Difficult By Design

It’s 2013 and we no longer believe that products should be difficult to use. Ever. Microsoft Excel remains one of the more complicated bits of “consumer software” that exists, and despite some ham-handed re-workings in an attempt to make it more ‘accessible’, the full power of it remains in the hands of power users, nerdists, and those with the time, energy, and ability to tinker, pseudo-code, and dig deep.

And you know something? I not only think that’s okay, I think that’s how Excel should be.

Wait, before you take my head off, let me explain from where I’m coming. Let me take you back to the late 90s and to things like Lotus 1-2-3 and Paradox (does anyone here remember those tools, those apps when apps = applications and personal computing was still a new thing?)

I learned how computers worked because the software we had then, the “apps”, required it. Microsoft Excel, in some of its previous iterations, taught me logic, it taught me how to navigate new systems without manuals…really, it taught me how to think (to a certain degree, let’s not exaggerate – I read books and skipped stones on ponds too).

Older software was not intuitive…at least not in the way we now would consider “intuitive”. But, the basics of File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Tools (oh the mighty tools!), et al., are how things really work if you think past the interface and into the guts of a system. We’ve gotten really good at abstracting away from the guts of systems and that can be a good thing. For actual consumer products, I fully support it. I have an Apple iPhone and I love it. When my parents started to get into the “computer craze” as they called it, with my siblings, we got them an iPad. They love it and it works wonderfully for their needs.

When it comes to my work at work I don’t want to be treated like a typical end-user. If my mother wants to start using a spreadsheet (and not a personal organizer or a telephone contact list or a grocery list – see where I’m going with this? because she really doesn’t want the spreadsheet) I can get her an “app” that’s suited specifically for her needs. When I’m training a junior person at work who is just being introduced to spreadsheets, I forbid them PivotTables and auto-charting and color schemes, etc., and you know why? Because that’s a cheat, and it’s a nice one, but if they want to become experts at something, they need to start at fundamentals, and the previous versions of Excel required fundamentals hands-down.

Now, this is not to say that Excel-then versus Excel-now was difficult by design but juxtaposed against the most recent versions of 2007 and 2010 and their target to be easy (or at least easier), we’re starting to get somewhere. We are no longer comfortable with products that require us to think down to the fundamentals and that’s going to catch up with us eventually.

In my ideal world, Excel would split itself down the middle. Microsoft would produce a rebooted, legacy-styled version that took us back to a time when it was okay for things to be a little difficult; you can learn that way and there are things I learned because I was forced to tinker, to struggle, and I absorbed fundamentals and principles of how systems must be structured to work – those learnings and tinkering are the basis for my success. It’s a classic case of give a man a fish versus teach a man to fish. Which would you prefer?

For users who don’t really need the full power of Excel, who want to create light billing tools or invoices, or snazzy grocery lists, or whatever it is, there is an app for that specifically and I’m sure Microsoft could produce it if it’s not already out there. Or flip it around, give the core product that’s E for Everybody and then create add-ons and bolt-ons that professionalize it. I’m agnostic to the how, but rather antagonistic about the need.

We need to get back to a state of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. There is a lot of chatter about how to spur creativity and innovation but as we’ve all heard, necessity is the mother of innovation—the reason for that is it forces you to think your way through problems. When everything becomes a slide your finger, tap a button, and “boom” goes the dynamite, you never have to think about how to make the dynamite.

Excel taught me how to make dynamite and I want that experience, that “ah ha” moment, for everyone who is willing to get their hands a little dirty and stick their fingers into nooks and crannies so as to figure out how to make it work.

So, difficult by design, what do you think about that?

[Originally published on Medium – I often make an effort not to cross-post, but I thought this was worthy of it.]

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