One of my favorite PC games of all time is Birthright: The Gorgons alliance. It is a very deep and complicated game that had much more than many single player games at that time.

For example, the user could manage a realm from a strategic map, participate in tactical battles or go on 3D adventure with their hero.

An interesting thing about that game is that due to the amount of stuff the player could do, there were 3 user interface levels:

Beginner, with only 6 actions available every single turn
Advanced, with about 9 actions
Expert, with 18 actions

You can see the example of beginner and expert interface in the images below. The actions I'm talking about are represented by icons on the left part of the screen.

Additionally, you may notice that the expert screen looks SUPER BUSY with all the buildings. But the additional building displays and lines can be turned off with the 5 icons in the lower right, allowing the user to focus on as much or as little as possible.

The difference in interface meant that beginners never saw or got to use some of the more advanced features of the game, and instead focused on the few actions that they could manage, like moving troops or going on adventures. They did not fortify castles or built trade networks.

The modern iPhone/iPad apps make it fairly easy to implement different types of UI for the same app, but I'm wandering whether the practice of designing different complexities of UI is valid from a user point of view?

Do any users of modern software prefer to have a "slimmed down" version of the UI/Features, alongside a more feature-rich one, with the ability to switch between the two?

BirthRight Basic mode

BirthRight expert Mode

  • Is your question really iOS specific? I see you mention it in there but it's really not a situation specific to iOS, I think the paradigm applies equally well to pretty much any platform, granted customization options are generally less common on mobile apps.
    – Zelda
    Commented Nov 4, 2012 at 19:55
  • As an iOS developer, I'm primarily interested in iOS, because I can apply this insight. I'm sure there are many approaches to web development, but I cannot immediately apply that insight.
    – Alex Stone
    Commented Nov 4, 2012 at 22:15

3 Answers 3


I have a very different take than what Ben has.

There are such desktop apps, mainly in the industrial world.

An example on what I was invited to look at just this week is a graphing app: you can think like some kind of diagramming app, only it's for communication networks.

Now there are two interfaces of it: one of them is using layman's terms, the other one is using mathematician's terms. When you set something in the layman interface, it probably sets 2-3 things simultaneusly on the advanced interface (which is hidden by default).

The reason for this is that average people need not to be knowledgeable about different technical terms, yet it annoys the professionals if things aren't called properly.

However, such distinctions mostly failed.

The reason is that usually, there's no explicit boundary between a novice and an expert user, and therefore, there are sometimes features needed by the users deemed "novices", yet available only to experts.

The most famous is the auto-hide feature introduced in Windows 2000 (and its contemporary Office 2000), which was quickly killed by Office 2003. They wanted an auto-reconfiguring system for office.

The Office UI team was struggling with this issue of complexity for very long, which resulted at the Ribbon.

I recommend you to read their blog about these struggles. (Thx for someone who linked it in UX.SE a while ago!). Perhaps it may help you. I don't say you should use a ribbon-like interface, your problem might be different.

On iOS, usually, there are two versions of essentially the same application: "MyBeautifulApp" or "MyBeautifulApp Easy" or "MyBeautifulApp Light" and "MyBeautifulApp Pro", sometimes with different interfaces, and different price tags.

  • Very good point about the Office ribbon and productivity
    – Alex Stone
    Commented Nov 4, 2012 at 22:41

Is it "common?" Not counting video games, certainly not. I've almost never seen "difficulty settings" outside of a video game, though on rare occasion I'll see an app that has either a more complex version or more complex interface hidden in a setting for more "advanced" users. In fact in video games difficulty settings rarely affect the UI except in very complicated games where the UI is the difficulty. However, whether it's a good idea is an altogether different question from "is it common".

Before you consider anything like this, consider two very important things; the first is the Smashing Magazine article The Myth of the Sophisticated User; basically it points out that both "basic" and "advanced" users probably just want to get something done and optimizing for getting things done, period, is generally preferable to optimizing/balancing "complex" and "easy".

Second you need to consider that game design is significantly different from most app design in one key way; games are supposed to be a challenge. Many games aren't fun if you don't lose, if you never screw up from time to time. Most apps aren't fun if you screw up. This is why there's difficulty settings, to promote a sense of flow. Games need to support people who want it difficult and even want to suffer a bit. Users of advanced applications generally are doing it for productivity much more than the "challenge" of it. A few people might use emacs over a text editor for the raw challenge, but I'm sure most do just because it's how they get work done.

Instead, in interfaces what's generally done to cater to the "basic" and "advanced" interface is to hide away the advanced bits but leave them accessible for everyone. Stick them in a menu, document them with keyboard shortcuts.

And sometimes an "easy" interface may be the whole selling point of your app. Look at iA writer, an extremely minimalist writing application. It's really not the same as "Word, with easy mode on", it's created out of a completely separate paradigm. iA writer uses minimalism to keep you in a state of Flow by removing distraction; in productivity, Flow is mostly about the task, not the interface. The interface shouldn't get in the way regardless of how skilled you are, your task is the "difficulty setting", more or less. If you want a challenging task you'll try and reproduce the Mona Lisa in Photoshop, you won't add a bunch of complex features and odd UI elements you're unlikely to use.

When you add options like easy/hard interfaces you also run the risk of over-complicating things: Am I an advanced user? What do I lose by using easy mode? Instead, generally, either target your app for an audience or for completing a task (or a combination of both). Make it as simple as possible without eliminating functionality, but maybe push less useful functions on to the sidelines, behind a menu, or on Android into the Action Overflow.

So in summary, it's an interesting idea, but I find there's rarely a case where it will be practical to explicitly design hard/easy interfaces for an app. Instead, if necessary, allow some UI customizations like adding toolbars, or keep advanced features in a way that's documented but out of the way, like keyboard shortcuts. Generally if a user wants an app so completely different (simpler or more complex) they'll hunt down a whole different app. Of course that's in no small part because that's how the current world is; there's no "easy" mode for Photoshop, you'll just have to find a different app, but as I hope I've explained, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

  • Very good points about "getting stuff done". I wish I could accept both answers!
    – Alex Stone
    Commented Nov 4, 2012 at 22:57
  • +1 for your second paragraph alone. More if I could for the rest. Commented Nov 5, 2012 at 7:50

Ages ago Apples Desktop Operating System used to have something called Balloon Help. If you were new to the particular interface you could turn it on and little balloons of text explanation would pop up when you pointed the mouse at something.

So an example of an interface extra for new users.

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