Monday, April 09, 2007

Simplicity: The Ultimate Sophistication

Varying points of view on simplicity ...

Is simplicity a bad design goal?

Most designers place simplicity above all else. We value simple things because they do all the things we need easily and none of the things we don't. Simplicity is harmonious. Even Leonardo Da Vinci said "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." This is one of my favorite quotes, and it plays on the idea that being simple isn't banal, it's elegant.

Don Norman recently ignited a discussion about simplicity in his piece Simplicity is Highly Overrated. He observes that although designers treat simplicity as the ultimate goal, many consumers, when faced with a purchase decision, choose complexity instead. He uses examples from shopping in South Korea: people there choose complex, feature-laden electronics and SUVs over simpler ones. Norman says that people choose complexity because they assume a complex product is more capable. He concludes:

"Make it simple and people won’t buy. Given a choice, they will take the item that does more. Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity. You do it too, I bet. Haven’t you ever compared two products side by side, comparing the features of each, preferring the one that did more? Why shame on you, you are behaving, well, behaving like a normal person."

Many points of view on simplicity
The reaction to Norman's piece has shown there are many points of view on simplicity! Here are a few:

Joel Spolsky, a software developer, agrees with Norman and says: "With six years of experience running my own software company I can tell you that nothing we have ever done at Fog Creek has increased our revenue more than releasing a new version with more features."

Scott Berkun, in In Defense of Simplicity argues that "we shouldn’t confuse the success of feature-laden crap as a signal for the irrelevance of simplicity any more than the success of Rocky IV and Burger King signaled the irrelevance of good film-making or fine dining.".

Mark Hurst suggests that "what people are really buying is a good experience. Sometimes simple is good, and sometimes complex is good, depending on what a good experience is in a given context."

Luke Wroblewski, in The Complexity of Simplicity, observed "Perceived simplicity can often conflict with actual simplicity of usage."

And John Maeda, in Complexity is Highly Overrated, points out that "complexity is highly overrated as well. The relationship flips when one becomes dominant, and the other becomes subjugate."

But even after reading all of these thoughts on simplicity, I'm not sure if we're closer to answering the question implicit in Norman's article: Is simplicity a bad design goal?"    (Continued via UIE)    [Usability Resources]

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