Point and shoot software Matt 11 Sep 2006

43 comments Latest by Eric Diamond

The best camera isn’t the one with the most features or the fanciest lens or the biggest price tag. The best camera is the one you actually carry.

camerasThere’s an inevitable tradeoff between SLRs and point and shoots. Technically speaking, SLRs are better cameras. A Canon Digital Rebel or Nikon D70 will give you higher quality photos and a lot more options.

The catch: They’re also a lot more likely to be left at home. They’re big and bulky and require lots of manual reading in order to figure out how to use all those features. An SLR camera may be better on paper, but its value declines a ton when it’s too big to carry or too complex to use.

For most people/situations, a simple, small, point and shoot is good enough. Yes, these cameras usually give you fewer megapixels and a crappier lens and minimal options. But you know what you do get? Your camera in your pocket. The value of that is huge. Plus, you don’t need to be an expert on focal lengths, shutter speeds, or ISOs. Point and shoot means you can do just that.

“The best camera is the one you actually carry” concept applies to software too. The best app in the world is worthless if it’s too cumbersome to “carry.”

That’s why we aim for less and simple. Our goal: point and shoot software. Software that fits in your pocket. Software that doesn’t require a manual. Software that actually gets used.

For some people, it’s not enough. They need more features, more power. That’s OK. As Bill Cosby said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Our market is people who just want to get the shot. People who are in a hurry. They’re not trying to create an artistic masterpiece, they’re trying to manage a project or organize information or communicate efficiently. They’re willing to satisfice if it makes their lives easier.

Most of the time, a quick solution that works is preferable to a perfect solution that requires lots of heavy lifting. Better-on-the-shelf is worthless compared to good-enough-in-your-pocket.

Related:
In his book “Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions” (brief summary here), Gary Klein discusses naturalistic decision making:

Decision makers usually look for the first workable option they can find, not the best option…Since the first option they consider is usually workable, they do not have to generate a large set of options to be sure they get a good one…The emphasis is on being poised to act rather than being paralyzed until all the evaluations have been completed.

Also, How we really use the Web is a chapter from Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think.” It includes a passage titled: “We don’t make optimal choices. We satisfice.”

43 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Geoff B 11 Sep 06

“The best camera is the one you carry” is absolutely true, and extensible to software.

On a more technical level - shutter speed is a big deal in digital cameras. I’ve always been pretty low-tech where it came to cameras, preferring point and shoot. Even the easy “disposables” were good enough for me most of the time. But I did have to wade into more expensive digital cameras simply for a faster shutter speed. I bought the cheapest and simplist one I could find, but I’d guess that shutter speed is the dealbreaker that lures a lot of people in cameras with 100 other features they don’t use.

Hmmm… not sure if everyone shares this need - how many of you would trade shutter speed for simplicity?

david gouch 11 Sep 06

But a whole bunch of fits-in-your-pocket solutions (iPod, camera, cellphone) can quickly fill up your pocket.

Joshua Lane 11 Sep 06

@ david gouch - Touche! …and an excellent point. Which is why I sometimes get annoyed by all the “simple is better” rhetoric at times. Yes, simple can be better… but people don’t always want simple.

ML 11 Sep 06

how many of you would trade shutter speed for simplicity?

I think it’s about using the right tool for the job. I have a SLR that’s great in certain situations. But for an everyday camera it’s just too bulky to carry around comfortably.

ramanan 11 Sep 06

This seems like a weak analogy. Most digital SLRs have a point and shoot mode that hides all the complexity. The distinction that they are harder to use really doesn’t apply. TextMate might be a good example of a Digital SLR application; you can use it to type text in without knowing about any of its features, but the features are there if you need them. You can use Photoshop to resize an image without needing to know anything about curves or levels or this or that. That’s an expensive solution if you just want to resize photos, but there is more power there if you need it. You can make lists in OmniOutliner, without needing to know about it’s Apple Script support. You can use Maple to solve quadratic equations, without needing to know about the countless other problems it can solve. Software that becomes more useful the more you use it seems more worthwhile to me. How much popular software is actually complex right from the get-go? Microsoft Office is a bloated mess, but is it actually hard to type a letter in it?

Peter 11 Sep 06

Now wait just a minute, I feel a contradiction alert here! Weren’t some of you, not all that long ago complaining that the art of design and typography was dying mainly because fast and pretty good approaches were killing off spending real time and effort to make something great? In fact, you normally disdain things done in a “faster must be better” mentality? Are you guys producing software that allows people to perpetuate the very ideals you yourselves claim to be against? If “faster is better some of the time, as long as it is what we deem unworthy of precision” is your motto, hypocrasy is your art.

