Basti's Scratchpad on the Internet
29 Dec 2019

Efficiency is not Intuitive

A few days ago, a new version of Darktable was released. Darktable is an Open Source RAW image processor, and one of my favorite pieces of software of all time. It may be THE most powerful RAW processor on the market, far exceeding its proprietary brothers. But in the social media discussions following the release, it got dismissed for being unintuitive.

Which is silly, ironic, sad; why should Intuition be a measure of quality for professional software? Because in contrast to a transient app on your phone, RAW processing is a complex task that requires months of study to do well. Like most nontrivial things, it is fundamentally not an intuitive process. In fact, most of my favorite tools are like this: Efficient, but not Intuitive; like Darktable, Scientific Python, the Unix Command Line, Emacs.

These tools empower me to do my job quickly and directly. They provide sharp tools for intelligent users, which can be composed easily and infinitely. Their power derives from clean metaphors and clear semantics, instead of "intuitive", "smart", magics. They require learning to use well, but reward that effort with efficiency. They are professional, and treat their users as adults.

In my career as a software developer, I know these ideas as traits of good APIs: Orthogonal, minimal, composable. APIs are great not when they are as expansive and convenient as possible, but when they are most constrained and recombinable. In other words, "don't optimize for stupid". That's what I understand as good design in both programming, and in professional UIs.

Which is quite the opposite of Intuitive. Quite the opposite of "easy to grasp without reading the manual". That's a description of a video game, not a professional tool. As professionals, we should seek and build empowering, efficient tools for adults, not intuitive games maskerading as professional software.

Tags: computers ui
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