Most often I see software aiming for easy to use. This usually does not mean easy to use, but easy to learn.

For example, vim is really easy to use, but extremely hard to learn. Most webpages are easy to learn but hard to use (delay in response time, multiple mouse clicks, etc.).

Many programs (like MS Word) tries to be easy to use with and easy to learn UI that they combine with shortcuts. This works rather well, but it's still aimed towards easy to learn as a primary objective.

For professional users that works heavily with a program I would think that easy to use should be more important than easy to learn. However I sense that it's not always the case.

So my question is, is it okay to produce easy to use UI rather than easy to learn UI for a professional audience?

  • Are you asking a general question or do you have a specific target on your mind?
    – PatomaS
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 7:19
  • @PatomaS I got the inspiration for the question when I implemented a financial application, but it's really a broad question. I think it applies in a wide range of professional software.
    – iveqy
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 11:28

3 Answers 3


It really depend on context. A general all audience public UI need to have both good learnability and usability. But a specific custom narrow audience business tool can aim for fast flow in operation rather than easy to learn IF and only IF operators get substantial and accurate training on the UI/application.

There may be a cost issue in the way, where low cost in operation can justify higher development and training cost. So yes, in certain fields and circumstances it's doable to aim for easy to use rather than easy to learn if you can't have both.

  • 2
    Too many don't take this into consideration - design for your users, not for general users! Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 9:11
  • 1
    I'd agree with the point of 'learnability' versus 'usability'. For a UI which is used by a professional group of users 24/7 (say the UI for an aeroplane) something which is 'stripped out' of helpful graphics and mouse movements, may be more efficient for experienced users to use.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 9:50

Having just discussed by our instructor in Systems Analysis and Design Chapter 8 (The link is just the table of contents), the UI should be transparent to the user. And by that, it meant:

  • The UI should be intuitive (easy to learn)
  • The UI should not get in the way of use (easy to use)

The UI should be easy to learn and not have a very steep learning curve, so that you can get productive in the least time possible, discover features without even reading an inch-thick manual. A good example of this are mobile apps. Do you notice that most apps don't have a "Help" section? People just pick them up, and use.

The UI should also be easy to use. It should get the job done with least effort and frustration. For instance, MS Office used to have mile-deep nested drop-downs, which were like 30px narrow. Missing it would mean traversing back from the top. They replaced it with the Ribbon, which placed those same commands one click away. It even exposed features that people didn't know had existed.

So it's not a choice, you should aim for both.

  • 1
    You can't always have both. Of course you can aim for both, but usually there's always cases where you've to choose. (The choice isn't black or white, but somewhere in between)
    – iveqy
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 17:21
  • 1
    Why do you think you can't have both? If it isn't both, it can (and should) be improved until it is easy to learn; from there, improve the usability. Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 17:28
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    @JohnDeters: because not everything in life is easy. When you try to simplify (make easy to learn and use) something that is inherently complex, you will fail. Either because simplifying isn't possible or because the simplification only caters to 80% of the use cases and thus does not cover the 20% of hard cases where the application should actually deliver most of its value for the experts. Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 19:12
  • @MarjanVenema, I understand what you are saying, but I optimistically believe that even complex tasks can be made simpler if looked at in a different way, and simpler tasks are easier to learn. Often it's a matter of re-examining the dependencies, and reordering/restructuring them more appropriately. Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 23:57
  • @JohnDeters: I envy you your optimism. I really do. Yes many complex things can be simplified. However, complex things that let themselves be simplified by reordering/restructuring are the complicated ones. "Complicated" taken here as things that - perhaps over time - have been made unnecessarily complex. Inherent complexity is hardly ever simplifiable unless a breakthrough is made in science, engineering, ... and/or all the rules which companies have to abide by. Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 12:51

As a general rule, we can say that there is no reason to use a difficult interface if you can use a simple one, although there are situations where it is acceptable and even recommended, and if you have to do it, it's better that it is easy to learn but with all the required element than easy to use and lacking necessary elements.

For instance, Microsoft Office, had the same interface for years, which made that design a solid standard, but we all know how for the 2007 suite, they decided to change it to a more modern and flexible one. Most people hated it, and due to the fact that it was new; plus people didn't liked it (the reasons are not important), it became very difficult to use. We can say that it was difficult by itself, with out the emotions involved, but that doesn't change the fact that it was difficult. Still, there was a reason, they wanted to add more features, and make all, or almost all of the existent features reachable with less clicks, which sounds very good, but the change made it difficult and people had to adapt to it. Most frequent users adapted quickly to it and learned the interface, so we can say that they did what you ask, they produced an easy to learn UI that was not as easy to use.

On this article from the MSDN blog titled Ye Olde Museum Of Office Past (Why the UI, Part 2), we can see some of the old interfaces, which are very similar to the next image. All those where easy to use because they where more or less the same, but though the years more and more features where kept in a difficult to learn interface, hidden on many levels of submenus.

word 97

And for those few which are not familiar with the more recent interface, this is an example, which look clean and easy to use, but it's not that easy or intuitive, but once you learn the grouping mechanic, it's relatively easy.

word 2007

On the article Making User Interface Elements Difficult to Use By Intent, Jacob Gube gives good reasons and examples for why and when difficult interfaces make sense, this excerpt is a good example of the article:

However, a big part of designing user interfaces that are easy to use also involves figuring out what things should be a bit more difficult to use. It’s a counter-intuitive notion that’s central to effective user interface design.

Or this other quote, which on it self includes a quote from Jeff Atwood

So, if Fitts’ Law states that interface elements that are essential to the user should be bigger and closer to them — or in the context of a computer screen, easier to find and see — Atwood looks at the problem in reverse and asks, "What should we do with UI elements we don’t want users to click on?"

The answer is simple. By logic, we make those UI elements more difficult to use, locate, and find by making them smaller and more distant to the user.

Although, for me, the most important reason is at the beginning of the article:

When there’s an overall improvement to the UI as a whole

Benny Skogberg already covered the situation where a difficult interface has a reason based on the specific use of an specialized group of users, which should also have training. I'll add that some times, even if there is no training, certain tasks require complex interfaces, for instance 3D software like 3D Studio Max or blender have very busy interfaces, but they require almost all of that, and if you remove it, it will feel incomplete, so they are difficult to use and difficult to learn; in deed they are considered so complex, that they rely heavily on using keyboard shortcuts, that way, the interface and the space to work can be optimized.


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