Single Units of Work

Photo by jordanfischer from Flickr used under Creative Commons

I continue slowly making my way through “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman.

Today, I hit an obvious point that speaks volumes toward why apps are finding such quick success:

The difficult of dealing with novel situations is directly related to the number of possibilities. . . . If there is only one part that can be operated and only one possible action to do, there will be no difficulty.

The interwebs and its gateway, the browser, afford the user too many possibilities, which lead to the rise of Google and other services to organize and facilitate search and discovery.

Because apps provide single units of work, they are much faster and easier to use than the browser. Ultimately, the browser is doomed without further investment in simplification, which is what web app stores like Chrome’s and Mozilla’s aim to do.

Anyway, this is one of the truths that you find out by use, but don’t necessarily identify immediately.

Interestingly, he also predicts the modern smartphone, although his prediction of timing was a bit optimistic:

Would you like a pocket-size device that reminded you of each appointment and daily event? I would. I am waiting for the day when portable computers become small enough that I can keep one with me at all times. I will definitely put all my reminding burdens upon it. It has to be small. It has to be convenient to use. And it has to be relatively powerful, at least by today’s standards. It has to have a full, standard typewriter keyboard and a reasonably large display. It needs good graphics, because that makes a tremendous difference in usability, and a lot of memory – a huge amount, actually. And it should be easy to hook up to the telephone; I need to connect it to my home and laboratory computers. Of course, it should be relatively inexpensive.

. . . But it will exist in imperfect form in five years, possibly in perfect form in ten.

The book first went to print in 1988. Coincidentally, development of the Newton, Apple’s first take on pocket organizer/computer began in 1987. Norman did work at Apple in the mid-90s, but I’ve never heard any connection made between the two.

The Palm Pilot, launched in 1997, meets all Norman’s criteria except for connecting to his computers and to the telephone. A very prescient observation.




  1. Anyway, this is one of the myths you find out by actually doing it. Simplicity works well in defined, usually fresh, situations. But familiarity breeds complexity — and that’s a fact. The biggest problem with apps is they only allow SUWs (more commonly known as LUW – Logical Unit of Work) and as soon as users become familiar, they pine for more. Mashups, anyone?

  2. Interesting point. The overall pining for more drives users to add more apps, which is great for Apple. It does water down the utility of the small apps, i.e. those developed by a single person or tiny shops. Very few developers will resist the urge to please everyone.

    Mashup is such a funny term now. It’s hard to find an app that isn’t a mashup, especially with location being such a hot feature for smartphones.

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