Software needs editors

October 10, 2007

In a great post at Signal vs. Noise, Jason Fried answers the question, “Is it really the number of features that matter?”

What matters is the editing. Software needs an editor like a writer needs an editor or a museum needs a curator. Someone with a critical eye and the ability to say “No, that doesn’t belong” or “There’s a better way to say this.” Physical constraints create natural limits for books and museums. Books have pages and museums have wall space. Software, on the other hand, is virtual, boundless. Anything is possible. When anything is possible someone inevitably tries to make something do everything. And the more something does the harder it becomes to understand, grasp, and use. So the key is deciding what makes it and what doesn’t.

What Jason’s talking about here is really the core of design. It’s about making tradeoffs, and finding balance:

So remember: Good software is about balancing value and screen real estate and understanding and outcome. If it takes 20 good features to get there, then great. If it only takes eight, even better. It’s not the number that counts, it’s the balance.

Joshua Porter thinks it’s important that the designer be someone different than the creator:

You need someone pushing back as much as you need someone pushing forward. You need, not necessarily a critical eye, but a concerned eye that isn’t colored with the effort of creation. A creator is almost never equipped to be objective about their creation. (nor should they be)

The analogy to writing — that software needs an editor — is a good one. But there’s a key different with software: it’s about solving a specific problem. When choosing which features to include, you need to always keep in mind the problem that you’re trying to solve. As Charles Eames, one of the most famous designers of the 20th century, said: “Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.”