Here's an excerpt from fastcodesign interview with Bret Victor:

QUESTION: An argument I'm going to make is that UIs should ideally be "deep" -- that is, simple, intuitive and error-tolerant on the surface, but with levels of more "surgical" functionality built-in below for users to discover and exploit as they grow more skilled with the software.

ANSWER: A lot of designers would say they strive for that, yes. But I don't like that as an ideal at all. For me, the ideal UI offers many uses for many people, but accomplishes that without hidden "deep" features. A piece of paper, for example, can be used for all sorts of things -- pictures, poetry, airplanes, spitballs, stabilizing a wobbly table -- but it doesn't offer those as "hidden features". It's just flexible.

In short, Bret is against hiding features based on user's expertise.


Google limits the power of casual users by presenting only a text box and some filtering options. If you a are power user, and you need more control over your search, you should discover by yourself the advanced features of Google buried in some page somewhere in the internet.

These advanced features or hidden commands include:

  • "search term" only show exact matches
  • ~search use synonyms of "search".
  • -search exclude results with the word search.

These are extremely useful options and Google hides them all from the general searcher.

Google's doing it for simplicity's sake!

Yes, but in doing so, Google is dividing its user base into: dumbass and smartass OR more formally, casual and power user. Also, it's cheating a part of its users by hiding features (or making them hard to access). As we read in the interview, Bret Victor thinks that's bad. So what's good then?

Bret's Solution

Basically, Bret has made the advanced features discoverable yet unobtrusive. Below is the image.


My view

At the moment, I must agree with Bret Victor's philosophy:

  1. Avoid dividing users and functionality based on expertise.
  2. Avoid hiding features but make them easily discoverable yet unobtrusive.

As I understand, ignoring above rules will always disappoint one of the two groups and I don't like that. On the other hand, I wonder whether it is possible to make all important features discoverable yet unobrtusive.

My question

Has there been any research on these two competing philosophies? Are there any reasons to prefer one to the other?

  • Apple has a long history of this as well in their UI design...and is arguably a basic tenet of theirs. I don't agree that this divides users at all and, in fact, would argue the opposite...it's an all-inclusive concept where everyone is brought in at the same level and everyone is enabled to find their own level of feature depth. (And while this is a fascinating topic, asking "which is most effective" isn't a great question for StackExchange. It's perhaps a bit too broad. Maybe you can narrow the question down a bit?)
    – DA01
    Commented Jul 28, 2013 at 15:38
  • Bret's main point is that all humans CAN learn advanced stuff, if the system helps without confusing them. What Google and other designers are doing is taking an anti-learning approach by discouraging discovery and learning for common users. And yes, I am ready to narrow my question down...please tell me how :) Commented Jul 28, 2013 at 16:40
  • Anyone can learn complex 'stuff', but not everyone wants a complex UI. This solution accommodates those that don't want it, with the advantage of advanced features for those that do.
    – DA01
    Commented Jul 28, 2013 at 22:22
  • 1
    You could maybe word it as 'has there been research on these two competing philosophies?'.
    – DA01
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 2:23
  • 1
    Google not only hides features but also terminates whole products and product lines. It "does no evil"... Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 8:15

2 Answers 2


1. People are different
As Internet World Stats says, there are almost 2.5 billions of Internet users now. And even people in a same office or home are different, didn't you experience this? It shouldn't be ignored. UX adopts it and use many tools for it (Personas, etc.).

2. Software products are different
There is range from mass market software to narrowed niche software. Feature requirements and UI for them are formed with the help of UX techiques.

3. No ideal solution
Software is constantly changing and improving. UX provide some formalisation in doing it, but there are no absolute markers of the final perfect solution, just keep process.

Bret's solution enter image description here
In Bret's solution only small part of Google advanced functionality is shown. Such way no ideal, besides discovered functionality, it has disadvantages. A user limited to available options but others are beyond his mind. So again, it is too simple. The circle closed...


Very interesting question.. I think the issue is not with the "hiddenness" of a feature but aligning with the user's mental model.

In the paper example there is nothing that says that it can be folded, no one teaches us that either. It's justa natural reaction. If one sees a button, there is a tendency to press it - many times even if one doesn't need to.

Looking at the google interface, I see it flexible like paper, however it's not evident that it's that flexible. In Apple mail client search, it suggests things as I type. So if I type a name, it suggests that I can search that in the Person Name field or in Subject field.

enter image description here

In other words, if the user typed whatever they naturally think in the search box and got exactly the result that they expected, then it's like paper.

  • Thanks for answering my question, Alok. According to my understanding, Bret is comparing Paper's flexibility with an application's flexibility -- NOT paper with app. However, I think Bret's statement is ambiguous probably due to the nature of interviews. What I want is an objective comparison: deep (and hidden) vs flat (and discoverable) interfaces. Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 15:17

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