Design for the Novice, Configure for the Pro

Posted on Nov 22, 2010 | 61 comments

Design for the Novice, Configure for the Pro

I recently wrote about my philosophy of minimalism that “less is more” with the mantra “when in doubt, leave it out.”

I’ve had a long-standing rule of thumb in product design, which I call “design for the novice, configure for the pro.”  I started saying this back in 2001/02, long before the era of Web 2.0, lean startups or even the advent of AJAX.

My philosophy emanated from my days of programming and later designing corporate software in the early 1990’s.  We were smart kids straight out of college and were designing the systems that we’d want to use.  We were young, computer literate and interested in learning about or playing with new technologies.

I watched us build systems for large corporations whose employees were in their 40’s / 50’s and who were primarily concerned with completing their business functions rapidly and with limited errors.  In designing GUI interfaces for people coming from the green-screen world we built applications that would be great for desktop publishing, not customer service reps.  We built in too many clicks, too many features, too many distractions.  We were confident we had improved things until we got to usability testing and watched with horror.

Fast forward a decade and now I had a startup filled with smart web developers.  I was 31 and they were in their 20’s.  Invariably they would build in too much functionality and assume that users were both familiar with and interested in having tons of choice.  My mantra back then was “what would your mom be able to use?”  Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Of course the debates raged about not wanting to make the system less powerful.  My view – power users always look at all of the menu options to figure out how to juice up the system.  You can always hide complexity into configuration screens rather than the out-of-the-box features.

Even in 2010 I think most companies err too much on the side of complexity.  They try to strike the right balance between making the base product “useful enough” for the “average” user.  I think the novice needs to be able to walk right in the door and be able to start playing around with your product – without a manual.  More difficult still, you need to be able to accomodate the “light” user who comes by once / month and barely remembers the application when the log in.

Obviously this doesn’t hold true for every application but it does for many.  And as much as we’d like to think otherwise, most people don’t really care about our company or our product – most people come by infrequently.  And if you can make life easier for these people then more of them will convert to become more frequent users.

I think one of the products that does this best in my mind is Gmail.  They do an incredible job of hiding most of their functionality yet allowing power users to soup things up if they want to.

I’ll tell you, it has been a while since I’ve actually done wireframes and designs but you never really lose the feel for what the right balance is to create a good UX.  It’s why when I used Quora I instantly felt like it was the most innovative UX I had seen in years.  It is beautiful in its simplicity (although I think I could give them a few tips to improve usability if they ever asked ;-).

So when some of the younger guys at startups I’ve funded start teasing me about my gray hair and that they’re now designing products for me (as opposed to their moms!) I say, “bring it on.”  I recently argued with a team for 6 months that they were intellectualizing their product too much and that the masses would want a simpler version.  They fought me for months and later admitted they needed to reduce the complexity of their product.  It’s not that I’m smarter – it’s just that I’ve been through 10 more years of watching users play with products (and across many different tech stacks and form factors).

In summary, 2 quick rules:

  • Do usability testing.  Watch people use your product with little or no instructions.  Give them tasks to complete without instructions of how to complete the tasks.  Film them.  Learn from them.  Many companies do this these days – not all do.  You MUST.  It is so instructive.  It will blow your mind away how people use products differently than you’d intend them to.  You’ll pull your hair out.  And in the end I’m quite sure that you’ll simplify things – not add things.
  • Design for the novice.  Configure fo the pro.  The pro will always find the advanced options.  This is easier said than done.  It’s always harder to build simple, yet usable products.  You become more defined as much by what you left out or simplified as by what you put in.

Tomorrow I’ll offer up design tip number 2: paying attention to iterative processes.

Image courtesy of creative commons license

  • tbiz

    Mark, great points. I constantly harp on my team about simplifying our product. I lie awake at night wondering if our product will be intuitive enough when we open up our beta. I'm constantly looking for ways to make a product that's self explanatory in both it's design and presentation (two things I think are very different and very important). It's easy to get lazy and continue to layer on functionality. It's much more difficult to determine what's actually vital.

  • Andi

    Great post, thank you. Quick question: When qouting “Design for the Novice, Configure for the Pro”, may I put your name under it or where does it originally come from?

  • Greg4

    So true! And even people who are power users in general may not have the time or motivation to slog through the complexity of your particular product. I'm reasonably tech savvy, but as soon as my value/effort meter dips below a certain point, I'm gone.

  • JoeYevoli

    The first time we did usability testing I was blown away (scared as hell). I had the curse of knowledge and couldn't believe that the user couldn't figure out how to do things I thought were laid out as simple as possible. We tried as hard as we could to make the app live by “the instructions are in explanation.” Meaning, “if you want to add players, you click the 'Add Players' button. To my suprise/horror it wasn't enough!

