Interfaces for Power Users

Note: This post might be a little dated. It was published in October 2006.

In Productivity and Screen Size,  Jacob Nielson trashes a recent Apple survey on how fabulous large monitors are for productivity. (He doesn’t actually say he disagree’s with Apple’s results, just that their methodology was suspect).

I’m not quite sure whether the rest of the article has much to do with monitor sizes but he does say some interesting things about designing interfaces for casual users as as opposed to skilled users. He argues that very different constraints apply when you design for one group other another and furthermore there are fewer situations when you can assume your users will have time to become skilled in your interface than you would assume.

So even when you think you are designing a tool for people that will have the time and incentive to become familiar with your innovative, optimised design then there are many times when the user will be starting from scratch.

An example for me is Photoshop. Now Photoshop is such a huge program that there are many areas I rarely need to use. When I do use them, quite often that part of the interface has been revised since the version of Photoshop I was using when I last went there. So despite using Photoshop pretty much every day for something or the other, there are times when I am a newbie. I like to hone my skills so I will try and learn something new in these situations but in many cases the clock is ticking and I just have to get results quickly.

Everyone is both a power-user and a newbie at different times. The cases where a tool or a piece of software can guarantee it will only be used by power-users or people learning to become power-users is fairly uncommon.

So ideally software should have lead you gently in but get the hell out of the way for people who already know what they are doing. Context senstive help, wizards, tooltips and interfaces that have ways of hiding advanced features*  all help in this.

* howver hiding/changing parts of the interface to simplify things for new users can also hinder the ability to discover new features by exploring the screen as well as negating the benefits of motor memory. (i would describe motor memory in this context as the process where you learn to quickly move to the correct button/icon/control by habit much quicker than you would be able to locate it by conscious action)

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