Specifically general

Partly as a consequence of all the feature requests that I’ve been getting for Time Flies, I’ve been thinking bout the tension that exists in the design of software between specificity and generality. Time Flies was designed with a very specific action in mind – to help you remember the last time you did a particular action – and most of the features requested are natural extensions of this: history logging, notifications and alarms, expiry dates for events, [online] calendar integration, statistics, data export, categories… all perfectly valid ideas for extending the functionality.

What I’ve realised from this feedback is that Time Flies is what I’d call specifically general. It does a single, specific thing (track an event and a time period), but the contents of that event are not specified – meaning that it can be used in an enormous range of use cases (many that I hadn’t considered until I started getting feedback emails). This is where the specificity can become an issue for some – by being so specific it excludes some actions which are natural extensions of some of these uses. Everyone does things they need to remember, and all events have a start time – hence the design of Time Flies. But some events have an end time too – expiry dates. Some events will start in the future – notificationsSome events repeat on an interval, or relate to goal tracking – history logging. Some events you want to remember for longer than the life of your device – export, calendar integration. You get the idea.

I think that people are generally very good at managing a wide range of specific tools for specific tasks – think of all the kitchen implements that you own, the different shoes that you have. I own a single piece of metal specifically for adjusting the seat on my bicycle.

Over the last ten years we have been trained to assume that a piece of software should do everything – work as a ladle, and a sieve, and sneakers and dancing shoes, and adjust your bike seat. Look at Photoshop or any number of Microsoft products for extreme examples of this. The idea that software should do everything often leads to designs that add complexity out of proportion with the task at hand. I’d like to call these kind of design generally specific – a single tool that does so many different things it is hard to use for just one of them.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the context of a new app (as yet unnamed) that I’m working on – a photo presentation tool for presenting travel photos, in person, to someone else – a simple concept, with a lot of interesting space to explore. Once again it’s an app for me – I take a lot of travel photos and like talking about them and showing them to others.

It would very be easy for this design to submit to feature creep – there is so much that could be added to the app as it stands now – a few immediately pop to mind: photo editing, photo export, flickr/picasa integration. But each time I think of a feature I ask myself – does this feature add complexity that is out of proportion with its benefits?

What I’m hoping is that I can keep making apps that are specifically general rather than generally specific. I think people can handle it.