    Great post! Dead on.

  • David Bloom

    I keep meaning to go to a Starbucks, buy a stack of $20 gift cards, and give them away to anyone who will let me film them using my product for three minutes. I think a mixture of fear and hubris keeps me at my desk….

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Good points. At this point in the game, the product should be easy for those past the bifocal stage in life to use, because it doesn't require much labor fro the user. Sure, it should be useful for the 20 something, but I have found most things that are complicated are nothing more than rewrites with irrelevent claims to impress the public/investors….

  • Martin Wawrusch

    As you mentioned quora: is the blog post by Marie Cox about how she managed the early quora product design. A lot of lean startup design knowledge in her post, which is why quora's UI is so good.

    To add to your rules:

    * Design a product with specific tasks in mind (Sometimes called personas). Remove every obstacle between the user's intent to perform the task and it´s completion. That means that you need to get rid of all functionality that is not needed at that particular moment or can be deferred to later or automated. Clean up the visuals to remove distractions.

    * Analyze every single action the users perform. This is basically usability testing at scale.

    * Don't reinvent the wheel and copy from the best. Good UI design is extremely hard and more often than not visual design is used to mask shortcomings in interaction design. Take what others with an active audience have learned and use it to your advantage.

    * People want to use the least amount of energy. That means you should never make them think.

  • Jess Bachman

    Quora has a great innovative UX for sure, but recently I have encountered some weird UI there like this double scroll bar.

    As a user, I enjoy feeling like they are doing new things, but I prefer not to be on the bleeding edge of UI innovation.

  • jacopogio

    thanks ! very good explanation why we need #easysimple UI

  • bethtemple4u

    You were right I do love the post 'less is more' post. And while everyone scoffed at AOL this was our prime product principle 'back in the day' – a design focused on the newest of the newbies, and it allowed us to get mass quickly (that and the omnipresent CD's!). There are 2 other reasons to start simple: 1) for new sites it helps to focus your value proposition down to it's basic core promise so users 'get it quick' and 2) it is cheaper to build a site that is simple (best for saving critical capitial) – and then you can add as customers (through usability) tell you want they'll come back for. Can't wait until tomorrow's post :)

  • awaldstein

    Well said…

    This is the core of good UI creation. Maybe not as well articulated as you do here, but this is what great designers from the early Mac days to now do, when it is done well.

    The other part of this is that of course you need to design to 'your' average user. Lot's of companies struggle and can't find that center.

    Enjoyed this one as a jolt towards keeping it simple. We all need that reminder.

  • Harry DeMott

    Great post. It really resonates. See today for Fred's take on a pretty similar topic. I love the idea of hiding power user features – those most interested in the service will always get the most out of it.

  • Mark Essel

    Amen, the title says it all.

    The challenge is understanding what novices and pros both care enough about to provide the impetus for a compelling product. I know what I like, I have no idea what an unspecified market likes. The web is dominated by a few huge name brands and thousands of smaller players. What differentiates one from the other?

    One of the only research aspects of startups that works is founded on the scientific method. Hypothesize and test until an offering shows any signs of life. Design shouldn't be relegated to robotic testing, it should be informed by metrics and real human feedback, “hey this interface feels awesome”.

  • William Mougayar

    So very true, and a good companion piece to AVC's discussion today on mobile/web chicken and egg discussion.

    One could say that simplicity is for mobile, whereas more complex stuff is for the web. Mobile app should optimize for simple/practical consumption, whereas the web app would optimize for more comprehensive features. Take Twitter as an example:

    The Twitter mobile app is great for Consuming News once configured. I have several curated news channels, by topic, theme or groups of topics, and that unclutters the steady stream of followers. Flipping through these Twitter accounts is not easy on the web and carries latency, whereas it's a snap on mobile. But you have to do some configuration of settings on the web app to get that flowing properly.

    I see the web app as a remote control center for the mobile app. You set it (on the web) and forget it. You use it on mobile. You re-jig it on the web.

  • Jeff Gothelf

    We do this all the time. There's nothing to fear. People love free stuff but, even more so, people love giving their opinions. Go for it!


  • pardeep kullar

    I was hoping this would be the experience you gained as it's something we follow. I'd also add something else to it – make it so simple that you baby step new users through the process the first time so they don't have a single thought but pure ongoing pleasure at each step which reinforces their initial belief in what the site does at every stage.

  • Martin Wawrusch

    Just checked out your site. Well done.

