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Watch Out For Nifty

Watch Out For Nifty

by Zack on May 21, 2009

Watch Out For Nifty

The architect Moshe Safdie noted that, in nature, beauty is a by-product of function. It is the same way in software design. Software is just a means to an end. It doesn’t matter if you are helping people write a letter, edit an image, or view your ideas on a blog, the software is the journey not the destination. That is why it is so important to watch out for nifty.

Nifty goes by many names. Sometimes they call it sexy, cool, or even web 2.0. Nifty is that little feature you put in because it really is cool. It is flashy and shows off what a good programmer you are or how cool your site is. It is a feature that jumps up and says look at me, and it has to go.

I interviewed Aza Raskin a little while ago and he asked me what the best user experience is for a shovel. Shovels sort of mirror software with the blade (the back end that does all the work) and the handle (the user interface). A shovel with a wonderful ergonomic handle and a cardboard blade would be just as useless as one with a diamond tipped blade and a toothpick sized handle. Good user experience and good implementation go hand in hand. So what is the best user experience for a shovel? A hole.

You care about the hole you’re digging much more than the shovel. The shovel is only the means to the end. That can be a tough pill to swallow for software because it takes so much time to make. You spend a long time making your blog look good and you want people to notice, but making them notice the design means the design is wrong.

Finding nifty

There are a few different kinds of nifty, but they have some similar characteristics. Here are some nifty warning signs:

Moving – We are hard-wired to notice movement. When something on the screen moves without provocation it is probably nifty.

Flashing – Flashing is another form of moving. It almost never helps the user.

Old dogs with new tricks – Everytime you introduce something new the user needs to learn how to use it. New UI is good for new functions, but creating new ways of solving old problems is almost always nifty.

On the side – the best UI is in the user’s way so they don’t have to look for it. When you want to add something on the side because it isn’t important to the user it is probably nifty.

A nifty example

I recently designed a website for a book. Most book websites have a similar structure. They need to show information about the book, about the author, media contacts, and maybe a blog.


When I first started the design my engineer brain turned on and I had an epiphany: I could design this better. I was inspired by the pie menu at Songza.com. I was going to add a JUMP menu which popped up and let the user jump to any page without taking up screen space showing all the options. It was going to be revolutionary. The world would be inspired by my idea and website design would be forever changed by my idea.

A good friend talked me down from the cliff before I jumped. He gave me the sage advice to watch out for nifty. Songza’s pie menu is clear, in the way, and teaches users how to do something new. My JUMP menu would have been on the side, moving, and creating new ways to do something we already do well. This is what I made instead:


The fundamental lesson is that your UI is about your users and not you. Get your UI out of the user’s way and just let them get to what they want to see.

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