change, and power users only get annoyed and angered, which makes them lose their trust in the developers and switch to another browser, usually a fork of the original (like Pale Moon).

  2. David said on January 22, 2014 at 3:52 am

    Very good analogy Uhtred. I remember how happy I was when the ‘training wheels’ came off. It is sad that so many never abandom the safety of the ‘training wheels’ in software and in life.

  3. Uhtred said on January 21, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    good article :)

    When I was a kid I learnt how to ride a bike with “stabilisers” attached to stop me falling off. When I got the hang of it, the stabilisers became more and more like shackles restricting me to what I could and couldn’t do. They were removed and I then had the freedom to discover better ways to use, and enjoy using the bike and going places you couldn’t with stabilisers attached..

    yes simple “stabilisers” can help, but don’t oversimplify to the point that you make shackles.

  4. InterestedBystander said on January 21, 2014 at 5:03 am

    I agree that average users are losing some control, with power-users (often) able to find ways around the general dumbing-down of some applications and OS. And the comments above cover that pretty well.

    There are just a couple of things I might mention —

    1. Some applications have given users an almost surreal amount of control. MS Excel is an example. It can behave as a species of programming IDE if you want it to, or as a database front-end, or a sort of peculiar but useful text editor. The GIMP’s another that lets users customize quite a lot.

    Question: what separates applications like those in the MS Office suite from web browsers? Why are web browsers dumbed down while Excel isn’t?

    2. Maybe some users get burned out on complexity. Sometimes I fall into that category: “Oh Lord,” I think as I open a newly-installed application, “Not another multi-pane interface with three-deep menu ribbons. Please…all I want to do is trim an audio file and convert it to .wav!” (Maybe I’m getting old and senile… )

    Question: is it just me, or do other people resent complexity in programs that they use for very straightforward purposes?

    But the points I mentioned don’t detract from Martin’s argument, nor from the other comments. Even if my points make sense, which is not likely. ;)

    1. ned the impala said on January 22, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      Is there any compelling reason why there couldn’t be a button on these browsers you could hit to toggle between “Easy” and “Satisfying”? Toggle to “Easy” and it’s “chrome”. Toggle to the other and it’s the soon to be murdered Firefox.

    2. Martin Brinkmann said on January 21, 2014 at 10:27 am

      To answer your questions:

      1. I think it depends on what the developers or company behind the app believe users need. Web browsers are more often than not used for consumption, so give users as little control over it as possible so that they are not irritated. Excel on the other hand is a tool that can be very powerful, and is being used in many companies for this.

      Even if you only use basic formula and such, it is used by many in that way. Removing features from Excel is like removing essential features from a browser.

      2. Yes I think that is the case. I get overwhelmed sometimes as well, but that is natural. If you start to use something for the first time, you are a newbie. This is true for all things in life.

      In regards to software, I think ideal programs ship with a basic configuration that new users can work with right away, but provide enough functionality in the backend so that users who want to make changes can do so.

      Say, an audio converter that enables you to change the output format, quality, volume or tags if you want. If those options are missing, I would not necessarily want to use it.

      1. InterestedBystander said on January 21, 2014 at 4:27 pm

        You have a good point, Martin — that a development team’s perception of their target user’s needs can drive the dumbing-down of an application, or the opposite “complexifying” of an application.

        I suppose it’s really a complex ecology. Again, using Excel as an example, when users want to accomplish a special task a percentage look for a way to do it with the ribbon bar menus. Some percentage go pretty quickly to VBA and code a custom function. Others record a macro, or look for a third-party add-in to accomplish the special task. All that by way of saying that different users think very differently from one another, and with complex software that can create a whole ecological system of solutions. I think so, anyway/

        There are risks, obviously — custom code can be malformed, downloaded add-ins can be malicious. And with browsers, perhaps some of those risks are intensified because the application’s purpose is to communicate over the internet. That’s the gold ring for malware: to open a computer to manipulation over the net. So maybe developers’ perception of risk is a factor in customization lock-down as well?

  5. ned the impala said on January 21, 2014 at 2:29 am

    As an autodidact who has learned the hard [fun] way through reading and trial and error, I say ABSOLUTELY gimme MORE control, not less! No matter how much risk there is that the user might fuck it up, there is equally the opportunity for the user to become informed and not only put things to rights, but have the very great satisfaction of customising the application so that it’s just SO. No generic, ‘idiot-proof’, intelligence-insulting – in fact demeaning in EVERY way bastardware, no matter how convenient some aspects of it might be, could ever provide that same fulfillment in using it. My machine and its software are tools, yes. They are also extensions of me, and as such should reflect and affirm and enhance ME. I! Will damned well tell google or whoever what’s good for me in terms of functionality of my tools, and not vice-versa!

