Memorable Complexity

I’ve written before about the difficulty of distilling complex concepts into something simple. It’s a huge design challenge that can pay rich dividends in improved user/visitor experience, and often, it’s the difference between comprehension and incoherence or usability and frustration for your intended audience. If you believe in the benefits of simplicity the way I do, you may find it difficult to imagine that I’m also an advocate for the power of complexity.

Simplicity can make the user experience beautifully frictionless — when things are simple, concepts are easily grasped, possible actions and their results are easily understood. It’s all so easy and effortless, pleasant and painless. But is it memorable?

The concept of memorability can be freighted with differing meanings — things can be memorable because they’re delightful, but perhaps even more so if they’re unpleasant or upsetting. Evoking strong emotion, even fleetingly, can sear lasting impressions into our brains that make us relive the experience again and again, for better or for worse. Things can also be memorable because they were pleasantly surprising, serendipitous, or because they led us to discover something about ourselves or the world around us that we would otherwise have missed.

Complexity can be introduced into content and designs as an aid to memorability. Most often it’s effective as an element of contrast or counterpoint that makes us think or reflect, or as an element of detail and richness that allows us to connect on a deeper level. Good content developers will often find ways to make even the most complex of subjects comprehensible through judicious simplification, then add back a wrinkle of complexity in a way that connects and draws the reader into the subject more deeply. It’s those little notes of complexity that can take the user from comprehension to engagement.

Complexity can be introduced in much the same way in design, through unexpected details that can reward attention with delight. Even the simplest and most everyday of things have the power to be just a bit special when they introduce a hint of complexity. Tweetbot, my favourite Twitter client on my iPhone is a great example. It does a terrific job of being fully featured while seeming extremely simple. Everything I need is never more than a tap or two away, while the interface seems so pure and uncluttered. That’s the part that oozes simplicity and ease. The complexity and detail comes with all the little twinkly sounds that are used to subtly cue you that this or that is happening, and the slick physicality of the contextual panels that slide in and out as needed. Maybe the genius of it is that it works so well and so simply, yet the complex details add a layer of pleasure to the experience of using it. Is all this memorable? You bet it is, I’m smiling right now just thinking about how exquisite this little app is.

If I had to choose between having either simplicity or complexity in the things I design and use, I’d choose simplicity every time. But if I can have simplicity with just a small side order of complexity, everything becomes just a little better, and a little more interesting, engaging and memorable.

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