Do One Thing and Do It Well – A Unix Philosophy

Unix has been powering the majority of internet for some time now, and it’s likely the operating system that’s running your phone among a myriad of other devices that are part of you life. Unix, in many different forms has been around since the 1970’s and will likely continue to be around for many more decades. So what is it about this operating system that gives it its staying power?

It could be the what’s called the Unix Philosophy, which includes Eric Raymond’s 17 Unix Rules, first published in 2003 in his book, The Art of Unix Programming. He talks about the Unix rules as a KISS philosophy. Logically so, one of the rules is the Rule of Simplicity which states that “developers should design for simplicity by looking for ways to break up program systems into small, straightforward cooperating pieces.” While you’re not likely a Unix developer reading this, I’m sure you can start to draw some parallels between this rule and usability design. If we were to translate this rule for design, it would state that designers should design for simplicity by looking for ways to break up a UI into small, straightforward cooperating pieces. This is just another way to describe Hick’s law. You should try to break up a UI into smaller, more manageable parts to avoid decision paralysis. (UX pin’s ebook, Interaction Design Best Practices talks about this at length and is a great read).

There’s also the Rule of Least Surprise, which states that “developers should design programs that build on top of the potential users’ expected knowledge; for example, ‘+’ in a calculator program should always mean ‘addition’. This rule aims to encourage developers to build intuitive products that are easy to use.” Translated into a UX design rule, it could state that designers should design experiences and interfaces that build on top of the users’ expected knowledge. For example, don’t take away common keyboard shortcuts (looking at you, Evernote), or be sure to have a visual distinction between a link to another page on your site, and a link to download a file.

Here’s the Wikipedia article. Take a look through it and see if you can draw some of your own parallels. It may force you to think about the heuristics that you employ in your designs in a different light. A light that’s been guiding Unix, a widely used operating system for decades.


One thing that I want to point out is that I’m not talking about the interface of Unix, as the UX whiz himself, Don Norman, points out that the UI and other general heuristics could definitely use some love. Read the truth about Unix here [pdf] http://www.bradleymonk.com/w/images/9/91/The_truth_about_Unix_Don_Norman.pdf