Good design offers one way to do it

A popular misconception is that good design offers multiple ways to do the same action.

Meanwhile, monotony means having exactly one way to do some action. It’s the opposite of redundancy.

Monotony sounds dull, but is actually a profoundly clarifying guideline. I first heard about it from Jef Raskin—yes, the Macintosh guy.

Let’s analyze some examples.

1. Journal entries

iOS’s Journal app has a delightfully short feature set:

  1. Create and delete entries
  2. Edit and add attachments to entries
  3. Bookmark and filter entries

Unfortunately, it lets you bookmark, edit, or delete an entry in four ways:

Redundancy distracts.

Imagine how focused you’d be if you had exactly one way to edit an entry. You’d spend more attention on actually journaling; and less on learning to use the app, and deciding which way to use it.

Meanwhile, the app offers only one way to create an entry, or attach an image.

Would it be better if, in addition, you could also create an entry from within the entry editor? Or also attach an image by touching and holding an entry?

Quoting Jef Raskin:

When you have to choose among methods, your locus of attention is drawn from the task and temporarily becomes the decision itself.

When there’s only one way to do something, you never decide which way to do it; you just do it.

2. Playlists

You can add a song to a playlist in two ways: from the song, or from the playlist.

From the song makes sense. You’re already looking at it: “this song would be good for the party!” Plunk.

From the playlist is horrible. You have to browse your entire library within an interstitial sheet, using inferior views with smaller artwork and no sort settings.

And what if you want a song that isn’t in your library? You can’t search the catalog here. Perhaps they could add a Search tab within the sheet…

No, now we’re cloning the entire app within one of its sheets. Bananas.

The best way to choose songs is with the main UI, because that’s what it was designed for. That’s the better way to add to playlists, and it should be the only way.

Those inferior versions of the albums, artists, and songs lists within the sheet? It took effort to make those, all for an experience that was incomplete and unnecessary to begin with.

Monotony simplifies development too.

3. App folders

iOS offers one way to create an app folder: drag an icon onto another.

You can’t create an empty folder first, then put icons into it. You don’t even have the option, so there’s no decision to make. If you never noticed that, that’s a good thing.

That’s why I designed album folders in Songpocket the same way: the only way to create a new folder is while moving albums. It’s simpler for users to use, and for me to maintain.


Monotony doesn’t mean only one way to produce some result. That would eliminate the Backspace key, because it enables you to put “hello” on your screen in infinite ways.

So there’s room for interpretation in what you call an action.

You could call it redundant for a keyboard shortcut and a clickable button to activate the same command, but that’s generally fine. Accessible controls too.

Rather, it’s redundant for a toolbar button and menu command to do the same thing. When you explore each area, you have to mentally track which actions are unique, versus which actions you can activate in other ways. That’s a load of cognitive load.

Monotony improves focus

A monotonous design is easier to learn, use, and maintain.

A perk: it’s also easier to support, because there’s only one help article to write, and when users contact you, you know they’re all using it the same way.

Quoting Jef Raskin again:

[A]n interface that is both modeless and, insofar as possible, monotonous […] would be extraordinarily pleasant to use. A user would be able to develop an unusually high degree of trust in [their] habits. The interface would, from these two properties alone, tend to fade from the user’s consciousness, allowing [them] to give [their] full attention to the task at hand.

Design means deciding how things should work: to consider all the possibilities, and choose the best one.

It is irresponsible to waste people’s attention with pointless options by being indecisive. Eliminate what doesn’t need people’s attention, and you free people to focus on what actually matters.

See also: