Poll: Functionality vs. Simplicity

With iWork ’13 Apple consequently follows the paradigm of “simplicity over functionality”. Pages, Numbers, and Keynote come with a renovated user interface but also a reduced set of functionality. AppleScript support has been removed entirely. It seems that the idea behind this move is to bring the Mac, iOS, and web variants of the iWork apps to the same level — unfortunately the lowest denominator.

DEVONthink, DEVONagent, and our apps are all about functionality (don’t mistake “functionality” with “featuritis”). Sometimes this comes at a price, e.g. a steeper learning curve than those of other, simpler solutions. What do you think trumps: simplicity or functionality? Let us know in the poll to the right!

35 Responses to “Poll: Functionality vs. Simplicity”

  1. tom says:

    I bought DT precisely because it offers specialized functionality which I couldn’t get anywhere else. And I expect to use more of these functions in the future. There are sufficiently many “simple” apps available.

  2. Brian says:

    I think there should be a choice.
    By default, a program should offer it’s basic functions as simple as possible, so standard users can use the program.
    But with the flip of a switch and a small warning, you can enable advanced functionality.

    Apple is aiming for the dumbest to be able to use it’s products. But do not offer the power user an alternative.
    I switched my phone to Android for this reason, I switched from Windows to Linux to Mac for my desktop. My switch from Linux to Mac was because I had both worlds, the simple Mac OSX, but with Unix under, making it possible to do more advanced stuff.

    I mean removing Apple Script Support must be one of the more stupid ideas, Leave it there for those who want to use it, it will not prevent the use of a simple interface.

  3. tom says:

    I think it is always a bad idea to remove functionality (especially if that comes as a surprise), because for each function(ality) there is a bunch of users who rely on it and trust you to maintain that functionality in the future.

  4. JB Manos says:

    Removing AppleScript was the worst thing apple could do. It’s not any more simple by having it removed – rather it is now decapitated.

    Simplicity is found in delivering complex functionality with easy means. Making highly complex features simple to use is a trait of excellent design.

    By removing AppleScript, they are not simplifying but deprecating. apple is testing a future without it. Make some noise to them in feedback.

  5. FH says:

    I bought it for the functionality, otherwise I could have used many simpler solutions. I want to be able to use the product effectively, and grow into new functionality as I need to.

    If there is one thing you should do, it is to fix DevonThink to Go so that the ipad solution works and has a higher rating at the Apple Store. It is necessary functionality but needs to work reliably and well.

  6. Kay says:

    I’m with Brian on this: An optional Beginner’s Mode for casual usage and full Pro Mode for power users.

  7. Kerry Dawson says:

    This is interesting and a good time to pose the question. I just wrote an article titled “The Importance of IOS 7 and Mavericks” at http://dailymacview.com/2013/10/25/the-importance-of-ios-7-and-mavericks-2/.

    Unfortunately, very advanced and powerful apps are coming that will be primarily powered by the cloud but so that people will use these services that app interface to the service has to be easy to use. However, the beauty of all this is the underlying engine of Mavericks will allow for extremely sophisticated apps. So simple is definitely in at one level.

    Look at what Microsoft did to themselves with Windows 8. The one interesting product they have left, Office 365, is crazily complicated to acquire as Microsoft employees have a terrible time understanding it. I got Office 365 Small Business but they have so many Office 365 offerings it was quite the thing acquiring.

    In the case of DEVONthink, this product is great for it’s functionality but needs to be viewed more as a niche application as opposed to a general application. The average Mac user would have a terrible time with this product. You can’t even get them to consider it and I wouldn’t bother recommending it as DEVONthink would blow them away but not in a good way. I use it very much as a niche product and it works well for me but I haven’t got one friend or…. Who would invest the time i did learning the product.

    In contrast, look at Evernote. You don’t even have to have a manual to use this. It’s super intuitive. It’s incredibly powerful too and is a fully cloud based system. Everyone I know uses Evernote because of this and it’s free. I would not consider this a niche product but I suppose you could work with it that way.

    There is nothing wrong with a product being a niche product as these markets have demanding requirements and needs. If the product fits their need they will be very loyal as you don’t want to invest a pile of time in learning and mastering something to walk away to the latest and greatest. On the other hand, DEVONthink has to keep up with the times even as a niche product. Due to it’s power, we expect more from it not less. In my case I expect it to have all it’s power; be cloud based and have handheld apps that more or less take advantage of the desktops power. They don’t though have to mimic the desktops full capability though but provide some semblance of consistency. I think DEVON recognizes this and is trying to move the product, especially through DTTG2, to this state.

    So I find this question to be very relevant and pertinent as it relates to the sign of our times.

  8. Andrew says:

    I agree with Brian. Mac software should have an intuitive and user-friendly interface, but that does not have to mean that functionality suffers. In the case of Devonthink, for example, the fact that users have a choice between grouping and tagging, either primarily one or the other or both, is extremely useful. Functionality that I don’t need is fine so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the functionality I do need, and other users might need that functionality that I don’t. An example of this is Devonthink’s artificial intelligence. I prefer to classify information myself, but other users might find Devonthink’s auto classification very important. I really like AppleScript and Automator support, but others might not need it. In any case, the functionality should be there, so that it can be used if needed. So long as the application’s layout is logical and its interface is not too cluttered, there should be no problem.

  9. Jason says:

    I would love to see a version that is as simple to use as Evernote but with the auto classification brains of DTPro

  10. Stefan Braun says:

    In my opinion the basic functionality of DEVONthink is quite easy to use. The more sophisticated functions need some time and effort, but this is ok.
    DEVONagent is less intuitive and a bit harder to use efficiently – at least for me.
    For this kind of tools sophisticated functions are required. Some learning should not be an issue, because especially DEVONthink is a tool that pays back over the long run.
    AppleScript is required to integrate DEVONthink into ones workflow. Personally I would highly prefer better support for a different language like Python, but well 😉

  11. James says:

    The question really is one of simplicity. What simplicity has meant in the past is the mastery of a concept—no matter how complicated or intricate—to the point of understanding it by enabling others to participate. It seems simplicity has now, rather, been understood as just that, simple. The former is what markes genious, the latter, well just laziness.

  12. Jan Erik Moström says:

    To be honest, I don’t really think that there is a conflict between functionality and simplicity. I believe you can have a lot of functionality in a simple easy to use interface. But the design have to be very careful and sometimes some feature might need to be sacrificed to keep the application “efficient” from a usability point of view.

  13. Andrew-Bede Allsop says:

    I am afraid that “simplicity” is often a synonym for “dumbing down”. Apple, unfortunately, seems to be going the populist route and the lowest common denominator approach, this saddens me and I hope that they do not take it too far. DEVONthink, however, need not be constrained by Apple’s approach and I sincerely believe that the customer base of Apple is different than that of our developers. There is an argument for Apple’s need to appeal to the “lowest common denominator” but for Devonthink they do and, imho, should continue, to develop for the ‘serious’ user. So please continue developing your applications for those of us who want/need a serious, useful and very good research tool.

  14. Kerry Dawson says:

    I totally agree that DEVONthink should build for the high end, power user – say a researcher which is one of my prime reasons for using it a long with the paperless capability. However, this is a niche oriented system. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s needed. Doctors use specialized systems etc.

    I don’t agree that Apple is dumbing down at all. In fact, I would say their approach is brilliant as it is required for the high end applications that are coming. If they’re not accessible to the user due to complexity they simply won’t get used. The technology behind this is incredibly complicated but the user won’t have to deal with this complexity to enjoy exceptional services. Simplicity or making something easy to use is often one of the most complex things about technology.

  15. Really, once functionality is added to productivity software, there should have to be a pretty darn good reason before it is taken back out.

    I sure hope Apple understands that some of us view Macs as tools, not just toys.

  16. Gavin A. says:

    Simplicity and functionality are not mutually exclusive elements, you do not have to give up one to get the other. What is missing in the discussion is “design”. Contrast the first iPhone(s) compared to other mobile phone manufacture at that time. The iPhone could make phone calls, listen to music and podcast etc, send/receive email, surf the web, keep contacts and calendar appointment in sync with your other devices, and run various apps that increased the functionality of the iPhone. The competitors at that time could make calls and keep an address book that couldn’t be sync’d with anything else. The difference was design and not just simple design but very sophisticated design, it went to product boxing, the physical product itself and the way you used the product and even to the little details that you don’t notice until someone point them out like how the volume drops when listening to some music when phone call comes in or text or email message arrives and you get the ping sound. This is just one example of many.

    Sometimes our first attempt at adding functionality overlooks the design element and results in a complex implementation and product. Just look at Microsoft’s development history of features of Word or Excel. iterations of redesign put more functionality in the hands or more users. Another approach layers complex functionality, for example putting tables in your Word or Pages document… the first layer keeps the functionality simple to use by allowing the user to chose to create a table and selecting the rows and columns. Next add column heading using usual editing techniques, adjust column widths etc. More complex adjustments to the table are often found as additional functionality to the table creating process.
    A more related example is DEVONthinks recently release database sync function.

    I’m sure most of you remember the criticisms about many a software product that had continuously added functionality but had little effort on the design aspect… referred to as bloatware.

    Anyway my point is please don’t make the mistake that simplicity and functionality are mutually exclusive they are not, the missing part of the discussion is design.


  17. Chris Knight says:

    I want both.

  18. Piet says:

    Please keep local synchronisation between iMac DT and e.g. the iPad DT ToGo, preferably via Wifi but via cable is also OK. Never ever consider to offer iCloud (or whatever cloud) sync only! This would cause the masses to walk away from DT.

  19. Andy says:

    I second Piet: I have already walked away from another company’s products because they removed local sync and replaced it by a cloud version. I do not want my data to get into the cloud as it is private to me and I don’t trust that it is safe there for all time. Once your data is in the cloud it could exist there forever and who can predict what decryption will be possible in a few year’s time. Also internet access is still not ubiquitous but a local wifi is easy to create.

    I also second Gordon: many DEVONthink users chose it because of its long list of features. It would be a mistake to diminish it.

  20. Janie says:

    I agree with the comments here. I walk away from DT and keep coming back to it. Someone mentioned Evernote, and I use it to store handwritten items because the handwriting is recognizable, but it is light years away from the AI on my own research data that I get with DT. I can’t drill down in Evernote. I can’t remember a word from a doc I know I stored and pull up not only the right doc but something else I completely forgot about. In seconds.

    The only complaint I have about DT is that there are not enough user-based tutorial videos as opposed to feature tutorial videos. The difference is this: feature tutorial videos tell me what the program can do. User-based tutorial videos tell me how to accomplish what I want to do. They don’t have to be fancy. They could be Eric or Bill or Christian saying ‘suppose you’d like to do this’ which are real-world ways of handling the data/research, and show me tricks I never thought of to accomplish it in DT.

  21. Janie says:

    I third Piet.

  22. Janie says:

    As for the loss of Pages/Numbers/Keynote functionality, I am now considering a Surface Pro 2 running Windows 8.1 Pro to use Microsoft Word/Office Suite (365) and two other programs I need for long docs. I’m doing that to compartmentalize the agony and make life easier for me.

  23. Franck says:

    If I want simplicity, I use DropBox or/and Evernote.
    If I want “thinking power”, I use DevonTHINK.
    DT is by far the best tool I have found to organize my ideas and my knowledge, and more or less my entire life.
    Even ChronoSync has improved a lot! 😉
    I love simplicity. From my point of view, DT is easy enough to use when you have good reasons to use it.
    In DT case, I think you must focus on the customer experience. Simplicity is only a part of it. To bring the best UX to YOUR customers must be your priority. And these customers are probably much more like Dr. Frank Thyssen than like anybody next door…
    By the way, thanks for the blog post:” How a lecturer at university uses our app”. I have improved a lot the way I use DT after reading this post. 🙂
    To conclude, not everything in Apple has to be imitated (and that’s someone crazy about macs since 30 years (Apple II already) who speaks)!

  24. Sextus says:

    Gavin tried to break the dichotomy simple : complicated. He is right! The discussion about simple vs complicated misses the point. The design is at the center. A complicated software can be designed well, allowing the user to utilize as much functionality as possible (limited by user’s needs and ability) or it may be un-designed as is the case with Photoshop. There is nothing simple about DT and yet the program is easy to use. Consider the DT’s “dropbox” on the side of the screen. What a concept!

  25. Robin says:

    Thanks to Eric for starting this discussion.

    Apple has certainly produced some genuinely brilliant pieces of simplicity, by which I mean products that are simple to use but that solve complex problems. With iWork ’13 it’s not at all clear what direction they are going. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the complete re-write has been released too early and that really, the lost functionality will return. Let’s wait and see.

    And it’s always good to have more than one way to do things, eg menu, click on function bar, or use a keyboard shortcut. Let the user choose which to use and when. The same applies to syncing. Those who want to sync using a cloud solution should be able to, but those who only need to snyc when their two devices are in the same room should be able to use a local solution (wifi or USB). Omnifocus (I use v1.10.5) offers various ways to sync – it can be done.

    I, too, love the incredible functionality of DTPO, even though I only use a small part of it. In my opinion the genius lies in creating easy to use work-flows for the user that provide the power that computing can deliver (eg DT’s AI). In this respect Janie’s request above for user-based tutorials is great – and it might also help DEVON to improve the user experience, too (you look at something differently when you are working how to explain it to others). It that makes the learning curve less steep, then that would surely help users and DT sales :-).

    With DT(P(O)) I also see that it’s difficult to determine which functionality belongs to which level. The functionality of scanning and OCR itself is not pro – it’s dead easy. There are other functions of DTPO that I have never used. I assume that DTPO is the only version with OCR because of licensing. Who should decide which function goes where?

    As Gavin A. said, functionalitiy and simplicity are not mutually exclusive. Use good design to make it easier (simpler) to use powerful functionality.

  26. pat says:

    My 2 cents: Functionality vs. Simplicity is BS.

    The simplest – do nothing. Would it help? Sometimes!
    But in the case of Pages and Numbers there where features missing, at least for the prosumers, let alone the MS-Office jugglers.
    I much more prefer making the UX smoother without cutting features.

    In case of DEVONthink, I personaly need only the minor part of features. And I would prefer more usability, even when I would lose some features for a short time, but I have no clue how this could look like.

  27. Michael says:

    I agree that simplicity and functionality are not mutually exclusive. The two can work well together depending on purpose. PopClip is a fine example; a simple utility that does what it does very nicely. For more robust purposes, greater functionality is required. DTPO fills that need for me. The ability to customize the application through the use of scripts has allowed me to create an automated workflow that nit together several different applications. Some mislabel that capability as “complication” and “steep learning curve.” My experience is that peeling back each layer of DTPO as I need it has been far more beneficial than having something more obvious yet less useful. Keep up the good work!

  28. Don Blohowiak says:

    You’ve set up something of an artificial dichotomy here. It does not have to be Function OR Simplicity. It could be Function with Clarity.

    This is where DT has been a bit deficient. I love the functionality. Because of it, DT has become more and more central to my workflow. And my intention is to continue to move in that direction.

    However, because DT apparently has a strong engineering culture, it cannot see what might not be obvious or confounding to us non-programmers and non-engineers. That is a shortcoming that not only frustrates some of us non-techical users occasionally, I fear it seriously impinges on the growth prospects for DT.

    Read reviews and forums outside the DT ecosphere and inevitably you encounter words such as complexity, confusing interface, and the like. That is unnecessarily so.

    To a regular user, there is not much overly complex about DT. But there isn’t much obvious about it either.

    And the help that exists, is either in tech jargon OR in quick overviews that suffer the opposite problem: The videos gloss over technical details in such a way as to almost be misleading. And that is as bad or worse.

    Bottom line: The only way, for now, that one can master the useful features is muddling through with time on task, posting to the forum, and trial and error.

    That may be appealing to a certain subset of the population for whom complex software is something of a hobby. But for many of the rest of us, it is an annoyance, a pain, a price that we may not be willing to pay.

    So ask the question differently: How can we at DT offer complex features that more people can easily put to work?

    Bring in an non-tech user experience writer to help you revisit your Help instructions, your tutorials, your error messages.

