The complexity of simplicity

I wrote about simplicity last year in a posting based upon Paul Rand’s famous dictum: Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations. I certainly believe Rand’s point still holds, but I’ve been drawn to this concept again, to unpack it further, more deeply as a rhetorical and humanistic, cultural issue of interaction design a la Buchanan/McCullough, etc.

At Interaction’09 in Vancouver, Dan Saffer almost exasperatedly admonished the audience to “stop fetishizing simplicity”, which partly explains why this concept has returned to my attention recently. What is simplicity really? Below are some early thoughts as I brainstorm on this topic:

– Simplicity innately has to deal with designing for rapid and facile sensemaking–the interpretation of meaning– which may lead to the generation of meaning in the engagement between a person and a product/service/system, which itself is heavily contextualized

– The presence of simplicity emerges in the course of a dialogue (visual, conceptual, physical, etc.) a flow of meaning from person to “the other”–whatever it may be

– There is a social or cultural dimension to the usage of products and services, call it brand-driven pressure or acceptance that makes something seem simple or assume the mantle of simplicity (ie, Apple products are branded as simple, easy to use…but in fact they’re quite complex, filled with hidden features, etc.)

– At a deep human level, I think “simplicity” is really about engendering a profound, instinctive quality of trust in the human user/participant of this product-driven dialogue…Once trust is gained or established, does that make the product seem simpler to operate?

– Following from ideas by Daniel Pink in his book on right-brained thinking, I wonder if stories, empathy, imagination, and a plain old common sense way of supporting people in their everyday activities cultivate a sense of simplicity?

I intend to explore this further with a former Adobe design colleague, and hopefully our discussions will result in a provocative and significant contribution to the design profession, in ACM Interactions namely :-) Stay tuned!

5 comments

  • So I ask: why? What harm has been done by fetishizing simplicity? Beyond acknowledging that simplicity in and of itself is not the goal, what is wrong with holding it sacred along with: meaning, trust, and empathy?

  • Well, in reference to Saffer’s original admonishment, to “fetishize” is basically an unhealthy addiction or obsession to the point of sacrificing other qualities or values, a kind of pyschopathic clinging to fulfill one base selfish need. It’s an extremist attitude that’s not really a good thing in general, no? Designers should be balanced defenders of multiple idealist virtues, and every design involves making hard trade-offs, in the service of pragmatist goals.

    In terms of design, simplicity is a valuable, admirable idealist goal to strive for (totally support it), perhaps even sacred BUT it must be done in regards to the context you’re designing for. I think it was Rand who said make something simple but no simpler than necessary. (or was it Einstein?) Referring to the fit of the design for the situation.

    Frankly there are some things that are necessarily complex (like enterprise software for power users who crank through tons of data daily) for which “making it so simple grandma or joe the plumber can use it” just doesn’t work, and actually makes the product counter-productive. Power users often may not want all the nice icons, tooltips, mouse hovers as they may get in their way–instead they may prefer maximum data, keyboarding control, hidden code shortcuts for hackability, etc. You know those Bloomberg terminals used by day traders? Crazy complex but necessarily so.

    I’m just skeptical of designers who religiously seek ONE thing at the risk of other qualities. Simplicity for simplicity’s sake sounds too much like “art for art’s sake”, and becomes navel-gazing at some point. I disagree with that approach, and believe there’s more to simplicity than we realize and it’s worth a complex dialogue to discover those properties :-)

  • BTW, meant to add that i was responding to the “fetishizing” angle… I still continually push simplification on product managers and IT clients who keep trying to cram tons of features into a product interface that may not be needed. Which gets into the whole “designing for context” argument: consider your users, goals, tasks, relevance to the situation, etc. Sometimes (per research) it turns out alot of features are needed, but need to be properly organized and presented via good UI design practices.

    Adobe Lightroom’s team had the mantra of “unreasonable simplicity” as a motivating factor to prevent the feature bloat of Photoshop, to keep the team on spec.
    Another Adobe team that I was directly on had the motto of “do less better” as a way of fighting inevitable feature creep as well, to focus and simplify the product.

    Indeed, in the book “Inside Steve’s Brain” by Leander Kahney, there’s a great chapter on “focus and simplify” as one of Jobs’ core design principles. In hi-tech it’s essential, no doubt and I push this to my clients as well.

    But nowhere is the notion of “fetishizing” present :-)

  • Now I’m really wondering: who are actual examples of these imbalanced designers who seek simplicity over all else? I mean really, what is the actual evidence of the damage done in the name of simplicity that Dan is so concerned about? The iPod shuffle?

    Even the three excellent examples you give here show a healthy dose of respect for simplicity. It’s not taken to the extreme of fetishization, but then again, who does that? Perhaps Dan is actually admonishing blind faith in simplicity as a goal.

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