Rules for computing happiness: Software simplicity

Once again, I would like to welcome Alex Payne as a guest to Unclutterer. When Alex isn’t writing guest posts for us, he’s the API Lead for Twitter, and he’s a genuinely awesome guy.

Several weeks ago, I published on my personal blog a post on the rules for computing happiness, a set of personal guidelines that have kept me happy and productive when working with computers. People all around the web have added and subtracted from my list, and published their own lists in response. Erin saw the list and asked me to elaborate on the software-oriented rules that compose the majority of the list, as their general theme is toward uncluttering one’s computing experience.

When it comes to software, in my opinion, there’s no better way to keep it simple than to use as little of it as possible. All software exists to offer some solution, but with software comes problems: a learning curve, bugs, upgrades, security issues, and so on. Clearly identify what you really want to accomplish and you might find that you don’t need a new piece of software, or that an application to meet your goal is already installed on your computer.

Once you’ve identified your goal, pick an application that helps you accomplish that goal and nothing more. Extra features mean more bugs and less focus. Microsoft Office is the perfect example of an over-featured application: it does so many things for so many different types of users that most of us are scared to dive into its seemingly unending menus and settings. If you just need to write, use a simple text editor like Notepad on Windows or TextEdit on the Mac. Good software gets out of your way.

Picking stable, quality software makes a huge difference. Don’t try beta (pre-release) software unless you know how to submit a bug report and/or have time to do so. Be sure you’re using software that’s written for your operating system. If the application looks and feels wrong next to software you know and trust, chances are good its author didn’t take the time to learn the ins and outs of developing for your platform. You wouldn’t buy a bicycle from a skateboard shop, right? There are plenty of applications for every need on every operating system, so pick one that’s native and nice.

Ever more applications are moving online, and this poses a new set of challenges when trying to keep your computing experience simple and enjoyable. Chances are good that if an application requires that you sync over the internet in order for it to work, it’s going to be a source of frustration. Syncing is a perennial spring of bugs and lost data, as there’s plenty that can go wrong during a sync. Instead, put data that needs to be available to multiple computers on web-based applications. For example, rather than trying to sync your documents across computers, put the ones you need to share on Google Docs. Just don’t get in the habit of using web applications for everything — not everything needs sharing, they’re no good when you need to get to your stuff while offline.

The web age is also the age of free, but good software is still worth buying. If you’re on a budget or have a one-time need for a program it might make sense to search for a free solution, but for tools you use day-in and day-out you will want to invest in the best program. Before buying, try an application out for at least two weeks, and be sure it’s being actively maintained. Check out the program’s website and see if it has an active blog, news page, or Twitter profile. Good software is never finished, so be sure you’re investing in the developer’s ongoing effort to improve the tools you use.

Finally, when an application you’ve tried out doesn’t work for you, do more than throw it out: delete every last trace of it. Lots of software installs supporting bits and bobs around your system, cluttering it up and potentially eating up precious computing resources. If the application provided an uninstaller, run it. If not, use software like AppZapper for the Mac to clean up after unwanted applications.

If you’ve got rules that help you keep your computer a simple, stress-free part of your life, please do share them in the comments.

25 Comments for “Rules for computing happiness: Software simplicity”

  1. posted by Miguel de Luis on

    Alex, thanks for this very wise post. I would only dare to add that we need a little thing called discipline not to download a pile of software.

    At job I have to use MS Office, but at home little Abiword fits my modest needs well.

  2. posted by Peter on

    I have to check out that APP zapper. I never heard of that. Other than that, I just try to be very careful about what software goes on which computer. I have a blogging computer, and one for video editing. I try to keep them pretty much aligned for their designated use.

  3. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    Great article. My two cents – make sure you check for updates to your existing software. I had people sending me Word docs with .docx extensions and I have Office 2000 on my PC. I went to the Microsoft update page and was able to download updates to handle these newer feature rich docs. Total cost – 10 minutes of my time and $0 out of my pocket.

  4. posted by Sarah on

    Is there an alternative to Google Docs? I’m not a fan of Google’s privacy policy.

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Sarah — A really quick Google search led me to this page:

    You might check out all of the programs that say “online” in their description. I don’t know about any of them except for Google Docs.

  6. posted by Tabitha (From Single to Married) on

    I love Google docs – it’s fantastic. You can work on a document from any computer and it automatically saves the document so that yu don’t have to. You can even export the document to Word or Excel for printing!

  7. posted by Mike Torres on

    Great post – but I wouldn’t say this is the case anymore given the new ribbon in Office 2007:

    “Microsoft Office is the perfect example of an over-featured application: it does so many things for so many different types of users that most of us are scared to dive into its seemingly unending menus and settings”

    It turns out that people were using a small subset of the features of Office, but when you look deeper at the data, they were all using a different subset. The new user interface hides complexity for basic tasks but doesn’t remove the functionality completely for when you need it. IMO the best software grows with your skills.