    That will help all of us. And likely boost your business, too!

  29. Xenophon says:

    “Function with clarity” is a great description of what DT needs. There are tons of capabilities in DT that I haven’t even tried to use. Improved clarity would be great.

    Another aspect of simplicity that really matters is the shape of the learning curve. Most successful apps have a learning curve that is both relatively-flat (er… not-steep?) and smooth. That is, each small increment of effort I put in to learning how to use the app provides a small increment of increased power/capability.

    By comparison, some aspects of DT appear to require significant effort to understand—I’m still trying to get my head around Bill DeVille’s approach to linking notes. And that’s even after re-reading his clear step-by-step instructions!

  30. eboehnisch says:

    Thank you all for participating in this open discussion. I agree that “functionality” and “simplicity” are not opposites. But they are extremes that can make them opposites. I like the definition of “functionality with clarity”. We absolutely will work on making DEVONthink clearer without sacrificing too much functionality, if any.

  31. Jason says:

    Simplicity is important, but that doesn’t mean that it should have few functions. However sometimes, reducing options is the best way to get a program to function properly without problems. Take Sync for example. I make an iOS app which has automatic syncing between devices. I force users to use a cloud-based solution because it is the easiest to do reliably. If there were many different options for how to do it, then it would never work properly all of the time, and then it just wouldn’t be as useful. I want my programs to be useful, not broken. The problem with DevonThink To Go now is that the sync just doesn’t work. If there were just one sync option — and it worked reliably all of the time — that is definitely better than if there are multiple options (Dropbox, using your own FTP server, bluetooth / bonjour, Devonthink’s servers, etc). Reduce my options — and thus the amount of work which you have to do to get it right, get it working, and get it out the door to customers so that I can start using it. The flexibility is just not necessary.

  32. Steve Wehba says:

    Steve Jobs had a philosophy of two-tiers of products: prosumer and consumer. I have always agreed with that approach. Apparently, Apple under its current leadership is moving away from that to a “one-size-fits-all” strategy. I think that’s a huge mistake. Power users drive product evolution. They serve as product evangelists. They don’t directly generate mass sales, but they are an essential ingredient in a successful approach to almost any business.

  33. Yeah, exactly!! Thanks for putting plainly what I haven’t quite been able to articulate. That IS what’s changed at Apple. I guess they got enough backlash on the Pro side that they finally announced the new Mac Pro, but it’s been almost 2 years since then and it’s still not out. Obviously they were just getting started.

    I like the way DevonThink comes in several versions. You can start with DevonNote and move up as you need to. That’s a much better way of handling the simple/pro divide, and I wish more software was done that way.

  34. Rob D. says:

    “It’s” is a contraction meaning “it is”


    “Its” is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to it.”

    Now, if we can’t get even these two little words straight, how could we ever master DEVONanything let alone forge a convincing argument for OSX simplicity over function.

    The iOS-ification of OSX is tragic!

  35. I have been in computing professionally since 1993. Simplicity for me means something that does one thing extremely well Devonxxxx handles queries and resultant data sets. I would love to see apis to integrate products, but that is all I ask. OSX functions brilliantly in many respects. Debugging the OS is a major pain in the patoot.

    Monolithic software is the bane of out existence. Someone has to tell me how OSX has changed other than taking the OS out of the public domain. The gate, sandbox, and the new scheduler are big changes. I suppose functionality = large aggregations of functions. That makes it stink on the performance level and as complexity increases there is a consequential rise in the rate of errors. I had a race condition show up today in Devon agent pro it was burning up the cpu as other processes got their little piece of time but are read from disk into memory flushing things back to disk. This has to be fully validated and documented before it is taken seriously. What if it were a real problem? Buy more memory and more memory and disk and cpus. You can’t afford to ask so much of every piece of software. Small, accurate, fast, and durable data would be a great place to be. From an IT point of view nothing of a determinate nature happened. I do not know that it would happen to Devon but I have been down this road far to many times.

    Sixteen years ago fully functional meaning meeting the needs of trading. produced trading systems which did the job quite well. They were about half the size of your word processor because all that was allowed was what was directly required to do the job.

    Just some thoughts,