Why Microsoft Applications Never Look Nice

Joel Spolsky, one of the better known ex-Microsoft programmers, writes a single sentence that most displays the incomprehension of design and user experience that seems to typify Microsoft products:

In the case of the iPod, the way beauty is provided happens to be through a clean and simple design, but it doesn’t have to be.

His justification for this is his claim that the Hummer is appealing because of its complexity. No, the Hummer is appealing because it’s huge, and thus a good compensation for insufficient virility. But what design statement it has is that its overall shape is simply a box with a notch cut out of it.

Nobody has come up with beautiful design that isn’t clean and simple–even the Baroque period has lots of filigree, but at the base of that are some very simple figures and they’re arranged with incredible care.

Joel’s psychological block is that he can’t see a distributed benefit in the face of a concentrated harm. He sees the additional sales he would lose if he were to remove a feature. He doesn’t see the benefit to his users who don’t need Feature X of one less option to hunt through to Do What They Want To Do.

Even the iPod has [a] gratuitous Solitaire game.

I’m willing to bet a lot of money that the “gratuitous” Solitaire game had to pass through many, many hoops to make it into the product. It wasn’t one marketing survey that said, “We’ll get X more purchasers if we have a couple of games.” I’ll even bet that it had to be shown that it wouldn’t degrade the experience for someone who Just Cares About Music.

Joel is right that simplicity isn’t just “leaving out features.” It’s work to achieve it, and takes talents that 99.99% of programmers don’t have. But simplicity is important, and is almost always the number one failing of software, which is why I still get questions about how to use Microsoft Office products, more than two decades after those products were first released.

2 thoughts on “Why Microsoft Applications Never Look Nice

  1. what about the gratuitous parachute game? It’s your mission to shoot down all parachutists with extreme predjudice.

    Ironically enough, the background of this game is blue.

    Perhaps a new meaning of “blue screen of death”?


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