  8. posted by Megan on

    My biggest gripe with software is paying for updates. Ugh — I shouldn’t have to pay if it is broken! So, I remembered the “golden rule” and decided to build a company that gives free updates. Early adopters should be taken care of. It’s just common sense. In my opinion, my best marketing tool are my happy customers.

  9. posted by Karen on

    Thanks for the post. Good advice. Sometimes I find it hard to zap programs even if I’m not using them. So, I always keep the disc image files when I try or buy software. Periodically, I burn these to a DVD along with any licensing information and then erase the dmg files from my harddrive. I keep an index of those DVDs in my database program (I use DevonThink Pro Office for the Mac) and the physical DVDs in a notebook along with my other backup DVDs. It makes it much easier to delete things I’m not using and it fits in with my archiving routine for other data. (BTW I also use external harddrives as backups, I’m not just relying on DVDs).

  10. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    @Megan – that’s what I was trying to comvey in my earlier post. Even though I did not update Microsoft Office to the latest version, there were free updates to the version I had that made me compatable with their newest version.

  11. posted by timgray on

    If you must use MS office try OO.o (Open and if that does not work buy a used copy of Office 97.

    it does 98% of what office does but far FAR faster with most of the clutter removed.

    Honestly Office 97 was the best version ever released.

  12. posted by Megan on

    @Peter (the different one) — Oh, I’m with you. I was kind of off on my own rant. 馃槈

    I should have instead expounded upon my belief in free upgrades. I like free upgrades. They make me smile.

  13. posted by infmom on

    The best way to simplify–don’t buy a new version of a program just because it’s there. Does your current version do everything you want it to do? If it does, why change it?

    I’m still using Windows 2000 because no one so far has persuaded me there’s anything it can’t do that I want it to do. I get annoyed at iTunes and the Amazon downloader for not being usable by Windows 2000, but them’s the breaks. Nothing says I have to download music.

  14. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    @Megan – I agree FREE upgrades are the best. I just wonder how long I’ll be able to keep running Office 2000…

  15. posted by JenK on

    It turns out that people were using a small subset of the features of Office, but when you look deeper at the data, they were all using a different subset. The new user interface hides complexity for basic tasks but doesn鈥檛 remove the functionality completely for when you need it. IMO the best software grows with your skills.

    Quite true, and I use Office. That said, if I am having serious difficulty getting my mind onto a task, reducing options can really help me focus. I discovered this as a manager writing performance reviews. I never liked writing them, and would procrastinate forever. Finally I hit on a solution that worked for me: I would boot DOS only, no Windows*, and write my initial draft in the text editor. I could not alt-tab to check email or do other work or play solitaire. I could not even play with fonts. Once I’d changed the Edit colors & tab size, I could write or be bored. Usually I would write.

    (*The astute reader will figure out that I began doing this in the early 90s back when Windows was an add-on to DOS. But I still occasionally boot DOS off a floppy to use Edit.)

  16. posted by Egirlrocks on

    I’ve been using MS Office for the past 10 years and have found it to be everything I need and then some. I think the problem a lot of people have with all the options is that they don’t know how to turn them off or make them work for them rather than against them. Office is notorious for offering at least 3 different ways to do the same thing. The trick is to choose one way that works best for you and ignore the rest. When Office tries to “think for you” you can turn that feature off permanently. (The paper clip assistant really bugs me.) All of the apps in Office integrate extremely well. I understand a lot of people have issues with this feature-laden package but if you know how to work it you can save tons of time and be well organized. If you don’t need certain features, just ignore them.

  17. posted by Chanan on

    @Sarah – My Google Docs alternative preference is It has a Onenote like notebook app, Spreadsheet (with macro support), Word processor, and more. A few of their applications are for pay (business focused stuff for example: CRM, Invoicing, HR, etc).

  18. posted by JC on

    I tend to be an advanced user on Microsoft Word and an intermediate user for Excel. So I use tons of the features.

    While I don’t have any tips about the software, I do format *every* document that I create with a template that forces me to put in a date, author, title, page numbers.

    In my office there are so many files floating around without dates or authors so you don’t know how old the thing is or who can answer your questions about the referenced project.

  19. posted by Ken Burns Effect on

    Is there a spam fiter involved sucking certain posts in?

  20. posted by Ken Burns Effect on

    Since there is some stupid filter not allowing som links just google “al3x’s Rules for Computing Happiness” and find a nice set of rules.

  21. posted by Ken Burns Effect on

    Sorry, I didn’t read the first paragraph:-D

  22. posted by David Cake on

    I was going to make a blog post about this, and start a discussion about the idea– but the original link seems to only get a github error message currently.

  23. posted by jaime on

    Dropbox and Box .net are alternatives to GoogleDocs.

  24. posted by jaime on

    also zoho has something similar to google docs and free.

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