Is ‘user-friendly’ and ‘intuitive’ software really simpler?

The LaTeX CompanionI recently came across this blog post from 2007 comparing the quality of documents typeset with Microsoft Word, Writer, and LaTeX. Although the post is long, it’s definitely worth reading in its entirety. As a longtime user of LaTeX, I wasn’t at all surprised to see it best the competition in terms of the quality of typesetting.

There are a number of things I like about LaTeX, not the least of which is that it’s nice to be able to use a lightweight text editor with a smaller CPU and memory footprint to edit my documents. But LaTeX isn’t for everyone. Most people are far too accustomed to using WYSIWYG word processors to even consider learning how to format documents by marking up raw text with seemingly arcane commands.

Of course, most people don’t really know how to use their current word processing application effectively either. The software industry has placed so much emphasis on designing software to be “user-friendly” and “intuitive” that we now have a large class of users who are content to ham-handedly grope around contextual menus looking for what they think they want. These people have been conditioned to believe that it’s a usability fault in the software if they can’t figure something out in thirty seconds without referring to the documentation.

During college I worked in an office where all word processing was still done on a DOS version of WordPerfect. It definitely placed more demands on the end-user than the office productivity software of today. You really couldn’t get around needing to understand what the function keys did. Despite (or because of?) the steeper learning curve, the people I worked with in that office were much more efficient and productive using WordPerfect than many of my current colleagues are with Microsoft Word 2007. Almost everything becomes much easier when you spend a little time and effort learning how to do it properly first.

Is it better to have “intuitive” software that allows us to accomplish tasks more slowly, but without ever needing to review documentation or feel the frustration that can accompany a learning process? Or would we benefit more by using tools that require more upfront investment in learning but offer to save us substantially more time and effort in the long run?

44 Comments for “Is ‘user-friendly’ and ‘intuitive’ software really simpler?”

  1. posted by John on

    The value of “intuitive” software depends on how frequently you use it. A piece of software someone uses once a year — e.g. tax software — should be intuitive, even if it’s cumbersome to use. A piece of software you use 20 hours a week is a different matter.

    I use LaTeX all the time and enjoy it. But I’m glad I don’t have to learn anything like it to file my taxes.

  2. posted by Sarah on

    I absolutely LOVE LaTeX, but it’s definitely not for everyone. For my academic writing (I’m a grad student), LaTeX makes my life so much easier through its bibliography management system and because formating high-quality tables is much easier in the typesetting environment. But, there’s a lot of start-up time involved. I wouldn’t have learned LaTeX if I didn’t have the ability to take a LaTeX starter course through my University. A lot of people are easily intimidated by technology, so it’s nice that they have the ability to just pull up Word and type. I still use Word sometimes for quick writing tasks that don’t need to look really pretty. It’s true that Word has fallen victim to Microsoft trying too hard to make it user-friendly. But, for the tasks most people use it for, it’s probably fine.

  3. posted by Laetitia in Australia on

    I guess it depends on whether you’re going to be using the software a lot or just for a one-off. If it’s just a one-off then you definitely want something that’s “user-friendly”, otherwise you are better off paying someone else to do it..

  4. posted by Barbara Tako on

    I agree with the comments above. Time is our most precious resource. My seminar “Time Clutter Clearing” is very popular but probably one of the hardest to teach well. After all, time management is life management.

    As a side bar to this, I am old enough to wish that some of these packages offered print manuals (besides downloading ink-wasting .pdfs that have too much white space in them), so I could work through the learning process that way. I still like to be able to underline, highlight, and dog-ear pages. LOL.