Peter 11 Sep 06

Now wait just a minute, I feel a contradiction alert here! Weren’t some of you, not all that long ago complaining that the art of design and typography was dying mainly because fast and pretty good approaches were killing off spending real time and effort to make something great? In fact, you normally disdain things done in a “faster must be better” mentality? Are you guys producing software that allows people to perpetuate the very ideals you yourselves claim to be against? If “faster is better some of the time, as long as it is what we deem unworthy of precision” is your motto, hypocrasy is your art.

JF 11 Sep 06

Peter, we make tradeoffs with *every single design decision*. So do you. So does everyone.

Some things are more important than others. Sometimes an element is worth the extra work. Sometime it’s not. Sometime it’s worth 2 hours, but not 20. Marginal value is important.

Everything isn’t worth full and complete attention because there is a significant cost to full and complete attention. It means you can’t do other things. It may even mean fatigue and burnout and a huge hit to morale which is never worth the cost in the end.

So it all comes down to figuring out when to make the right decisions about each decision. Sometimes near-perfection is necessary and sometimes good-enough is plenty and other times it just doesn’t matter.

Peter 11 Sep 06

Would you then admit that the art of typography fits into the “just doesn’t matter” category (provided it is readable)?

Fazal Majid 11 Sep 06

The biggest drawback of pocket digicams is their tiny (cheaper to manufacture) sensors that don’t collect enough light to give you clean images beyond ISO 200 or so. Since many of the situations where you would use such a camera are precisely indoors at night, this is a serious shortcoming.

Fortunately, Fuji has a model, the F30 (the third-generation successor to the F10 you have in your photo) that can actually take decent pictures at ISO 800.

I almost always carry a Canon Rebel XT DSLR with a 35mm f/1.4L lens. The Rebel XT with a cheaper (and much more compact) 35mm f/2 lens (or equivalent models by Nikon, Pentax, Sony et al) is really light and fairly compact, I have no problem stuffing one in my Timbuk2 messenger bag. The fast prime lens is sharper than bulky and slow zooms, and will let you shoot in very low light situations without requiring flash.

ML 11 Sep 06

Peter, we’re not talking about the art of design or typography. We’re talking about products that let you manage a project or organize info or communicate as easily as possible. Every time the hurdle is raised a little bit, it gets that much harder to jump over. So we keep it simple.

it’s all about the right tool for the job. If you need to take a hi-res photo suitable for a magazine, use an SLR. If you need to capture a quick shot of friends at dinner to post on flickr, use a point and shoot.

JF 11 Sep 06

Would you then admit that the art of typography fits into the “just doesn’t matter” category (provided it is readable)?

I don’t believe in blanket statements like that. It always depends.

Sometimes typography is very important, sometimes it’s not as important, and other times it can be a waste of time. It all depends on how much time you spend and what it’s for.

Bernd Goldschmidt 11 Sep 06

> “We don’t make optimal choices. We satisfice.”

It is a common missunderstanding that evolution (Are there still any “believers” in theory of evolution in the usa? Just kidding.) made us perfect. That’s not the case. Evolution doesn’t lead to “perfect”, it leads to “good enough”. Good enough to survive.

So we use shortcuts and heuristics all the time. Not to create perfect things or reach perfect goals, but to “get things done”.

Natalie Ferguson 11 Sep 06

Good timing, I just bought a new camera, I take it everywhere. It’s awesome. The comparison seems to be:
1) if you want to take lovely, artistic photos, you choose one of those complex, bulky cameras
2) if you want to use your camera as a tool in normal life you choose the simplest, smallest option.
How this relates to software?
Business Software is tools to aid you in doing the job (2), not to do the job (1). Therefore it is best when it is simple, easily portable and without bells and whistles.

Ross Hill 11 Sep 06

Forget the little one next to the SLR you have there, the only camera I carry everywhere is the 2mp inside my Nokia N70. The photos is takes are ‘good enough’ for general use as you can see in my flickr. 2mp might be frowned upon by some, but its really not that bad. I haven’t used the old point and click for months!

Jack Cheng 11 Sep 06

I’ve been planning to sell my Canon Rebel XT for this exact reason.

Re: Natalie’s points… I think you can still take lovely, artistic photos without a complex bulky camera. When you have a small, simple camera with you at all times, you give yourself more opportunities to capture lovely, artistic photos that you’d miss out on otherwise.

