Complex UX

by Zack on September 26, 2009

Complex UX

I can’t use Microsoft Word anymore, or Writer, or any of the other standard word processors. When I’m writing something that really matters I just can’t use them. Adobe InDesign has ruined other word processors for me. I made my resume in InDesign, my offline checklist in InDesign, and every other document I create where how it looks matters.

I tell my friends how much I like InDesign. They try it, but they never stick with it. There are two very large reasons not to use InDesign: cost and complexity. I can’t say much about InDesign’s nearly $700 price tag. That is Adobe’s decision. But the complexity has been bothering me for a little while.

I am a strong proponent of simple software, and InDesign is anything but simple. Try to create a new document and it will ask you about the page width, columns, margins, orientation, gutter, bleed, and slug. It took a lot of people a lot of time to make InDesign.

The basic philosophy of user experience design can be reduced to a simple equation:


The easiest way to solve this equation is create a small number of very simple features that people really want to use. This is the approach taken by 37 Signals and a dozen other next generation web application companies. The strategy has a lot to recommend it.

Simple software takes less time to create so if you get it wrong you’re risking less. If your customers want something else it is easy to make adjustments. You can’t charge as much for it, but you have lower cost of production and often a wider potential market.

InDesign solved the equation a differently. Their software is very difficult to use. They spent a lot of time trying to make it easier, it is still very complex. I don’t use half the features. Their learning time is very high, but they offset that with a feature list that is off the charts. There are things you can do with InDesign that you simply cannot do anywhere else.


In Microsoft Word I can make a chunk of text justified. That makes the left side of the text and the right side align evenly. The text in most books looks like that. Word does this by adding extra space between the words to make everything line up. Sometimes that means putting pretty large spaces. Typographers call it stealing sheep. It just looks ugly.

In InDesign when I make a chunk of text justified they use a special algorithm developed by Herman Zapf. It uses spacing and hyphenation of the entire paragraph to make the justification much better than Word. In addition to adding spacing between the words, InDesign will add space between the letter and even change the letter sizes. If that isn’t enough I can tweak the minimum, desired, and maximum percentage of the word spacing, letter spacing, and glyph scaling. These little changes make the text that InDesign produces feel better than Word.


These little details, and a thousand others, make InDesign more difficult to use. They also make me reluctant to suggest it to anything less than pretty serious typography buffs. And that is the risk of solving the equation this way. Your audience is smaller to you must really meet their needs.

Adobe mitigated that risk with a large beta program including some of the most famous professional typographers. They worked with, quizzed, and enticed their beta users. In essence they made them partners in the product. They created an audience who could appreciate the incredible level of detail in their product.

I can’t recommend this solution to everyone. It has very high risk and takes domain knowledge, commitment, and a lot of money to succeed, but when it works it creates something wonderful. Adobe has other experiences like this. Even though editing images in Photoshop is like trying to balance a cat on your head it is still the software for professional graphic designers. It hasn’t been beat.

InDesign is a category killer. It has pushed out almost all of the competition and dominates the publishing industry. Pick up any modern book and there is a good chance it was typeset using InDesign. The learning curve is steep, but what you create with it is marvelous. And that is truly compelling pay off.

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