Trying to make you happy

The joys and terrors of founding a company are essentially the same. You get to decide almost everything, which means that you also have decide almost everything. In the case of software development, that means the look of every interface, the wording in every dialog, the detailed function of each feature, the placement of each button etc. So, obviously, there’s plenty of room for discussion.

Such was the case again when we had to decide exactly how the Full-Screen PDF Viewer integrated into Mendeley Desktop should look and work. Here’s a preview:

The discussion centered around which features to leave out completely, and which features to retain at least as options. In the end, we left out most of the debatable features and didn’t even put them in the options menu.

You’d be surprised how many options we had in the software at earlier stages (and how emotional the discussions were that got them there). “But wouldn’t it be nice if a user could adjust the font size in the library?” – “Shouldn’t you be able to also sort the data by…”, and so on. Joel on Software captured this predicament quite nicely:

Software has a similar archaeological record, too: it’s called the Options dialog. Pull up the Tools | Options dialog box and you will see a history of arguments that the software designers had about the design of the product. Should we automatically open the last file that the user was working on? Yes! No! There is a two week debate, nobody wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, the programmer puts in an #ifdef in self defense while the designers fight it out. Eventually they just decide to make it an option.

Yet, besides the obvious point that a less cluttered interface is easier to use, there’s perhaps a deeper psychological justification for not including too many options: Too much choice can make people miserable.

There’s a great talk on this very subject by Prof. Dan Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness” – a book I thoroughly enjoyed, although it’s more a description of “the symptom, but not the cure”. In this video however, eight minutes in, he reveals the secret of happiness. Enjoy:

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