September 13, 2021

Baby Clothes Theory of Enterprise Software

Arvind Narayanan:

There are two types of baby outfits. The first is targeted at people buying gifts. It’s irresistible on the rack. It has no fewer than 18 buttons. At least 3 people are needed to get a screaming baby into it. It’s worn once, so you can send a photo to the gifter, then discarded.

Other baby outfits are meant for parents. They’re marked Easy On, Easy Off” or some such, and they really mean it. Zippers aren’t easy enough so they fasten using MAGNETS. A busy parent (i.e. a parent) can change an outfit in 5 seconds, one handed, before rushing to work.

The point is, some products are sold directly to the end user, and are forced to prioritize usability. Other products are sold to an intermediary whose concerns are typically different from the user’s needs. Such products don’t HAVE to end up as unusable garbage, but usually do.


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The Usability Tao Tao Eleven is my favourite. Ursula Le Guin calls it “The uses of not”. Thirty spokes meet in the hub. Where the wheel isn’t is where it’s useful.