  6. Roi said on January 20, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    Great article! What software developers should do is make things easy for advanced users to add whatever controls they want themselves. Write software so that buttons, command and actions can be easily manipulated using autohotkey and similar tools. Add an option for toolbar to add icons/buttons that runs whatever command line command the users tells it to run. Many can take it from there.

  7. ‌ said on January 20, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    If you want control, why are you using non-free (as in freedom) software?

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on January 20, 2014 at 9:03 pm

      like Firefox?

  8. Karl Gephart said on January 20, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    Power users are in a very frustrating position in recent times. Companies are “dummying down” their products, like browsers, more and more. Whether because of complaints or saving a nickel in troubleshooting, companies are pandering to users who either don’t care to learn advanced features or don’t want to. Further, when you think about sales of largely “consumable products” (like tablets) outpacing productive tools (like PCs/laptops), it’s kind of scary. Where are the content creators on the web anymore?

  9. Oxa said on January 20, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    I couldn’t agree more about maximizing users’ options. However, one of the reasons users don’t want to learn new things is the fault of designers. They’ve wasted the goodwill of users by their constant design changes that accomplish nothing. Users are burnt out on learning new things. I know I am. (It’s called “Future Shock.” See Wikipedia.) I’m perfectly capable of doing my own troubleshooting, and do it all the time. But I’m tired of it! I don’t blame users who are a lot less savvy than me for wanting things simpler.

  10. ilev said on January 20, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Who are those “we” ? The 10% of geeks users ? most of them are using Linux anyway and have all the control they need. For Windows, 90% are dumb users which are not interested in way how the OS or the applications tick, and not interested in control. Give them control and they won’t know what to do with it. Software developers aim for the lowest level of users because they are the majority. The geeks will find the way to control/tweak the OS and software usually via 3rd party applications/plugins…

  11. Swapnil said on January 20, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    “Many computer users lack experience, and part of the reason why that is the case is that companies put them in a bubble so that they won’t hurt themselves — or the program they run.”

    This isn’t the fault of companies (except in some cases like the one of Google Chrome). It’s the fault of the consumer. I have seen a lot, lot of people running into issues. Yet, I have never seen someone troubleshooting the issues themselves (I am talking of ordinary people; not power users); even when they know that a solution is almost always just an internet search away. Mostly the solution is to get it repaired from someone else and this someone else in most cases just reinstalls the OS or the application.
    Same applies with licensing. I have seen a lot of people copying software from their computers and copying it to USB drives and handing it over to the other person. There is of course piracy.

    In general, there is a lack of interest from the consumer on exploring the functions inside a software. All they care is: ‘I have to do XYZ from the software and its doing that. Apart from that I am not concerned about the software.’
    Changing this mentality is very hard. Corporations are forced to put walls on settings accessible to common users because they know, the consumer will probably have no idea what even happened actually, let alone fixing it. This leads to customer support requests: but above all it leads to a negative perception of the software – which I am sure nobody would like. In such a case, a consumer might move to a new software which might seem easier to use.
    Hence, corporations do this approach of putting crucial behavior-altering settings behind the most accessible parts. Mozilla has done this correct in about:config Google’s approach is plain wrong for power users.

    1. ned the impala said on January 21, 2014 at 2:42 am

      “I have never seen someone troubleshooting the issues themselves (I am talking of ordinary people; not power users)”

      Search no more, deprived and suffering Swapnil. Here is one such.

  12. Declan Dunn said on January 20, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    “Many computer users lack experience, and part of the reason why that is the case is that companies put them in a bubble so that they won’t hurt themselves — or the program they run.”

    That is so true. I know countless people who don’t care how it works, or even how to make it work better. They only want to feel secure that it DOES work. Even experienced corporate and tech users are beginning to fall into that category. They would argue that “after all isn’t technology supposed to make life easier? I simply want to turn it on and all is well”. To me it’s just processed bologna instead of steak. Win-8 comes around promising to be just that and the users rebelled. More bologna. I feel too many people don’t want to make decisions or use the choices they are given, they’re just happy consuming large quanties of bologna and have lost the taste for steak. If computing folks give up and settle for computing bologna then we will have a difficult time getting the coders and manufacturers to allow us to make the choices we want for a better computing experience.

  13. Jaroslav Matura said on January 20, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    The companies want to make people dumb and nonresistant, so they won’t mind if something bad as personal data misusage happens.

  14. GK said on January 20, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    Agreed 100%. Companies just don’t trust people can deal with the complexity and treat everyone like idiots.

  15. Mobius said on January 20, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    > I think that the removal of choice is always a bad thing for a program’s usability.

    The Netscape suite would like to have a word with you.

  16. Nebulus said on January 20, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    An excellent article! Thanks, Martin!

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