Compassionate Tools

Respecting your users goals is the best way to design software.

I like to think that there was once a point in time, in this country or the world, where humanity prevailed — and I also like to think that the ‘majority-rule’ screwed it all up by trying to be ‘fair’ to everyone.

Microsoft Word, perhaps, best characterizes this when it comes to software. Because at one point Word was a really good program, which was both powerful and easy to use and understand.

Word 5.1 for Mac OS, released in 1992, was a very popular word processor owing to its elegance, relative ease of use and feature set. Many users say it is the best version of Word for Mac OS ever created. (source: Wikipedia)

Today, as you know, Word is a bloated mess that is likely still used only out of tradition alone and not out of any kind of preference. It’s what we know, not what we choose.

But how did it get that way? I think, or rather I assume, because Microsoft started adding features for every edge case — Microsoft couldn’t just add features that made sense, because then it would be unfair to people that wanted other features which Microsoft had not added. Right? So instead of risking losing any potential customer, they just went for the every feature under the sun approach.

Right or wrong, I like to imagine that at some point when it came time to pay your taxes to the IRS you could call up a real person. And you could then explain to said real person that you cannot afford to pay your taxes. You could make your case in person, to another person, and have them decide whether breaking you financially was worth the small amount the government wanted to collect. After all, this really is the way the system should work.

It should make sense to keep people from becoming homeless, or so financially burdened with taxes that they cannot afford to clothe their children, but then that system would not be fair in the least.

We should strive not to be fair on a whole, but to achieve fairness with each person. If paying taxes means you will go homeless, there should in fact be compassion there to analyze the situation and make a decision on a person-by-person basis. Fairness be damned.

But, what likely happened, is that another tax payer caught wind and shouted the most feared words in all of America: “THAT’S NOT FAIR!”

Motherfucker, life isn’t fair, get over it.

Life is about compassion, not fairness.

The moment we forgot about compassion is the moment workers became drones, unable or unwilling to be compassionate out of fear of losing their jobs. These workers simply value their jobs more than they do the ability to show basic human compassion to other people.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and those are the people and companies which we love.

For the most part these apathetic drones are being forced into apathy as they know that compassion is a free one-way ticket to homelessness and little else.

But all of this extends outside of government, and to our small elite world of software and computing devices. Because if we look back at how great programs became great messes, we see a common theme: software wanting to be fair.

The thought that continues to rattle around my head is that we have too many apps being made to be fair, and not enough apps being made to be compassionate. That’s not an easy distinction to make, so let me list out a few examples.


  • Word
  • Excel
  • Windows
  • Firefox
  • Apple Weather App


  • Writer (Pro)
  • Ulysses
  • Mailbox
  • Acorn

Of course, we slap the trendy term of “opinionated” to apps that are actually just compassionate. Writer isn’t great because of design, it’s great because it says I am here to keep you focused on writing and if you don’t like what I am: please go somewhere else as we won’t be adding your feature.

The same can be said about almost every app on that list — and a great many more.

These apps are compassionate not because of what they are, but because of what they aren’t, and what they will provide to the user.

Ulysses allows for writers to house all their works in a constant and lovely user interface, and act on those words by exporting them to a plethora of different formats. It’s not about designing while you write, it’s about writing and then, and only then, doing something with that writing.

Word on the other hand offers no such solution, because in the world of Word, there is only Word. Word exists to create Word files. Because as you know: Word is not about words, it’s about Word.

“Inventiveness, passion, and courage comes from indies, not from people who watch the bottom line.”

I’ve come to realize that there is only one way to make truly compassionate software, and that is for the person, or people, behind that software to have a clear passion for the software they make and for the people for whom they make the software.

The apps listed above might be apps that you don’t like, or that you have written off for not having feature XYZ, but you wrote them off because you hold no expectation that those apps will ever get that feature. They won’t get that feature because it goes against the passions of those that made it, regardless of how any one feature may change their profit margin.

But, even in the face of stubbornness, it’s hard to sit back and say that these apps are lacking in compassion for their users. I’d venture to say it is near impossible to say such a thing.

Because when it comes right down to it, a compassionate app displays one clear marker: the genuine belief that the app itself will help its users do better.

Here’s the marketing copy from Microsoft on Word:

Polished documents, anytime, anywhere, on all of your devices

Here’s the marketing copy from Ulysses III:

If you love to write, and write a lot, you’ll love Ulysses III.

Word tells you what it can do, and Ulysses tells you who it is for.

Comically, here is the one take away from Photoshop’s marketing:

Get all the latest creative apps, plus seamless ways to share and collaborate. All right on your desktop.

Compare with Acorn:

Everyone needs to edit photos at some point, but not everyone has the time to learn complicated super pricey photo editing software. This is why we created Acorn.

Again Photoshop is about its features, and Acorn is perfectly humanistic in what it will do with you.

The tools that lack compassion all show the same thing in their marketing: how great the tool is, and all the crap the tool can do.

The tools that have compassion all show the same thing: how the tool will help you.

I don’t know about you, but give me a compassionate tool any day of the week.

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