You work for me, Computer.

By Brandon Bloom

Flexibility Belongs in APIs

Software comes in a large spectrum of power and flexibility, as well as an equally large spectrum of complexity and usability. Users also come in a wide range of intelligence and skill. However, if you create software of average power and average complexity, you may satisfy the average users’ needs, but they won’t love you for it.

One of my favorite books on software, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, describes the concept of “perpetual intermediates”. The book explains that beginners are only beginners for a little while, then they become intermediates. Most users are intermediates for as long as they use the software. Very few users become true experts. At any given time, virtually all of your users will be varying intermediates.

With this powerful realization in mind, you may be tempted to design exclusively for these intermediates. When designing your software you can spin the flexibility and complexity dials to try to hone in this average user. Unfortunately, you would wind up pleasing more users by cranking these dials down much lower.

The fundamental problem is that adding a bit of power and flexibility also adds a bit of complexity. Since most users are intermediates, they can tolerate some degree of complexity, but would honestly prefer not to. They avoid the complexity by only using the small subset of features they have come to understand and only venturing beyond their comfort zone when they absolutely have to. They quickly become intermediates and are no longer troubled by complexity.

When users have to venture into uncharted features, they are effectively beginners, not intermediates. However, the more esoteric or powerful the feature, the more likely it was designed for that small percentage of experts. When the infrequent need arises for these features, users would rather force the problem into the features they know than learn new ones.

Given that users actively avoid complexity and more powerful features, it becomes apparent that these powerful features should be excluded to keep complexity to a minimum. In doing so, you may annoy the 1% of your users who are truly experts and need the power. If you have a million users, 1% — 10,000 users — can not be forgotten. You need to give these users this power somehow.

Put the power and flexibility into APIs! APIs enable power users to automate frequent tasks and create the unique functionality they need. As a bonus, new tools will pop up to fill needs you didn’t even consider when you originally designed your software.

“Wait a minute!” I hear your cry. “Expert users are not necessarily programmers”, you say. This is very true, but there are two factors which mitigate this problem.

First, most expert users of any software have at least some technical ability with which to hack together solutions. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the popularity of Visual Basic. Despite the relatively small number of professional software engineers using Visual Basic, it still has very strong search volume and book sales. This is presumably due to its inclusion in Microsoft Office. However, the “real” software engineers view it as not worth their time and these are the people producing technical content on the web. As such, there is less online discussion of the language. Even if an expert is unable to put something together, they probably know someone who can. And even if they don’t know someone who can, then they probably have just identified a need to hire someone.

Second, the needs of experts are so specialized that they need to exert a large amount of effort bending flexible software to their needs. Sometimes, no amount of flexibility will solve their problem. Other times, the flexibility is hidden behind so much complexity that it is not cost effective to uncover it. Still other times, users bend software until it breaks. Again looking at Visual Basic, it is quite common for Office users to create macros or scripts to solve problems that built in tools could have solved. Users do this because they didn’t know they could or couldn’t figure out how to utilize the existing features in the way they wanted to.

The bottom line is that software should be as simple as possible, not simpler. Treat users as intelligent, capable intermediates; do not engage in excessive hand-holding or assume expertise. Where applicable, provide plug-in or extension mechanisms, so that power and flexibility can be leveraged by APIs. Your users will love you for it.