Sunday, May 13, 2007

Simplicity: The Distribution of Complexity

Simplicity is misunderstood ...

"Simplicity didn’t get so popular on its own merits. It really came on the scene last summer – promoted by none other than MIT professor and renowned designer John Maeda in his book The Laws of Simplicity . But simplicity has never been simple. In my review of Maeda’s book, I praised The Laws of Simplicityfor focusing on the subject of simplicity in design, but noticed it failed to represent its own principles effectively. The book itself is an artifact of forced simplicity, with form taking precedent over utility. For example, Maeda intentionally limits himself to exactly 100 pages, to describe exactly ten principles of simplicity. Was it just convenient coincidence that there are ten principles worth discussing – not eight or thirteen?

The book, like many other modern products, was engineered to be simple through a set of pre-defined parameters (number of pages, number of topics), likely prescribed at the outset. Defining a framework upfront is one way to constrain a design to try to avoid complexity, but it is not sufficient. Rather, true simplicity is determined by a set of decisions made during the design process that respect the nature of the subject being designed.

Distributing Complexity in the System
The flaw with the simplicity/complexity controversy is that it gives the impression that designers are making a binary choice – but simplicity and complexity are not polar opposites. In fact, making something “simpler” is often a case of relocating complexity, rather than eliminating it from the user-technology relationship. For example, from the driver’s perspective, a manual-shift transmission is more complex than an automatic transmission. But from an overall systems perspective, the automatic transmission is equally or even more complex.

Similarly, simplicity may also be realized or distributed in different ways in a user interface. Consider the classic “breadth vs. depth” choice in information architecture. Information may be organized in a broad, but shallow arrangement, with many choices initially available; or narrowly, with limited choices initially available, but accessible through deeper navigation.

In the broad approach, simplicity is achieved by quick access to visible choices, with a limited number of clicks – in a sense this approach is mechanically simple. Conversely, the deep design achieves simplicity by limiting the number of choices available at any one time. There is less visual scanning required to review choices, and, arguably, less cognitive work required to differentiate and select from among the available choices – it is perceptually simple.

So, given a fixed set of elements (e.g. navigation choices), there are multiple attributes of simplicity than can be addressed to varying degrees. The success or failure of a design is largely dependent on achieving the right balance among these attributes of simplicity. An infamous example of this was BMW’s i-Drive controller, designed to operate a range of automotive systems from a single control. The resulting user experience was confusing and complex as BMW relied too much on mechanical simplicity (a single, clickable rotary control) at the cost of perceptual and cognitive simplicity."    (Continued via uiGarden)    [Usability Resources]

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