Likewise, when you’re doing something like brainstorming, using a simple tool that doesn’t have multiple categories and statuses for you to pick from might yield less-organized result… but, by not thinking about that stuff and concentrating on getting your ideas on paper, you have a better chance of capturing that fleeting moment of brilliance.

warren 11 Sep 06

jason, what do you think about the issue of “solving a problem someone didn’t know they had”? introducing a new way of doing thing that, if you’re willing to adopt it, makes your life nicer seems challenging to sell to people. i have some ideas for products but i think there’d be too much “huh? what is this?” unless a user/customer was willing to learn a little bit about what’s going on.

(i’m trying to cultivate the ability to empathize with impatient/fickle users.)

Andy Atkinson 11 Sep 06

It’s all about the Benjamins. If I had more money I’d have a nice SLR (say Nikon D70 or something) *AND* a nice pocketable portable (ala Fujifilm F30). Instead I bought a “best of both worlds” Canon S80 and have been disappointed a couple of times when I left it at home before a trip to the bar, but in fairness, was also disappointed on a recent trip to Yellowstone where I was wishing it was an SLR instead. Then again, most people don’t care about photos, especially other peoples photos….so do what makes you happy, care about what you want to care about. There really is no point-and-shoot that does the job of a manual, and the smaller they make the SLRs, the harder they are to use, buttons become consolidated and less useful, LCD preview screens become less useful….this random string of thoughts is over! Different tools for different jobs! I use TadaLists *and* Photoshop!

Reuben 11 Sep 06

I like the Bill Cosby quote. I gotta say I know a few people, including myself who suffer from this “need” to please everybody.

Andy Kant 11 Sep 06

Ramanan has a very good point in that alot of these “more complex” applications have simple modes for those who need it simple. My favorite applications are ones that have both interfaces available, text editors such as TextMate being the best example of that (personally I love SciTE).

JF 11 Sep 06

jason, what do you think about the issue of “solving a problem someone didn’t know they had”? introducing a new way of doing thing that, if you’re willing to adopt it, makes your life nicer seems challenging to sell to people.

Most of our products are about this very thing. Asking people to consider a different way of doing things in exchange for a better way of doing things.

mic 11 Sep 06

I think the A620 is the best digicam

Adam Brand 11 Sep 06

Some cameras suck though even if they are easy to carry. For example, I have a camera in my phone. It is with me all the time, but I never use it. Why? It takes only so-so pictures, has a bad flash, and no optimal zoom. It has the basic features, but too basic for my needs.

I have Canon Powershot that takes good pictures; it’s not the lightest or thinest, but it gets the job done. I leave it at home sometimes, but when I am travelling I will take it with me. The key with that is that it has the RIGHT features for me: Optical Zoom (the highest in its class), relatively lightweight, compact, and takes SD cards. It doesn’t have a zillion megapixels, and I don’t need that.

I think for software the problem is that different users have different ideas of what the RIGHT features are. While simplicity is good, I think it is also interesting to think about this: how can you put the features in but hide them for those that don’t need them?

I semi-like the way Salesforce.com has implemented this: in the upper right corner, there is a combo box that lets you choose what “Profile” you want to operate in. You can add and customize these as needed. Essentially, though, you can only see the “tabs” that you want to see given who you are or what you are doing. I think that is a nice metaphor, but unfortunately they don’t extend it to the feature level (just the UI level).

Grant Hutchins 11 Sep 06

One app that really satisfices is AppZapper for the Mac. In its purest use, you open the window and drop an application’s icon on it. It shows you the app and other associated files, and you click Zap! The screen flashes, you get a zap sound effect, and it’s all gone (into the trash). Simple. Easy. Fun. Point-and-shoot.

The app proved so popular that when the site maczot.com offered the developer’s next app, Disco, for sale before any details were released, people pre-ordered it in droves. Because whatever Disco turns out to do, it will probably just do it and get out of the way. That’s what users want.

Richard 11 Sep 06

Just having the camera with you doesn’t mean you’re going to use it to take pictures. Portability doesn’t necessarily lead to use, it leads to having it with you. Actually using it to take pictures takes practice and taking pictures that you and others like takes even more practice. It’s easy, but you have to do it, regularly.

I totally agree that simple software where more power can be had by peeling a layer back is better than software that presents you with a shuttle cockpit of features. But, even simple software if not used regularly, just sits there.

Oh, and set a DSLR to automatic and while it’s big and heavy, it’s as easy to use as a point and shoot and will take better pictures. Turn the mode dial to Av, open the aperture up and do a headshot of your girlfriend/boyfriend/cat/dog and you’re on your way. No brain surgery or much if any manual reading.

Richard 11 Sep 06

Just having the camera with you doesn’t mean you’re going to use it to take pictures. Portability doesn’t necessarily lead to use, it leads to having it with you. Actually using it to take pictures takes practice and taking pictures that you and others like takes even more practice. It’s easy, but you have to do it, regularly.

