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What makes a beautiful piece of software

If software can in fact be described as beautiful, here's what I've seen that has made it so.

Our family got hit by the flu a couple of weeks ago. We crept into our beds, nibbling aspirins and squinting at the bleak winter sun and our hungry cat from beneath our blankets. To pass the time, I signed up for an audible.com account and got a teaser of Hemingway’s “A farewell to arms,” which I feverishly started listening to. The beauty of the book strikes me – intricate, harsh, poetic – and after 30 minutes, I started thinking, “can software be like this?”

Can it have the same traits of beauty? Remember, I had a fever, but let’s explore that thought for a minute or two.

From time to time I have heard people say “that is a beautiful piece of software” – and I instantly knew what they meant; it wasn’t just the UI (or perhaps not the UI at all), it was something about the flow in the application, how you interact with it, the integrity of its functionality, the stubbornness it has when sticking to one domain or solving one problem. It’s how the software opens your eyes and lets you solve your tasks in new and intuitive ways, without getting in the way.

Can this “beauty” of software be quantized or industrialized? Perhaps not, just as it is with other works of art, but I think there might be some common traits.

  • Integrity - beautiful software solves one problem, and does it better than any other. It sticks to its ways. It doesn’t stray away from its goal and flirt with other seductive functionality. Instead, it relentlessly stays true to its domain. Also, it stays true to its “tone” with the user. It might be a bit harsh in exposing its features, but it does so consistently, and doesn’t apologize. Its consistent both when it shines and when it doesn’t, and you’ll know what to expect and what not to when exploring a new version or update.
  • Usability – beautiful software teaches you the dance even though you are new to the music. It guides you through the tasks at hand in a clear way, minimizing risks for misunderstanding or misuse of its features. It foresees your needs at every step, nudging you in the right direction, keeping you away from the wrong features. It makes the obvious usage easy without removing the possibility for advanced users to harness its full potential. Heck, it might even look good!
  • Innovation – beautiful software is not afraid to solve the problems at hand in new and amazing ways, even if they’re totally different than what you might be used to (or maybe because of that). If you’re a software aficionado, you know what I’m talking about; this is when some feature or interaction in an application just says “click.” You’ve never seen the approach before, but once you see it you can’t understand how you got along without it, and it makes you think about the domain with new eyes, seeing new opportunities (and threats) that you weren’t aware of before. 

Please note that none of these are strictly related to technology; the choice of scala or ruby or F# or cloud or mobile or NoSQL or whatever won’t make an app beautiful (not in my eyes at least). Although I can definitely appreciate beautiful code or software architecture, it’s not a required trait for beautiful software in the end-users’ hands.

A key requirement for creating a beautiful app is a true product vision, nurtured by its creator(s), the product owner, and the product team. This vision needs to engulf the whole product from day one, and can’t be expressed in a backlog or as a user-story. It’s a gut feeling and drive that has to be there, and it has to be allowed to thrive without being pushed back by processes and analysis. This can be a tough call to make for management; trust the vision of the product owner to navigate the product through the storm, even though some decisions or priorities might not be in line with what competitors are doing or users are asking for.

Here comes an attempt to boil this down to some hands-on advice:

  • Maintain, trust, and foster your product vision.
  • Stick your chin out and don’t be afraid to innovate.
  • Love your users and invest in their interaction with your software.
  • Maintain your integrity – fight for it and don’t stray away from it.

I’ll give an example of mine. Many years ago, I did screenshots mainly by alt-print-screen and ms-paint. It worked fine and got the job done. Then someone showed me SnagIt, a tool for creating screenshots, and I was completely blown away. SnagIt added so many useful twists to screenshooting - I had never imagined how much better and fun it could be. And just when I thought I got it, I discovered more features that made my screenshots even more appealing (because that’s what it’s all about). Snag-it had (and still has) all the above: integrity, usability, and innovation.

I’ll end with another beautiful experience: Chet Baker and “That Old Feeling” (opens on spotify) – which is just what I get when working with beautifully crafted software out there, hopefully made by you!

P.S. Do you have a great example of “beautiful software”? Please share in the comments below for us others to marvel at – thank you!

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