Design | 07.17.2013

Great Software Design. Features, Usability & Pleasure

I can’t remember where I originally picked up this graphic (admittedly, it’s not my own) but its impact on my thinking only continues to grow. Essentially, software that we would label “great,” excels equally in three areas:


Features are the bedrock of any great software and great software always solves real-world problems. In this post I’ll use the alarm clock as a simple illustration. Why was the alarm clock invented? It’s a device that ensures that a person gets up at a certain time. If humans never overslept there’d be no purpose for this device. We started with the problem and the invention was created to solve it.

Software applications go awry when:

  • They don’t have enough features (they can’t get the job done)
  • They have too many features (the features that really matter get lost)
  • They have the wrong features (oops! we didn’t study our user!)

A great application has everything I need to complete my task without bogging me down with unnecessary noise. It understands my real-world pain because I’ve been intimately studied in my environment.


The second piece of the pie is usability. Simply put, an application that is “useable” is one that can be “put to use”. Before you scoff at the lack of complexity here, know that usability is most often undervalued or even completely neglected in the application design cycle.

Imagine you received a new alarm clock for Christmas (keeping with our illustration). As you open the package your eyes are dazzled with the slick look and seemingly infinite options (as indicated by the numerous buttons). You’re excited to give it a test run so you quickly run upstairs to your bedroom, plug it in and start fiddling. A half-hour later you put the alarm clock down frustrated that you can’t even figure out how to set the time.

This is bad usability …

How does this happen? Here are a few possible reasons:

  • Tight deadlines pushed the product out to market long before it was actually ready
  • The end user was never studied (the designer assumed the user was tech-savvy)
  • Mismanaged priorities blurred the original mission of the product
  • The project budget wasn’t flexible enough to include this necessary phase

In our projects I often use the phrase “usability is king.” Why? Because if you can’t use something it might as well have never been made. Good usability requires constantly keeping your users in mind.


This is the last and my favorite part of the pie when I’m sharing this model with our clients. It’s as if the lights just turn on. Suddenly, the different pieces come together to form a beautiful harmony.

Great software not only has the features that I need and affords me the ease of use for them, but it also makes me happy. It appeals to my senses and, like sugar in cough syrup, it disguises the hard stuff. It’s an alarm clock not only created with me in mind, but one that also appeases my natural desire for fun.

Give me an application that doesn’t feel like work and you’ve won my allegiance.

Don’t Forget the Paprika!

Great applications don’t just excel in one or two of these disciplines. They triumph in all three. Just like a dish that requires all of the ingredients in order to taste good, great applications have the features that I need, the usability that I require and the dazzle that keeps me coming back for more.

If an application is feature-rich and pleasurable, but it’s hard to use, I’ll give up in frustration. If it’s feature-rich and useable, but it isn’t fun, I’ll be subjected to an arduous existence. If it’s useable and fun, but it doesn’t have the features that I need, then I’ll despise or discard it.

If an application has all three, then I’ll become a loyal supporter and my mouth will sing its praises. This is what good application design is all about.

Shameless Plug Anyone?

Are you in need of a design agency that can balance all three disciplines? Are you looking for a hot-rod (pleasure) that flies (features) and has your name written all over it (usability)? Contact us today to see if we’d be a fit for your next web venture!