Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Simplicity Is Not the Answer

Features vs. simplicity ...

"Everyone wants simplicity. The same desires are there whether the device be a new cellphone or a shop tool, the dashboard of an automobile or the choices while shopping in a store. “Why can’t my technology be as easy to use as my garage door opener?” asks one paper on the topic: “one button and it opens or shuts the door. Simple, elegant.”

The cry has been picked up by everyday people, newspaper reviewers and professionals alike. But if it is so obvious, if the need is so great, why don’t the products match the cry?

Everyone misses the point. Simplicity is not the goal. We do not wish to give up the power and flexibility of our technologies. The garage door opener may be simple, but it hardly does anything. If my cellphone only had one button it certainly would be simple, but, umm, all I could do would be to turn it on or off: I wouldn’t be able to make a phone call. Is the piano too complex because it has 88 keys and three pedals? Should we simplify it? Surely no piece of music uses all of those keys. The cry for simplicity misses the point.

Just look at what people actually buy in the stores, says the marketing expert, people really want features. And yes, that is very true. I made this point in my earlier article on the subject (“Simplicity is highly overrated,” Interactions, March/April 2007).

There is indeed an apparent conflict here. As the number of features increase, so too does the desirability of the device. But as the number of features increases, simplicity goes down. As a result, even as people buy the devices with extra features, they cry out for simplicity. Features versus simplicity: are these two really in serious conflict? By standard measures, yes.

We want devices that do a lot, but that do not confuse, do not lead to frustration. Ahah! This is not about simplicity: it is about frustration. The entire debate is being framed incorrectly. Features is not the same as capability. Simplicity is not the same as usability. Simplicity is not the answer.

There is an implicit assumption:

Features ==> Capability

Simplicity ==> Ease of use

These two statements translate into simple logic: Everyone wants more capability, so therefore they want more features. Everyone wants ease of use, so therefore they want simplicity.

Alas, this simple logic is false logic, false because it follows the implications backwards. Suppose I said:

A sunny day ==> it won’t rain.

Does this mean that if it doesn’t rain the day is sunny? Of course not. The arrow goes left to right: this says nothing about the right to left direction. So extra capability does not require more features. Similarly, ease of use does not require simplicity.

I conclude that the entire argument between features and simplicity is misguided. People might very well desire more capability and ease of use, but do not equate this to more features or to simplicity. What people want is usable devices, which translates into understandable ones.

The world is complex, and so too must be the activities that we perform. But that doesn’t mean that we must live in continual frustration. No. The whole point of human-centered design is to tame complexity, to turn what would appear to be a complicated tool into one that fits the task, that is understandable, usable, enjoyable."    (Continued via Don Norman's jnd.org)    [Usability Resources]

Features vs. Simplicity - Usability, User Interface Design

Features vs. Simplicity

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