  5. posted by White Oak on

    “Intuitive” software is great if your intuition works in the same way the designer’s intuition works. Some of us are right-brain dominent and some left-brain. What is intuitive for one won’t be intuitive for both. I much prefer to have the “book” or documentation to refer back to when I can’t figure out what the designer intended. (my background is civil engineering)

  6. posted by Johnny on

    “User-friendly” and “intuitive” are relative terms. Latex can be both for someone who uses it regularly. The issue is really how much time and effort there is up front learning how to use software. Software that is “easier” to use is often software that minimizes the time needed to hit the ground running. The trade off is that this software usually hides a lot of details and loses flexibility. Software that doesn’t hide those details has greater flexibility of use, but takes more time to learn. The type of tool to use depends on its intended use. To bang out a simple documents, most people could get by with a simple word processor that automagically takes care of a lot of layout details. For those who need more fine grained control of layout and typesetting, Latex is the more appropriate tool.

  7. posted by Anita on

    I’m with John. I don’t need to learn a program inside out if I use it once in a blue moon. I also don’t need to know it inside out if I use it frequently, but only for very basic tasks. For example, my company has a lot of very specialized software that is anything but intuitive; mastering it takes a lot of training and practice, however I only have to use it to look up basic information, so really, I’d prefer it to be more intuitive for my purposes.

    The MS Office suite is, I think, a good middle ground: it has an intuitive side, for people who don’t need elaborate functions or commands, and advanced settings/commands for those who need to create complex documents. Now if only the latter category would take the time to learn those commands properly…

  8. posted by Daniel on

    On the contrary, I think that a general software like a word processor DOES have a useability issue if you can’t figure it out in 30 seconds without documentation.

    Credit is due to today’s software for not forcing us to memorize macro shortcuts and line commands like during the 80’s.

  9. posted by Cheryl on

    To what end the “should”? If software developers want to sell applications to the masses, then it’s going to be a matter of meeting the masses where they are. And if users want to get the most out of software applications, they’ll invest the time and energy needed to become high-power users or even learn how to use more powerful, less common tools.

    I don’t think there’s any objective moral good in getting everyone who wants to use a computer to read documentation. There are people who will benefit from doing just that, and there almost certainly are more people who *would* benefit if they knew what they were missing or took an interest.

    Enjoy your very high skill level and know that people who are less-skilled in the use of typesetting applications probably have other areas that they focus on and enjoy. They might even have skills in areas that, like this one, LOTS of people would benefit from, like cooking or organizing. Everyone uses computers but most people are satisfied with an end that seems sub-optimal to you. Just like everyone prepares food, but some people are satisfied with grilled Kraft on Wonder Bread. If they chose to spend their time and energy on food, they could probably come up with tastier and more elaborate meals but they get fed and are satisfied.

  10. posted by PJ Doland on

    To be clear, I don’t think it’s necessary (or even desirable) for people to be very proficient with software they rarely use. I’m referring more to the cases where people use a program for several hours a day without ever really learning the ins-and-outs. That’s why I focused the discussion mainly on word processing.

  11. posted by Peter on

    There was a time when we accommodated to the software. Now we expect the software to accommodate to us. This has resulted in inefficient and bloated software, still unsatisfactory for the user for it will never meet their expectations 100%, and also unsatisfactory for the programmer who must deal with overly complex, impossible to manage code.

  12. posted by Mike on

    I’m a professional writer, but don’t yet have the luxury of a typesetting/editorial staff, so right now I have to both generate content AND create its delivery media. This means I need to be able to work with the page exactly as it is going to appear in print, and I don’t have time to spend doing it from the back of the pegboard.

    For a long time, the options were Pagemaker or Nothing. These days, Office 2008 for Mac is the winner by virtue of being the easiest to use at a high level of functionality and also having native PDF output. I like LaTeX’s reference management system, which is clearly superior to Office’s, but the rest of the package is unworkable for someone in my position. Plus it’s only a matter of time before Office incorporates those bits anyway. To LaTeX’s credit, at least there’s a reason it would be worth using over Office.

    Meanwhile, iWork isn’t there yet, and OpenOffice is surprisingly deficient at doing what I need done; in fact, most documents I open are horribly broken in OO and I would be stuck re-setting everything. Yeah, pass.

    Despite all these nitpicks, I have to echo what @Peter and @Daniel said: even the worst options right now are better than the best options we had in the Windows 95 era…

  13. posted by Java Monster on

    I have never *heard* of LaTex. MS Word, Wordperfect, etc do it just fine for me. I have NO desire to learn a program in all its ins and outs; I only want to learn what is necessary in order to have the program do what I need it to do. A manual would be nice. Too bad there is none.

