The Cult of Simplicity – Part II

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I left off in my last post discussing how the good folks at Adobe have provided us with an amazing example of bloatware in the form of Acrobat. I decided to sit for a few minutes today and really look at Acrobat for the first time in a while. I’ve been dutifully installing their new versions and various patches every other week for years now (at least it seems that way), but it has been ages since I have done anything beyond doubleclick on a .PDF file and pray that I don’t get forced to install an update before I can actually read my document.

What kind of interesting stuff do we find once we start poking around the bowels of the version 7.0.8 menu structure? Below are some of my favorite memories from an Acrobat treasure hunt.

  • Find > PrintMe Internet Printing – Opens up a page from the support section of some service called PrintMe. Describes how I can print documents anywhere in the world from my Blackberry or other device. Seems cool. How do I use it? Hmmm…here’s a link labeled “Find a Printer.” More instructions…and yet…none of them have anything apparent to do with Acrobat. None of the links from this page give any clue whatsoever of how I might go about using this service.
  • Edit > Preferences – I want to change the way my documents display on the screen – this should be straightforward. But wait…there are 20 different preference categories to choose from. What might be the difference between “Measuring” and “Units”? What does the 3D category look like? Uh-oh…choosing the 3D category just made my screen go absolutely black for a good 15 seconds. I wonder what that just did behind the scenes…
  • View > Wireframe – I’m really curious about this feature because the word has a particular meaning to me. I click the menu item and it appears to be a toggle switch because a checkmark appears and remains. I look around…nothing seems to have happened. Let’s look in the help system. No index entry for Wireframe. Let’s search for it – “The complete help was searched and no matching topic was found.” Great…

All of these provide great examples of issues that often occur when lots of additional functionality gets piled onto an application. Acrobat has an interface to an external system that seems to be a dead end. It has tremendous complexity that obscures what are probably more common/important features. It has prominently displayed features that are totally absent from the system documentation. Yikes!

Someone out there must have version 3.x of Acrobat Reader that they can share. I am talking about the one that was really stable and took less than a few seconds to download and install. Wouldn’t you just love to have that back again? I bet that you would never miss any of the advanced features like “managing trusted identities.” 95% of you are nodding your heads vigorously in agreement. But what happens if for some reason you ever find yourself reading a document with a trusted identity that might need managing? Aha! That is where the real magic could come into play. Wouldn’t it be great if the application realized that you were attempting to open this type of document and offered to download a plug-in? Sure it was an extra step, and sure it caused a little hassle, but isn’t a minor inconvenience for a small subset of the user population worth the superbly simple user experience that the vast majority of us were able to enjoy?

Benefits

  • Smaller software footprint and a simpler initial install
  • Less complexity to obscure core functionality
  • Straightforward user experience

Costs

  • Some minor degree of user friction
  • Additional effort to manage plug-in infrastructure
  • Product Manager must work hard to understand what is really needed for core features

This is only one approach. Another one that comes to mind is to create multiple versions of the application. Maybe Adobe could offer a “home/lite” version as well as a “corporate/advanced” version. Let’s allow my grandfather to read his bank statement without all of this other extraneous stuff tempting him to get lost in the software while still allowing corporate users with fancy digital IDs to read their supersecret documents.

Of course, I am quite willing to admit that I may be dead wrong about my understanding of the Acrobat user community. For the purposes of this blog post I am certainly guilty of a Product Manager cardinal sin by assuming that all users are like me. Perhaps I am part of a tiny group that doesn’t understand and use the Wireframe feature every day – me and some small primitive tribe in the Amazon basin. I don’t think this is true, but it is possible. Unfortunately, I think it is far more likely that I am part of a much larger community that only wants a simple document reader that loads quickly, works reliably, and doesn’t get in my face on a too regular basis demanding that I pay some attention to it. That probably won’t happen anytime soon given the dozens of patents that Adobe proudly displays on the About Acrobat page, but a boy can dream.

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