  • msuster

    exactly. throwing extra shit into the product is the easy way out.

    set up teams of untrained people to come in and use your product. Give them $20 Starbucks gift certificates (or whatever). Have your dev team watch them try to complete tasks. This will get everybody on board. these sessions never go well but are very instructive.

  • Matthew A Myers

    “Design for the novice. Configure fo the pro. The pro will always find the advanced options.”


  • msuster

    It's mine. At least I don't think I implicitly picked it up any where unless anybody wants to correct me.

  • msuster

    me, too. we're all too busy these days.

  • msuster

    yes, I was horrified my first time too.

  • msuster

    go do it David! It will be humbling but so worth it.

  • msuster

    great additions. I've especially always liked the “Don't Make Me Think” school of thought.

  • msuster

    Yeah, I have some suggestions for them, too. I wrote but never heard back.

  • msuster

    thanks. although one thing – in my experience designing simple yet highly functional systems are not always immediately cheaper. It's easy to just quickly throw in 5 extra features. It's much harder to engage an audience and constantly refine what can be left out.

  • msuster

    Funny that we're on the same theme at the same time. I love his concept of “mobile first, web second”

  • msuster

    thus the “lean startup” movement and Steve Blank's “four steps to epiphany” – it's all about customer feedback.

  • msuster

    Exactly. I really like his theme. And form factor certainly forces you to be economic with design.

  • msuster

    I just checked it out, too. I always tell people to have the “call to action” button be: big, red and to the right. You hit all three!

  • Greg4

    Sounds like an opportunity for some plucky entrepreneur. (Strokes chin.)

    I'm adding it to my list.

  • Lincoln Nguyen

    That was a huge problem when we were designed EMR software for doctors. One of our main UI/UX goals was to reduce the number of clicks. It's even more important to be brain-dead simple when you are designing for professionals who work in high pressure situations.

    I dont know if it's already been mentioned but, a popular book on web usability is Steve Krug's “Dont Make Me Think.” Must-read for front end developers.

  • Dale Allyn

    Really great post, Mark. And I whole-heartedly agree… well, except regarding one remark. I disagree that gmail serves as an example of a good UI execution. I do agree that they've separated the necessary from the “power tools”, but I feel that primary UI page is truly bad. It's not at all intuitive and could be greatly improved with some simple work. This is especially true if one works in other email clients as well.

    Thanks for a meaningful post on a topic we should all keep in mind. I, too, use the line “I want my mom to be able to use this”.

  • Daniel Mich

    Alot of the big video game companies do a great job at this… Especially ones that are adapted to mobile devices.. (ie. Assassin's Creed). They start the user off as someone knowing nothing, and use the actual game (user experience) to introduce the more complex functions. They do it in a way that you learn gradually and naturally…. to the point where you never think twice about the learning process… I think that is the genius behind their design.

  • studentforce

    Ironically, I believe the child in this picture is the 'professional user' while we adults are the novice users !!

  • pardeep kullar

    Thanks guys. The really hard lesson we have learn't recently is that we've still got it all wrong on our site.
    Currently, when people see the site or we tell them about the site they say 'mmm interesting''. For me, 'Interesting' is a horrible word and shows that it's not going to make it with enough speed. We are now making a pivot which integrates desktop + mobile use and when we describe it to people, it gets the right reaction – awe :)

    This of course means a redesign / reworking of the site which takes will power. I guess this hard step is why it's sometimes feels easier to just add features rather than rework the whole design around them.

  • Martin Wawrusch

    Interesting is dangerous, I agree, but don't be too hard on yourself. Doing something like this and getting it perfect at the first (or second or third) attempt is less likely than winning the lottery. From what I have seen is that the idea is great, the potential is there and you have all the functionality in place.

    You are so right regarding will power. Adding features is the safe choice. Of course it most of the time leads to disaster (or Microsoft Word ;-)).

  • Eric | Starcraft 2 Strategy

    Great post that I completely agree with. Being a 30 something I definitely love it when it's intuitive out of the box. If I really like it, then I'll play around and try and discover some of the extra features.

  • ph0ust

    Our company has a mantra- people hate software. They like features. They like convenience. They like stuff that makes their life easier; but only as long as they don't have to know what it is doing or how it is doing it. They especially hate it when you force them to do things differently than they have been doing them.

    We focus design around not forcing any changes in user behavior and no learning curve whatsoever. Thus, we've opted for building our user experience around no UI at all, which is hard. I suppose this is not an option for most companies, but for what we are doing it is technically possible… but still damn hard.

  • msuster

    People are mixed on Gmail. It's not perfect but they got many things right. Many.

