What does ‘User Friendly’ mean?

I recently received some email from a colleague about a workshop that Harvestworks is doing on STEIM’s junXion v4 software. The email states that the software is for creating mapping patches in “a very userfriendly way”.  They then have a link to the screenshot below.


I immediately recoiled.  What do they mean by ‘user friendly’?  What I see is a full-on assault of overlapping windows filled with rows and columns of stuff with different visual decoration and color schemes and floating vs. non-floating windows.

I think what they means is that you can set up mappings in minutes or hours rather than the hours or days (or even weeks) it might take you in Max or Pd or SuperCollider, should you not have a well developed system (like Jamoma) to do it for you.  I’m not sure that speed and user-friendliness are the same thing though.

Another example of this jarring response (user-friendly hype vs. my reaction) are most of the Omni Group’s products.  Let’s take a really simple one, OmniFocus.  This should be a simple application.  But instead it has all of these windows all over the place that you have to juggle and manage.  This is not friendly for the user!  It’s more work, more clutter, and more information for the brain to deal with.  I like Things soo much better in this regard.  Things still has a bunch of usability issues, but at least it doesn’t demand that I multitask in order to use it.

That last thought is an important one: when I launch a program I want to start using it with a clear mind. I do not want to be forced to multitask in order to parse multiple windows, the things that they are hiding, etc. and then begin my work session with a scrambled brain.  The other Omni apps, e.g. OmniGraffle, are much worse than OmniFocus in this regard.

MOTU’s Digital Performer used to be a similar disaster in this regard. It was a brilliant moment when MOTU introduced the consolidated window with DP 5. There may be a lot going on, but at least you can be confident that some piece of important information isn’t obscured by the layers of overlapping windows that never seem to cycle in the correct order.


There is also the issue that user-friendliness is a relative scale.  Alexander Refsum Jensenius has made me more aware of this kind of problematic language when we were working on an academic paper.  In that case we were calling certain kinds of programming ‘High-Level’, when in reality that term on it’s own is meaningless.

Perhaps it is asking a lot to want a piece of software to help me have a sense of serenity and calm.  This is certainly what I look for in software that I would call ‘friendly’.

I’ll wrap this ranting up with a question: When we are asking the software to be our friend, what are we really asking of it?

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