I totally agree that simple software where more power can be had by peeling a layer back is better than software that presents you with a shuttle cockpit of features. But, even simple software if not used regularly, just sits there.

Oh, and set a DSLR to automatic and while it’s big and heavy, it’s as easy to use as a point and shoot and will take better pictures. Turn the mode dial to Av, open the aperture up and do a headshot of your girlfriend/boyfriend/cat/dog and you’re on your way. No brain surgery or much if any manual reading.

JF 11 Sep 06

But, even simple software if not used regularly, just sits there.

Of course Richard. Anything you don’t use just sits there.

The point is you increase the odds it will be used when it’s really easy to use. After that you’re on your own.

John Gruber 11 Sep 06

I tend to use a digital SLR because I care enough about image quality that I’m willing to tolerate the larger size. But what I find frustrating about the point-and-shoot market is that the cameras really *aren’t* that much simpler than the SLRs. Smaller, for sure, but not much simpler. What I want in a digital point-and-shoot doesn’t seem to exist: the camera equivalent of an iPod Shuffle. Something that’s very small, relatively cheap, and has as few buttons and modes as possible.

andrew 11 Sep 06

I’m with John Gruber. The little cameras are overly complicated. Not to mention slow to startup and focus and noisy (image noise).

What I want, what I really really want, is a dead-simple, tiny camera. It would have to be as small and light as my mobile phone: 90 grams not 200. I also want it to have only 2mp or so, LOW noise all the way up to ISO1600, instant startup and focus. And it’d probably be a 50mm-equivalent fixed lens.

Geoffrey 11 Sep 06

The best camera is the one you *choose* to carry—assuming you have more than one. If you are serious about your photography you should have both an SLR and a wafer thin pocket camera. But Gruber is right on—the UI on a digital camera seems to be more confusing the smaller it gets. Probably due to the lack of knobs and dials which, to me, makes the SLR the better choice. It’s much easier to turn a dial than navigate a menu system. In a way, the SLR is the simpler choice if you know how to use it.

M. Kris Khaira 11 Sep 06

A friend of mine is a professional freelance photographer who brings a lomo when she travels because SLRs just aren’t portable enough.

I’ve been looking for either a point and shoot or an SLR and I’m beginning to settle on the point and shoot for the same reason. Also, despite photography being my other passion, I think I haven’t been practising enough photography to use the SLR as its best.

Daniel 12 Sep 06

thats why i love the IXUS series

andrew 12 Sep 06

I have an IXUS, be it about 3 years old. It’s lovely, but it’s about twice the weight and size it’d need to be to go in a jeans pocket, and it’s just too slow to reliably capture anything moving, like children. I want instant, don’t-hesitate photography — TRUE point and shoot, not point, wait and miss the moment — and the only way I can see to get that right now is something like a low-end D-SLR with a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens.

And see, this is apposite to the original post. I’d rather imagine the software equivalent of a Leica M than an overly complex compact with more megapixels but noisier images than an SLR.

Don Schenck 12 Sep 06

Remember: Perfection is the enemy of Progress.

James Head 12 Sep 06

If you want simple point and click, check out the canon ixus series.

ARWolff 12 Sep 06

If KISS is your mantra, be sure to distinguish between “easy” and “familiar” — and that it isn’t “easy” if it doesn’t let you do what you want to do. As a journalism student, I used Macs for years and years; in my ten years since college, various flavors of PC have been my primary machine. Despite Apple’s marketing and the “popular wisdom” that Macs are “just easier to use,” the missing Alt+Tab, right mouse button and command line frustrate the hell out of me, every time I try to use one.

A nice, thin, one-button camera that won’t let me focus on a subject out of the center of the frame, or adjust the depth of field when I want to, does the same. Where software UIs are concerned, I like the option of more power when I need it

robb monn 12 Sep 06

I think that this is a big stretch. Cameras are not a good metaphor for software in the ways that you indicate: you don’t explain what ‘carrying’ a bit of code is and there is no indication as to how the SLR’s ‘better’-ness as a camera applies to software. SLRs don’t have more features or modes than compact cameras, they just shoot better pictures and give the user a choice of lenses. Point and shoot cameras usually suffer from poorly implemented and fiddly interfaces that don’t lend themselves to being used in a fluid way or in challenging environments.

I would argue that your software is actually more akin to the SLR. You cannot access it offline, which is similar to not being able to have your SLR with you all the time. Your software puts you closer to your content, very much like an SLR, and the results are cleaner and more closely related to the user’s intention. Addionally your software is difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t “get it,” much like it is hard to explain to folks why you’d pay $1000 for a camera and $500 for a prime lens instead of $200 for a kodak digital camera. Over the long term your software is more expensive than ‘standard’ solutions as well and at times just as difficult to justify to oneself as that $500 50mm f1.4.