  14. posted by Don on

    I recall a Cringely article from over a decade ago about an experiment that IBM or Xerox carried out with a group of volunteers. They sat them down in front of a computer and told them nothing. What they were in front of was an experimental operating system. But their audience banged on it for an extended period of time and not one of them figured out that’s what they were interacting with. Some thought it was a word processor. Other thought it was just broken.

    The point of it was that people came to the computer with expectations, and those expectations colored what they thought was friendly or usable. Without context it’s impossible to say something is user friendly. A hammer is a pretty straight-forward tool, but if you’ve never seen a nail you’re not going to know how to use it correctly, if at all.

  15. posted by PJ Doland on


    In a sense, nothing is really intuitive. Everything is based on previous expectations and experiences. There’s a common saying in the field of interaction design, which I think is right on the money:

    “Basically, the only ‘intuitive’ interface is the nipple. After that, it’s all learned.”

  16. posted by michelle on

    I think it’s a little silly to assume that people don’t become proficient at things that are user-friendly. When I was in junior high, my school had a class that helped us become proficient at using MS word (although I currently use open office). Now, I know pretty much all the keystrokes I need to get the program to do what I want it to do, the process to disable the things I don’t want it to do, and the place on the menu to find everything else. I know how to set up endnotes and footnotes–it’s not that hard if you follow directions.

    in short–using MS word doesn’t make you clueless and using Latex doesn’t make you an expert at word processing. Latex takes time to learn, and if people are willing to learn, they can get the most out of MS word too.

  17. posted by Ellen on

    Despite spending hours a day at my computer, much of the time creating various documents, I don’t feel that “word processing” is my job, nor am I especially intrinsically interested in that part of what I do. I don’t need to know how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive my car, either.

    I get the words out. Then I clean them up, as needed. If I can’t figure out how, I look it up.

    Perhaps if I worked in a field where graphics and design were a bigger focus, I would feel like I needed something more than Word or WordPerfect, but in general those can get me where I need to go.

  18. posted by Loren on

    I think it really depends on the detail level of the task you are performing. When opening iTunes, all I want it to do is listen to my music, as long as there is an obvious ‘play’ button the other features don’t matter much to me. For simple tasks I want things to be more intuitive.
    If I want to do sound editing (which I occasionally do in my line of work) I open something like Abobe Soundbooth which has a much higher learning curve but allows me to do much more complicated things to sound files than just play them.
    I would be much more willing to spend time learning how to do something in Soundbooth, but if I had to read a manual to learn how to add a song to my iTunes playlist, I wouldn’t use the program.
    So even though I use iTunes everyday and Soundbooth just a couple times a week I’ve committed a lot more resources to learning the in-and-outs of Soundbooth.

  19. posted by empty on

    In general I think that things like spreadsheets and word processors should be pretty intuitive, because most people aren’t going to use them for anything complicated. But I do get tired of people trying to bang out complicated files without RTFM. I’ve seen people who tried to set up Excel with linked material without using the tabbed sheets, and at my university, endless examples of people writing documents without using the styles/templates in Word, which makes me want to stab them. For this particular purpose, “Bend Word To Your Will” remains one the best professional reads ever.

    Inevitably I end up cleaning up whatever formatting my co-authors have done in a shared document. My older colleagues complain that Word’s not like Wordperfect and look blank when I tell them it’s not a line-editor; used with templates (AS IT SHOULD BE), it actually operates a lot more like LaTeX, although it has its little quirks and lacks many of the most interesting formatting tricks.

  20. posted by John on

    I’m getting a chuckle out of Office 2007 being considered “intuitive.” This is a piece of software where headers and footers are located under “insert” (not layout) and you align objects on a page under “page layout,” line sapacing is under “home” but columns are under “page layout,” etc.

