Keeping It Simple

by Jay

Matt, the creator of WordPress, has an interesting post on “hidden options” in WordPress. Software is a kind of a balancing act, with simplicity and functionality in tension with each other. Good software finds the right balance between the two. Bad software tends to be software that focuses almost solely on functionality over usability.

For instance, take Microsoft Office. Office is the poster child for elevating functionality over usability. Every release has features piled upon features in an effort to coerce people into upgrading to the latest and greatest version and keeping Microsoft’s cash cow flush with dough. The problem with this is that Office is a nightmare in terms of usability. All those features add up into a system that’s bloated and difficult to learn. Most of the features – like the infamous “Clippy” – just tend to get in the way.

Good software takes into account the 80-20 rule. 20% of the features in Office are sufficient 80% of the time. The rest just tend to get in the way. Microsoft’s essential problem with Office is that they have to keep that revenue chugging, which means adding more features and slapping on the complexity.

Here’s where open source really matters – what if Office were little more than a very simple and open architecture with a well-documented plugin API? You’d have an office suite with the most commonly-used features that can do 80% of the work, and as you need a feature, you can activate it as a plugin. Moreover, you’d have an application that gets out of your way. If all you want to do is write a few letters every once in a while, you don’t need version tracking, fancy formatting, or a bunch of bells and whistles. If you’re a business user, you want version tracking, fancy formatting, pivot tables, complex formulas, and the like. The problem with a system like Office is that it’s trying to do both simultaneously, which never works well.

For that matter, being open doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re free of that problem. Open followed Microsoft Office’s lead and ended up being a relatively bloated and slow system – yes, it’s free and it’s functional, but it eats memory like a hog and it’s got the same issues with usability that it’s commercial competitor does. Open’s relative lack of simplicity is a problem that keeps it from really shining.

However, WordPress gets it right. WordPress is simple enough that it’s quite easy to get up and running. But for those desiring all the features in the world, it has a plugin architecture that makes it quite simple to extend the functionality of the system in any number of ways. Again, 80% of users need only 20% of the functionality of WordPress – posting entries, editing them, and managing comments. WordPress tends not to get in the way when you want to do something simple. The fact that Matt is actively paring things down is a good sign.

Simplicity works, especially when you combine a simple core with the ability to extend that core in different directions. WordPress generally gets that balance right, which is why it’s taken the blogging world by storm. However, that means more demands for features and the risk of having feature-itis overwhelm the simplicity of the system. Thankfully, it looks like WordPress development is heading in the right direction and future versions of WordPress will keep the speed and simplicity that makes it the best blogging package out there.