Just Works

‘It just works.’ It’s a common phrase that Apple and its loyalists use — we all have a general understanding of what it means, but how do you achieve it?

I asked Marco Arment how a developer writes a piece of software that a user would describe as “just working”, to which he responded:

Take every support email you get, and try to avoid getting the same ones in the future.

I think he is talking about much more than just squashing bugs — he’s also talking about listening to things that annoy the crap out of users and fixing those issues.

What it Means to Me

For me ‘just works’ comes down to three factors:

  1. Understanding how customers use your product. This is likely helped by the ‘support emails’ Marco mentioned.
  2. Using your own product often.
  3. Not adding stuff, for adding stuff’s sake. (Feature bloat.)

Those three factors are key to a product that gives users a great, frictionless, experience — the experience that is often described as ‘just working’.

Creation

The fastest way to achieve this is by creating something you need.

Some of the best products (software or otherwise) are the result of a person scratching their own itch. This is why a brand new smartphone that lacks 3rd party apps and simple things, such as copy and paste, can survive and succeed. It’s not about features, specs, or bullet points – it’s all about experience.

When the iPhone launched in 2007 it was pretty bared bones, but it succeeded in the market because it was evident that the people who designed and made the phone, designed and made the phone for themselves to use.

Or as I like to think of most inventions: I highly doubt the riding lawn mower was invented by a man with a small lawn.

Here’s Marco again on why he created Instapaper:

In the fall of 2007, I had just switched to the iPhone, and I had a long train commute every day. I never knew what to read on the train, but I’d find stuff all day at work that I didn’t have time to read, so I made Instapaper as a simple, one-click link-saving service for myself to time-shift links from the work day to my train commute.

That’s why Instapaper is one of those services/apps that ‘just works’ — Marco needed the service to be drop dead simple and highly useable — not for customers — for himself since he was the initial customer, thus he eliminated all of his own support complaints first.

Omni

One company that seems to exemplify this more than any other is the OmniGroup — specifically in their iPad apps. Both OmniFocus and OmniOutliner are better on the iPad than they are on the Mac, and those are two excellent Mac apps to begin with. The feeling that I always get with an OmniGroup iPad app is that they not only tested the app, but that they tested the app. Read: they actually use the product.

Friction

When I asked Sean Sperte, one third of Sky Balloon, how they achieve such “just works” status — he responded:

Most of what we do is take cues from Apple’s default apps. We strive to remove as much process friction from the user’s end goal.
And we start by defining what the user’s end goal is — not their technical end goal, but their real end goal …

The difference is subtle when expressed, but huge in practice. It means that they made the app that you wanted and not that app that they thought you wanted — they made the app work the way you wanted too, not the way others apps say it should work.

I give a lot of apps hard times on this site for little problems and some oversights 1 , but I can usually tell within the first minute of using a new app whether it is an app made by people who actually made the app for themselves or for others — it shows, take note.

Apps that people make to sell, look like apps made to make money. (Often ad laden, standard everything, little documentation and no support.)

Friction, as Sperte calls it, is something that I see in products that aren’t being used by the people who developed them — friction is caused by competing on features and not experience. Friction happens when you don’t use your own product anymore. 2

User Perspective

I asked Justin Blanton what “it just works” means to him:

Consistency. The software/hardware (re)acts as I expect it to, and no differently. Every time. And if it breaks, it breaks in a consistent and predictable manner, from which I can recover. Once I’ve done all the thinking on the front and back ends, and set things up just right, I expect to not have to think again—’it just works’ is muscle memory’s enabler.

Shawn Blanc responded to the same question saying:

For an app to “just work” for me I suppose it boils down to a combination of two things: there is a low learning curve and there is long-lasting utility. Put another way, the app slides right in to my area of need.

Consistent, frictionless, seamless apps. That’s what make the user not notice the UI, the icon, the price, the lack of features. Why? Because they just work.

Things that Just Work

All of this started when I was writing up my review of OmniOutliner for the iPad — I kept wanting to just say: “it just works the way you think it would and it’s really great.” That of course would be helpful to no one, so I had to sit back and think about why I felt this way about the app.

I started to think about all the things that I report as “just working” and I think these four guys hit the nail on the head. Before the iPhone switching phones was a bear, you had to hope the sync would work with your Mac, then hope that the new phone would in some way recognize that data. Maybe you had to buy a MissingSync utility, or install some crazy hacked together after thought software from the vendor. Maybe the new phone really only worked with Exchange — though you didn’t know that before you bought it.

When I bought the iPhone it just worked. It fit into my workflow and life seamlessly as Shawn talks about above. There was no friction — yes it lacked some features I would liked to have, but the stuff it did have were so good it was like I had been using the phone all my life.

I haven’t used outlines since college, but when I popped open OmniOutliner for the first time I knew how to work everything. The app just fit in my workflow all of a sudden with very little thought and very little problems.

It just worked.

Things that Just Don’t Work

We hate printers so very much because they just never work. Playing off of what Justin said printers fail often and always fail in different ways. 3 Printers don’t work as expected and if you are on Windows you have to figure out which software to install before you actually plug in the printer — otherwise you face the wrath of scary warning stickers.

In the same genre fax machines rarely, if ever, just work because they rely on too many other services to work. Even if everything goes through there is still no guarantee that the guy on the other end has a decent enough machine to be able to read 11pt type. They were never built to be great, just adequate — yet they truly don’t work.

If you have ever added on to a home, or lived in a home that was added on to, you likely know exactly where the addition is. These additions always feel like additions. 4 Adding on becomes a problem because you are building on top of something else, instead of integrating a new part. You are adding layers, not integrating features.

Integration versus layering: integration makes a good product, layering makes an average product.

Layering never gives you the ‘it just works’ feeling.

Ive

One last quote, this time from Jonathan Ive:

A lot of what we seem to be doing is getting design out of the way. And I think when forms develop with that sort of reason, and they’re not just arbitrary shapes, it feels almost inevitable. It feels almost undesigned. It feels almost like, ‘well, of course it’s that way. Why would it be any other way?’

In other words: it just works.

Who Cares

This entire philosophy is of crucial importance right now because for the first time we are hitting a sweet spot in consumerism. We have the means to build, sell and buy very high quality goods. More to the point I am starting to hear people exclaim: “I like it because it just works.” Yet when you ask them what they mean you are met with a blank stare.

The better question is why is it right for person X. To which people can usually come up with some great reasons: “they won’t have to worry about common problem X.” Just works mentality is permeating its way through to the general consumer, and if you want to be successful you are going to have to figure out how to make your product/service ‘just work’.

  1. Also about icons.
  2. iCal anyone?
  3. PC Load Letter
  4. With exception to the 1% cases that are actually done very well, but those are fringe outliers and are usually much more involved than a standard addition. If you don’t know which happened in your home, or any home, as yourself if you could have lived in the home while the addition was being done. If the answer is yes, then it will always feel like an addition. If you can’t tell? You are the 1%.
Originally posted for members on: May 18, 2011
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