‘Cute’ Software Just isn’t Useful

Software interaction is more versatile than ever, employing mice, keyboards and touch screens from numerous devices. We’re seeing interfaces driven by a desire to be beautiful as well as functional. We’re also seeing single-purpose apps instead of monolithic solutions.

Much of this innovation is driven by new ways we interact with software. It’s hard to use a dense, keyboard-driven interface when your interaction device is the human finger. It’s difficult to create a large, monolithic solution when the platform has a small chip and very little RAM (yes, smartphones, I’m looking at you!).

However, some of this innovation is plain “cute”, which is being sarcastic. In other words, a new interface is developed for the sake of a new interface. Engineers have various new possibilities and they do it because they can. It’s an expression of possibility rather than a solution to a problem.

Entry one in the “cute” software lineup is Clear. Clear is a task list application for iOS devices. There were, by my unofficial count, approximately eleventy-billion task list applications for iOS devices when Clear was shipped. Somehow Clear gained some immediate buzz, particularly among the startup community. So how did this happen?

Simple: It eschewed pretty much every user interface element you can think of and substituted something different. Clear is most notable for what it lacks: there are no forward and back buttons, no navigation bar and very few icons. Instead, the interface works entirely by swiping and pinching, using color and layout alone to provide information. It’s a whole new user interaction metaphor.

And it’s “cute”

It doesn’t solve any problems other task list apps don’t solve. It doesn’t offer any features other task list apps don’t offer. It just does them differently.

I know it sounds like I’m picking on Clear. To be fair, I am. However, Clear is one of many examples of an interface built for the sake of trying new interaction toys. Innovation is an amazing thing. Get out and try new things. Just keep in mind that innovation should solve problems. Being different for the sake of being different isn’t innovation, it’s just “cute.” Be “cute” to see what you can do. Be “cute” internally. Release “useful”, not “cute”.

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March 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm, RMS said:

Cute is not a problem if it’s useful, even using a radically different approach; after all, there are many programming languages, etc. that are simply different rather than better than what came before. However, Clear (according to the online reviews I read) seems to not even be useful.

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