Simplicity in design

Simplicity has certainly become the new black, or has been in vogue for the last few years at least, from John Maeda’s concise book of principles to widespread proliferation of the term among blogs, magazines, conferences, an so on. (see Fast Company, LukeW’s postings, or even Microsoft’s publicity for Media Player v11)! Yes, “simplicity” is all the rage! But what does this concept really mean for interaction designers striving to achieve the best possible user experience for a specific audience?

First for guidance, let’s refer to what Paul Rand, the legendary graphic designer, famously said:

Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.

Let’s unpack that briefly:

1. A good idea: The assumption here is that the idea is a compact concept, describable in few words, gets to the essence in just a few seconds and is quickly comprehensible by another person. Going further, the idea is “good” if it takes in account a particular audience, situation, task/context, and so on…essentially solving a specific and articulated problem.

2. Modest expectations: Let’s face it, engineers and marketers love to cram a ton of cool features, buttons, gadgetry and wizardry…all those marketed “bells and whistles” that heighten expectations to absurd levels of functionality, warping devices into unwieldly contraptions of complexity. True, customers mostly buy for the features but more likely, their quality of use (QoU?) depends on the usability/desirability of just a few core features for routine, typical usage.

If you have a “bad idea” (that is, an unclear concept or muddled view of the proper problem to solve for, or something that tries to be everything for everybody, thus lacking focus and purpose), simplicity will not result. Something confused, fussy, inchoate results (ah, the “inchoate experience” that John Dewey admonishes against…more on this later!). Likewise if you have absurd expectations of doing too much for too many people or similarly “un-modest” expectations. (A great reference is Humble Masterpieces, which highlights the value of good design in ordinary, taken-for-granted objects that populate our lives)

Ok, so that’s one highly valuable take on simplicity, applicable to a wide range of situations. Here’s my personal view of the matter, particularly regarding designing for hi-technology situations like software and devices.

I like to think of simplicity as either a material issue or perceptual issue, though not necessarily exclusive of each other.

Materially, simplicity is in terms of actual buttons, controls, features, and so forth that a person has to decipher and interact with to perform some action. This is the way most people think of simplicity–get rid of all those features and controls and have just one button! Pare things down to the bare minimum and then going no further til you excise all extraneous functionality. It’s an exhausting but necessary ritual for designers, a multi-pass, iterative effort of successively winnowing things down by elimination. Minimal buttons, minimal lines, minimal icons, etc.

Another approach, which I believe complements what I just described, has to do with the perception of simplicity–does it appear to be, or suggest a quality of simplicity. Two products may have the exact same number of features but they are expressed in different ways. One may involve keyboarding for power users versus another which has large colorful icons for casual users. Each is perceived as simple given the goals, tasks, and mindset of the user: the set of experiences, training, knowledge.

Also there is manipulation of visual variables and cues to emphasize certain items and tone down others, or using white space to let the most important items dominate, or cleaning up alignments and spacing to make all the clutter appear organized, clean, orderly, and sensible. It becomes easier to interpret and thus derive meaning and relevance to the user’s primary goals and tasks. Perhaps certain controls are given greater spatial proportionality versus others, or features that are needlessly complex (an endless series of dialog boxes or radio buttons) are recast in other forms that suggest compactness and finality of process (i.e., there’s an end in sight or quick exit, which offer assurance and security).

Ultimately, it’s important to note that simplicity has alot to do with user’s perception as well as knowledge and experience brought to bear on the situation, in addition to the physical number of buttons and controls the user has to interact with. Having a good idea shaped by modest expectations doesn’t hurt either :-)

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