Swallowing the Spider

How do products get bloated? One reasonable feature request at a time.

Jon Bell
Jon Bell
May 20, 2014 · 2 min read

Over the years, I’ve gotten a healthy respect for the implications of adding functionality to software. You add a feature, which leads to another, which encourages another. Before you know it, you’re like the woman who swallowed a fly, then a spider to deal with the fly, a bird to deal with a spider, and so on.

Recently Gruber read that Apple was considering adding a split-screen mode in iOS 8. He made a great point, one that it takes a seasoned software maker to fully appreciate:

Sounds cool. I’m very curious to see how you get into (and back out of) this mode, though. It’s easy to say you want to see two apps side-by-side on the iPad. It’s not easy at all to implement such a feature without losing the wonderful can’t get lost/can’t get confused about where you are or how you got there simplicity of the iPad today.

I worked at frog design when the iPad was announced, and the multi-screen question came up. Someone I respect asked me, “Wait. You really think one screen at a time is their long term vision?” And I shrugged. Yeah, I do. Or I did until I heard these rumors.

But while you can debate the worth of the feature, or whether Apple will implement it, some things are beyond debate. It’s an immovable law of design physics — adding functionality adds complexity. You can’t get around it. All you can do is try to add functionality that people really want, and do it carefully enough that the increased complexity is worth it. There are no shortcuts or magic bullets.

I explored split screen views as a designer and a consumer, and found it was hard to make the tradeoff worth it. Sure, I’d use split-screen periodically in iOS 8. But I wouldn’t mind at all if Apple didn’t try to swallow the spider this time around.

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