    It’s like menus were assigned to ribbons by throwing pebbles labeled with commands up in the air and seeing which landed near one another.

    I find it easier to type HTML out freehand than to use any part of MS Office.

  21. posted by Ann on

    Intuitive interfaces make computers usable to those who don’t know much about them. I think this is a good thing. As someone who is a kind of free-lance “consultant” to a woman in her 70s, the more user-friendly the interface is, the more likely I am to recommend it to her. I do not like being called three times a week because she can’t figure out how to do something that should be straightforward, and she’s afraid to start experimenting on the entirely justified grounds that something bad will happen. If she saves a file in the wrong folder, she will never find it again. She also can’t see very well, so if she has to hunt through piles of small text that neither of us can figure out how to enlarge properly, she has to call me.

    All hail the user-friendly! For all of the above complaining, her computer really has made her life easier, and a lot of that is due to the focus on intuitive interfaces. Twenty years ago, she wouldn’t have been able to use a computer at all.

    Personally, for word processing, I use Scrivener, so the LaTeX vs. Word vs. Wordperfect thing is a non-issue for me.

  22. posted by Rob on

    At least products like Word give you a choice–if you want to learn the mechanics of the software so that you become a super proficient user, you may do so; if you’d rather stumble through, it works that way too. I’d be careful saying that products that take away this choice by forcing everyone to become super proficient users are in any way better.

  23. posted by Gina on

    Office 2007 is HORRIBLE — I can’t do a thing in it. It is an extremely dumbed-down version of Office. I regret the day I loaded it on my home PC. I mostly use OpenOffice these days anyway.

    I consider myself a power user of Office 2003. And yes, I learned WP back in the day. I loved it, and it took a long time for me to get used to Office.

    But then I also work a lot in unix, and find unix infinitely more enjoyable than windows any day.

  24. posted by Gina on

    A related issue — instructions that are entirely picture-based. Have you noticed the seeming proliferation of these? I encountered it this weekend with some bookshelves.

    I figured they are aiming at making it simpler to accomodate different languages, but I couldn’t make any sense whatsoever what they wanted me to do. I needed words! I had none!

    Somehow the bookshelves got assembled anyway — mostly because I’ve put these things together before.

  25. posted by Rae on

    I’m not crazy about WYSIWYG software. Word drives me NUTS with all its assumptions about what I might want to do. I miss Wordperfect, but have accepted that Word is now more commonplace.

    One of the reasons I moved from Blogger to a self-hosted WordPress blog is so that I could get deeper into the mechanics of the coding. WP has a WYSIWYG interface, but you can get in there and play with the coding if you want. I don’t know enough HTML or PHP to create templates, but I do know enough to be able to tweak templates to my liking.

    At one of my last contracts, I was in charge of doing website updates. The WYSIWYG editor created some funky formatting that the director had spent *hours* trying to fix, to no avail. With my basic knowledge of HTML and CSS I went into the HTML mode and fixed the problem in two minutes.

    So, count me in as one who appreciates so-called ‘intuitive’ software but who still likes to be able to go in and play with the raw coding if necessary. In the above case with my last contract, the intuitive software made for a lot more work than knowing some HTML basics while Word creates a lot of work with its auto-formatting that requires you to spend more time undoing things than you would have manually formatting them (anyone else HATE creating bulleted lists in Word?).

  26. posted by robert on

    Latex is all very well if you’re happy to use the standard templates (report, letter, etc.) *and* to accept how those templates look. If you want to add a new one (not easy) or create one of your own (hard), then it suddenly becomes a lot less attractive.

    By all means, encourage the principle of separating content from presentation – but I don’t think Latex is a practical solution for that in the future.

  27. posted by jrochest on

    Honestly, I don’t know why Mac didn’t simply bundle Word Perfect into its machines rather than Word: it would have kept an excellent word processor alive. I hate being forced to bumble around with Word: when I switched to Mac I also switched to a RTF editor, Nisus Writer Pro.

    WP for DOS was one of the simplest, most effective and elegant word processors ever.

