Living in a Networked World: Is Less More?

New, easy-to-use applications make it seem like “Less is More”. But is Less really More? I don’t think so. The new wave of applications are great because they’re networked, not because many of them just happen to have less features. Human needs rarely change. We need to be watered, fed, exercised, sheltered, talked-to, challenged, appreciated, […]

New, easy-to-use applications make it seem like “Less is More”. But is Less really More? I don’t think so. The new wave of applications are great because they’re networked, not because many of them just happen to have less features.

Human needs rarely change. We need to be watered, fed, exercised, sheltered, talked-to, challenged, appreciated, paid-attention-to, loved. We need to interact with other humans and be protected from nature. (including of course, other humans) But we need each other: without other people making things interesting for us this world would be a horrible place to live. We would be stripped of that idea called humanity. Not even technology, the great change-agent, can change our humanity with any noticable speed.

So each day, as we struggle through our daily lives, we do a lot of the same activities. We watch TV, talk on the phone, surf the Web, interact with others, trade time for money, and sleep. Though technology has changed the devices and applications with which we do these things, we’re still entertaining ourselves with games, sports, humor, tragedy, gossip, and conversation. The advent of computers hasn’t changed that, it’s only changed the stage upon which we perform those activities.

The Best Software Models Human Behavior

In my post A Social Revolution by Modeling Human Behavior, I suggested that the best design models human behavior. What is TV but modeling how we observe the world? What is the telephone but modeling how we have a conversation? What is a computer but modeling how we read and write?

Ever-Increasing Expectations

What does change, and what we as designers don’t talk about enough, are people’s expectations. The moment we get broadband we never want to go back to dial-up. The moment we get Skype we never want to go back to paid-for phones. The moment we get 15″ for a laptop screen we don’t want to go back to 14″. We expect for progress to continue. Always. Undoubtedly it was the same when phones first arrived, when people first read from a book, when people first wrote on papyrus. Almost overnight, the old way of doing things was gone, and we expected more.

Such is the way of it in software. We’re always headed for the next release. In Web 2.0, however, we’ve seen a return to applications that seem to do much less than what we have become accustomed to on the desktop. Where Word and its millions of features is the mainstay for the desktop, blogs and their small feature set are the mainstay for online.

Is “Less is More” Always Better?

Interestingly, however, this is being recast as a “Less is More” revolution. Take Jason Fried of 37Signals, who evangelizes the “Less” principle as well as anyone. He’ll tell you that people like software with less features, software that does less than their desktop counterparts, and software that is made with fewer people.

Although the Less principle is a great way to focus on problem solving and becoming disciplined in managing projects, it doesn’t tell the whole story of what’s going on in Web 2.0. The problem with the push for “Less” is that it doesn’t take into consideration our ever-increasing expectations. Just as today we are happy with our blog posts showing up in HTML, tomorrow we’ll want mail-merge. In our quest for efficiency we expect more this week than last.

So how come these new Web 2.0 applications: Jotspot, Flickr, Basecamp, Del.icio.us, and Digg are so successful? How is it that they do Less and we like them more? Is it as simple as “Less is More”?

The Real Issue: Networked Applications

Well, it is true that these applications do Less of stuff we don’t want, an undeniably good thing. But it isn’t true that they do Less of everything. In fact, they do More of a critical function of Web 2.0 applications. What is it that they do that’s so critical?

What’s critical is that they’re networked, and that makes them tremendously valuable, even more valuable than non-networked applications with tons more features. Being networked allows them them to accurately model our social behavior. Almost overnight, we are using these software applications to better fulfill our basic human needs of communication, gossip, collaboration, sharing, and Attention: all the things we do in our human network. The difference is that now we’re doing them using networked software.

So we’re not doing Less, we’re doing More with more people. You see, features don’t really matter to people. What matters is the activities that you can do with the software. Features enable those things, of course, and people say that they want this feature or that. But what people really want is to be able to do something they couldn’t before. The software is the tool to do that. And this makes sense, because few people ever wanted Less, despite some of the horribly bloated desktop applications we’ve had to put up with. In fact, we want our software to do More for us. Unfortunately, the More that we want isn’t the more we were getting. Now, with most applications being networked and with developers focusing on things like collaboration and sharing, we’re getting the More we want!

Trading Siloed Apps for Networked Ones

In essence, we have traded siloed applications for networked ones. The featuritis we lost was merely a fortunate casualty of the move. So it’s not just cutting features and having less of them. It’s about adding the right features at the same time.

So imagine we take away the networked functionality of the Jotspots, Flickrs, and Basecamps…what then? Even if they were still easy to use and followed the principles of “Less”, they wouldn’t be worth a second look. They would be stuck in the siloed world of Web 1.0. If your users can’t collaborate or share with people in the software you release nowadays, you’ll quickly be doing something other than writing software. Think about the most popular software on Earth right now. BitTorrent, Skype, Flickr. It’s all about collaboration.

New Platform = Less Software

The reason why most of these new applications tend to have Less features is because developers are working on a relatively new platform: the Web. As a result, our expectations as users are generally low because we’ve had very few web-based applications to raise them. In time, though, the web-based, networked apps will grow to be as sophisticated as desktop software, once the dance between our expectations and what developers can do matures that far. This is already apparent in Flickr and Basecamp. They’re turning into pretty sophisticated applications. Still easy and fun to use, but I wouldn’t consider them “Less”.

But that’s not to say that the Less principle is bad. On the contrary, it’s good and very necessary at this time because user expectations are low and we don’t have much experience yet with networked software. In time, what is Less will change as our expectations change, just as it always has. Undoubtedly, we’ll add new features to the existing ones. But we should still do that judiciously, paying attention to the details and keeping things simple for people. Simple is different than Less.

A Unique Moment on the Web

We won’t always be able to strip away features like we’ve done in the switch to Web 2.0 networked applications. Just try to take away a network-enabled feature from your favorite application and see how people react. How about the comments feature from all the blogging tools? Wouldn’t that be a sight! Moving from a two-way conversation to a one-way conversation is a sure way to kill Attention. Once we have something useful, once we’re part of the conversation, our expectation is that we’ll continue to be part of it.

A Challenge

So here’s a challenge: go make a successful software application that isn’t networked. My bet is that no matter how few features it has, how “Less” it is, it stands to fail. Make it networked, and you stand a chance.

As technology evolves, so does what we come to expect. We expect to be able to write. To publish. To watch TV. To talk on the phone. To talk on our computer. To model our social lives online.

We’re a networked world now. Our expectations have been poured and are solidifying.

Published: December 1st, 2005

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