  • msuster

    sounds like a good approach

  • Dale Allyn

    Mark, I agree that Google has gotten many things right with gmail. And you're, of course, correct when you say “people are mixed on Gmail”. I guess my point was that gmail could be really great if the UI/UX was improved. The tools are great and it's certainly robust. I just spend way too much time helping non-techie friends over the phone try to resolve simple things or execute basic functions, when they have no difficulty using their dedicated email clients. Props to Google for a strong tool, even more props if they'd improve the UI.


  • Subraya Mallya

    Great post Mark. Such a perfect timing as I am working on my startup and rationalizing the definition of the minimum viable product with the feedback I have received and things that would make it interesting for people to sign up and use.

    Your blog posts are like subscribing to a open university. Keep the great stuff coming. Appreciate it.

  • Mike Baca

    Mark these points are exactly what I needed to hear. I have a start-up apparel company that will be serving a niche market. Some of the features that I am incorporating into the apparel are proprietary in nature and will cater to a sub-niche group within my niche market. I was working on my marketing and advertising to accentuate all of these “Special” features that will really grab the attention of the savvy sub-niche group.

    I guess I neglected to think about the majority of the people who are not as savvy or really could care less about the “Special” features and more about the design and feel of the apparel. I got lost and fell into a trap of satisfying the very small sub-niche group knowing that they would be giddy over my new features.

    Because of you I am totally going to rethink my marketing strategy. For the tech-savvy people they can appreciate all the special features by reading the tag on the apparel or vising the website. Besides once one of the Jedi's discoveries the goodies in the product they will blog, tweet, X-box live about it with their friends. These guys will be covered anyways!

    I need need to design for the novice, the pro will find all the hidden gems by doing his typical research of the product anyway. You just saved me from making a huge mistake!

    Thanks Mark!

    Mike Baca

  • Eric Kennedy

    Totally agree. Less is more.

    Most sites build up cruft and it's often hard to get rid of rarely used features that complicate the experience and slow page load time. Monitoring how often features are used is a great way to figure out what to remove. We've done that (and even completely rewrote our site) in the interests of speed and usability. And we still have so much more work to do that we've hired an expert in A/B and multivariate testing.

    Neil Hunt has a great post about what Netflix has learned from their testing: “simple trumps complete”

  • Satya Krishnaswamy

    Mark, could not agree more with your post ! Having worked for one of the large enterprise s/w vendors for many years in sales/biz dev functions, I have always wondered why we would want to stuff so many features and functions on every possible inch of real estate. It was almost as if the engineers/product managers needed to justify their existence by making the product as complex and unusable as possible.. and then of course, the fun part of trying to convince the customers' end-users that they 'needed' such a complex product

    In my own startup, I have resisted the urge to start designing the product until I understand better how the end-users want to interact with the product and why they need to – closely correlated to your other post about design iteration – it makes for a scarier ride but hopefully one that is more justified in the long term !

  • Brian Wilson

    It is so agonizing. Watching your mom sit in front of your site that you worked months on to make it “intuitive” and experience the unexpected clicks and questions is a special definition of pain. It's hard but you have to remind yourself that it is not the user's problem; it is your fault. What I've learned from watching light internet users interact with a site is that they really don't read things – even buttons really. They follow web conventions and do what other websites have taught them to do with repetition.

    It's hard for us creative types because we think we can come up with better ways for a website to work and flow but it is better really to just respect web conventions and give people what they are accustomed to.

  • Nikhil Daftary

    Some of the best design and build tips focus completely on simplicity. I don't get it, it seems like common sense, but it's done so rarely, that it's not really “common sense”. Great article and spot-on about the uninterrupted usability testing! We spent 2 years building out a useful, but overly complicated mood-based live music search engine. Some simple learning later, we drew back the entire build and are in the process of building up our new brand My only question though is how simple is too simple? Should the simplicity be based on the current types of users hitting the site / app or should you engineer it to your ideal user?

  • Martin Wawrusch

    Great idea.

    For me an app like yours needs to be mobile first, with a simple interface where the user just tabs on his current mood (done with great icons). You then take the current geolocation and generate results based on that, with a link to a ticket site to buy tickets or get a reservation. That´s it.

    If you have a bit more time you add like button support (see to understand users' interests and social media sharing (e.g. finding friends to go there with you). What you need at the backend is a source of venues with geocoding and perhaps some glue logic but you probably developed that already.

    For me a perfect tool has to be so simple that I don't have to do anything. Don't bother me with a UI which i won't use in 99% of the time.

  • Michael Woloszynowicz

    Putting in tons of shit is just a way to avoid learning what the market actually needs. The 80/20 rule usually holds but people don't want to get out of the building and find out what that 20% actually is. Instead they design for everybody and appeal to nobody. Like you said, it's the easy way out.

    Great article Mark.