  28. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    Funny–my Computer Science PhD husband loves LaTeX, when he’s not cursing it–maybe a 60/40 split. He absolutely has to use it for his equations, though. Our nephew, a BS in Computer Science, but a brilliant autodidact in Microsoft products and generally their greatest defender, admits that killing all the annoying autoformatting features in Word takes a lot of work and knowledge. I write formatted types of documents rarely, outlines and the like as opposed to straight-up prose, and find Word seriously annoying to use for them. I will have to try some of the other suggestions you all have listed, or bite the bullet and learn LaTeX.aarrrggghh

  29. posted by klutzgrrl on

    I agree that intuitive is important for the casual home user (White Oak’s left/right brain comment was interesting – some things I find intuitive, some I don’t…) for whom the computer needs to be no more complex than the microwave or the television – and it’s fine provided they don’t want to do anything more complex than that. That’s why I drive an automatic rather than a stick shift.

    It’s really remarkable how many inherently complex tasks are made simple by computer software. (Syncing an ipod or importing a document from one format to another, for instance).

    But as a professional, when I’m going to be using software regularly, yes, those attempts at being user-friendly become an embuggerance. You have to find out how to turn all the auto stuff in Vista and Word to gain back some control. It’s a pity – if autoformat was simpler, it might actually work.

    Definitely worth spending the time to learn to use your software properly. But of course, then you want your knowledge to stay current – not to become obsolete with the next update.

  30. posted by Courtney on

    Another grad student here (math) who adores LaTeX! I especially like that there are a billion different ways to create figures with different packages–completely customizable if you’re willing to get your hands a little dirty (but that’s the fun part, anyway).

  31. posted by steve on

    I learned LaTeX back in the 80s as a CS grad student, and I’m so glad I did. I took some doing — several hours and the first 50 or so pages of Leslie Lamport’s book — but ever since then, its flexibility and (yes) simplicity has stood me in good stead. I’ve seen a lot of bad LaTeX, and I sometimes have to fix co-author’s errors, but that’s easy to do with LaTeX, because I can see what they did and have complete control.
    On the other hand, I have had to relearn MS Word several times. It is not intuitive at all to me, and I only use it when I absolutely have to. The autoformatting drives me crazy and never seems to do what I want. I have spent hours trying to fix the formatting on relatively simple documents. Don’t even get me started on bulleted or numbered lists!
    I find it perverse that so many of my colleagues use Word for technical writing. Taking the time up front to learn LaTeX was definitely worth it.

  32. posted by addicted_to_clutter on

    Word processors are frustrating because they entrust users with a task that they have no understanding (and great misconception of) and that is document setting. LaTeX produces great results because it takes the decision-making part of producing a document and leaves it to the application preset, and lets the user focus on one thing and one thing alone: content. It really shouldn’t be any other way.

    LyX, a LaTeX distribution, offers the best of both worlds, coupling the functionality of LaTeX with the comfort and simplicity of a simple, Word 2003-like GUI.

  33. posted by obo on

    What about the middle ground – in the Word vs. LaTex argument, the DTP software, Scribus or InDesign or Quark that lies between Word’s high-level intuitiveness and LaTeX’s low-level efficiency?

    Intuitiveness isn’t a binary switch, and software isn’t a single function – individual features, much less entire programs, aren’t simply intuitive or unintuitive.

    Truly understanding _when_ to use _which_ tool is craft. The more tools available, the better – what’s more important is understanding _why_ the tool and each of the different methods are important.

    Why is typography important? Is it a priority for my task? Do I need control over ligatures? That’s what needs to be answered first. Deciding on the proper tool for the job follows neatly.

  34. posted by Daniel Howard on

    Complicated video games tend to feature a tutorial mode. Maybe office software should, as well.

    The paper clip can offer to take you by the hand for the next hour or so, and introduce you to a new world of possibilities. Then it can get the fudge out of your way and let you get the job done!


  35. posted by brouwr on

    I’m with addicted_to_clutter about LaTeX and LyX.