You make simple software on purpose. We get it.

Kevin 12 Sep 06

I think the point I take from this whole post is that the folks at 37 Signals just don’t really know much about cameras.

ML 12 Sep 06

you don’t explain what ‘carrying’ a bit of code is and there is no indication as to how the SLR’s ‘better’-ness as a camera applies to software.

We’re talking about being light instead of bulky. We’re talking about making something a no-brainer to use: point and shoot instead of ISOs, apertures, and shutter speeds. We’re talking about something that’s easy, usable, and gets out of your way.

You make simple software on purpose. We get it.

Glad you get it Robb. Since there are also new and infrequent readers here too, we’ll continue to revisit these concepts.

robb monn 12 Sep 06

ugh, I guess so. Aside from interchangable lenses there is no operational difference between a DSLR and a point and shoot: they both have auto and manual modes. You can select any level of complexity with either factor, with the exceptions that a DSLR probably has much better software and it does what it does more quickly and efficiently and with a higher level of quality.

Your software is *not* portable, *is* better written and by your own philosophy allows one to work more quickly and efficiently to ultimately produce a highler quality of output.

But please feel free to use any Pepsi Blue metaphor you want to describe your software. Maybe you could fix the printing of tables in Writeboard sometime too. :)

Curtis 14 Sep 06

The small, compact cameras are a nightmare to use in my opinion. Buttons are tiny, very few functions can be adjusted unless activated/de-activated in the complicated menu systems, and the viewfinders typically are disfunctional. A strong point of the compact camera over the SLR is the ability to frame a shot without putting the camera to your face.

The SLR’s advantage is the wealth of information on the camera itself. Mode select, ISO adjust, shutter speed and f-stop, etc, can be adjusted/employed as easily as it can be ignored.

Taking that to the sofware concept: the compact-camera software is basic, with a couple basic functions (aim, shoot, review). The preference panel in return is bloated, complicated. SLR software would have a more detailed interface, showing actions and functions that may or may not be used.

A suggestion on simplicity - one person’s simplicity level is not another’s. To me, ISO, shutter speed, f-stop is a no-brainer — not saying I am smarter, I just know how to apply them in the craft of image making, and feel that the process is incomplete without the ability to control them.. In a nutshell, allowing your user to choose the level of simplicity seems a reasonable approach to the concept.

Jim Jeffers 15 Sep 06

I understand the point you’re trying to make and I understand how it applies to the situation. But this could be a much more apprehensible situation if you compared two point in shoots or two different SLRs. This metaphor just doesn’t stick nor is it fair. This is like comparing a laptop to a smart-phone. They are used for completely different reasons. When you go out to take photos passionately and for artistic purposes a point and shoot just ain’t going to cut it! If you’re going to shoot photos at a random party than yes a point and shoot is your best bet no doubt.. who want’s to risk someone accidentally breaking or stealing such an expensive toy :)

Oh yeah and don’t dis SLR’s as being more confusing. If anything PAS cameras have just as many features hidden in them except the majority of those are pointless. All you really need to know how to do is adjust the shutter, adjust the aperture, and focus. And I would argue that it’s much more difficult to figure out how to manually adjust that on a PAS than it is on an SLR… so the real question is why? when you go into manual mode on a PAS it’s often complicated.. why can’t they make that a simple process on most?

Eric Diamond 19 Sep 06

I agree with those who disagree. I had a tiny Sony T-1 camera. I took it everywhere. It was simple. Flip the door down, instant start-up, a little zoom and fast shutter. Couldn’t be simpler. Just one problem. It took lousy pictures. Horrible. The kind of pictures you regret because the reason to carry a camera is to get the shot. It never got the shot. It was blurry, under or over exposed, and it’s tiny flash guranteed redeye and underpowered performance in low light.

I ditched it in favor of a Canon 20D DSLR. It’s big. It’s heavy. With a 135mm zoom it is crazy heavy. But it takes fantstic pictures. It is easier to use than the Sony. Pull it out, point press the shutter once to wake it up, one more to get the shot. interchageable lenses mean my zoom can be unlimited. ISO up to 1600 means I can shoot almost anything without a flash. Fast shutter with a RAM buffer means I can shoot up to 8 FPS. I get the shot.

And I do carry it around a lot. For the times I need to capture something for documentary purposes, my 1.3MP phone-cam works fine, but to get the shot, bigger sometimes is better, and simpler.

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