    LyX is much more intuitive and simpler than Word. You just write stuff down and insert chapter and paragraph headers when needed, as well as footnotes and pictures. The output is a beatifully typeset pdf – you just can’t go wrong. That’s what I call basic word processing.

    Word, on the other hand, allows you to fully control the layout, which should be considered an advanced feature. For short documents it may be OK, but with longer ones it’s hard to keep everything consistent.

  36. posted by Laura on

    Back when I was applying for technical writing jobs (late 90s), I made a rule that I would not apply to any job that put “Must know Microsoft Word” in the ad. Word can do a lot, but you have to use the templates, and most people have never been trained to use them. It’s not their fault, really. It’s fine if you just want to do some simple text or put out a short report. If you want to create a user manual or 50+ page book or anything like that, use Framemaker.

  37. posted by Sheldon on

    I teach music production at a music college. I have found, in music software especially, that as manufacturers attempt to make their software more idiot-proof, they inadvertently make some features idiotic. It’s become common in music software to either eliminate advanced features or make project files “default” to preset set-ups that effectively decrease productivity. On the consumer side, think of the frustrations involved in simply pointing many photo or media-players to a folder on your hard drive rather than to the application’s “media library”.

  38. posted by Sandra on

    Boy, do I miss WP for DOS. I used it until it became completely untenable. I had great macros i created for bibliographic entries and some other things, was able to do things simply, and kept a function key guide on my keyboard. WP for Windows still seems better to me than Word. For instance, the only way i can figure out to single-space on Word is to change the style set to Windows 2003, and doing a hanging indent takes several steps.

  39. posted by klutzgrrl on

    lol… we had some great stuff on those old machines. I really liked the Lotus Smartsuite- it worked just fine.

    At the moment I’m using Open Office. I’ll have a look at LaTex but it’s probably pointless if I can’t convince the rest of the family to use it.

    DH has to use a particular program for footnoting his university essays, I forget what it’s called.

  40. posted by tod on

    Unfortunately, your article is ridden with undeclared assumptions about usability and efficiency.

    There are enough comments already, but I want to add that what’s good for one person doesn’t automatically make it good for others. I can (and often do) use my keyboard for 80% of navigating around my Windows PC because it’s faster and more efficient “for me.” I develop and test software so I use a multitude of programs every single day. Thus I took the time to learn how to do those things efficiently, just as you did.

    Most people use their mice…because they surf the web, write/read email and then work with the occasional word processing or spreadsheet program. They would probably consider it a waste of their up-front time to learn keyboard commands and such when they can just do a few mouse clicks.

    Neither one is wrong, just different.

  41. posted by mike on

    There is definitely a business case for intuitive software. If users have a choice between easy to use software that gets the job done and highly specialized software that takes hours to begin using basic features the large majority will choose the easy to use software. Therefore, the more intuitive a company can make its software the larger its user base will be.

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  43. posted by Kevin W on

    I remember using a DOS version of Lotus 123 before there were mice. Wow, people could really fly and work extremely fast. Now, with the GUI and mouse, creating spreadsheets is sloooow.

  44. posted by L. on

    This post makes me think,”Easier said than done.” If you’re producing a document mostly on your own, or within a cluster of specialized users, then fine. But Word has gained prominence partly because it addresses the needs of multiple types of users. In my small company, for instance, a document is written by someone who also fulfills many other roles–analytical, managerial, etc. It’s run by execs who are handling many projects. And, while it has to look good, it’s going to be given to people who care much more about the content than the appearance.

    Word is good enough for everyone. The execs can make edits, comment, track changes, the documents look fine. We all spend a lot of time with Word on a daily basis, but we’re not specialists and don’t really need to be. And no one’s going to invest the time in learning something like LaTeX unless the returns are really significant. Not only that, but for people like the execs, I think learning something like LaTeX would involve more than just training on that particular program; they’d have to acquire a new perspective on programs as a whole that just wouldn’t be worth their (very expensive) time. And, if the execs aren’t using it, we’re not a big enough company to justify converting documents back and forth, with all the mess that entails.

    “Good enough” is sometimes what you really need.

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