Simple is Hard

Simple is hard because complex is easy. Complex and disorganized is the default mode for just about everything in life, and it seems to be the thing we struggle against most. Complexity inevitably arises through our interactions with others — our close relationships can serve it up in abundance. Even Facebook offers a relationship status of “it’s complicated”, with good reason. Complexity abounds in the realm of business, law and finance, sometimes because these things are inherently complicated and sometimes because complexity is being used as a barrier erected to bar interlopers. We’re confronted with complexity at every turn in our daily lives, but too often that complexity arises in our interactions with the things we own and use, either through design, or lack thereof. It’s this last kind that is so pernicious and so annoying.

Look no further than the world of computers and electronic gizmos to find otherwise perfectly useful items crippled by complex or nonsensical interfaces. I have an electronic thermostat that I dutifully installed to automatically control the temperature in my house depending on time of day. It’s a great idea, energy conservation-wise. Sanity-wise, not so much. The interface is completely and utterly incomprehensible. I dread having to touch the thing — the rows of buttons, 15 in all, no keypad, are arranged seemingly entirely at random and labelled in ways that feel calculated to obscure their purpose. The instruction sheet, which I cling to like a lifeline, reads as though written in another language then google-translated. Why don’t I just replace this thing, you ask? Well, uh, this IS the replacement. I misplaced the instructions to the previous (different) one, and simply could not figure out how to make it work again. Am I alone here?

As a designer, I never want to be responsible for creating a usability horror like my beloved thermostat, but I’m aware that I’m always just a couple of bad decisions, a few faulty assumptions and inattentive client away from doing just that. Fortunately there are a few principles that can help shape design decisions in almost every situation and steer design efforts toward the golden shores of simplicity and away from the jagged rocks of complexity.

Distill to the Core

It’s all about focus. What is this object/graphic/software really for? What is the most important thing that it does or communicates? Concentrate on that. Make that really, really clear and easy. To take my thermostat as an example – why 15 buttons? If it must have hardware buttons, it should only need 5 at most: day, time, temp, up, down. What are the other 10 for? Maybe there’s more features that “add value”, but that’s not the core function of a thermostat. Is it possible that it can do something else too and still work or read just as well? Maybe, but if that extra thing makes it harder to use for the core purpose, it is not an improvement.

Push for Every Deletion

There is a natural desire to want to add more functionality or meaning to almost anything. That anything could be something as simple as a logo that is trying to say one thing too many, or a piece of software that has become victim of feature-creep. It can be a difficult sell to convince a client, manager or even yourself that less is more. This is especially tricky in a “re-design” situation, where there are expectations for certain features to be present. In this scenario, it’s the duty of the designer to push for the elimination of extra features that are preventing the core function from working properly.

Eliminate the Edge Cases

Too often, small portions of our target users, sometimes vanishingly small, can be the tail that wags the dog. Compromising functionality by adding features or making other changes to accommodate edge cases that end up making things harder for our core users is a poor design decision. I’m not suggesting that these unusual use scenarios be stamped out completely, just that they not drive the big decisions. If the feature can be retained, accessible with a little effort on the part of the minority, that’s a good compromise. My thermostat can clearly do a lot more than what I want it to do, but I’m pretty sure that I’m a typical user — I just want to set up a program that runs every week without needing to intervene. Once in a while I might want to hold a certain temperature until I tell it to stop. Whatever other features it may offer above and beyond that have made my simple, typical use scenario much more difficult, and that’s a bad trade.

Simple is really, really hard, but it’s worth pursuing. The irony is that once you’ve succeeded, it looks so easy.

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Comments (3)

  • […] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}I’ve written before about the difficulty of distilling complex concepts into something simple. It’s a huge design […]

    — Update 10/26/11–
    It appears that even as I was writing the above post referencing the flaws of programmable thermostats, a team of former Apple design engineers were hard at work developing a product that looks like the ultimate answer to the flaws of existing thermostats. The Nest Thermostat is billed as a “learning” thermostat that is trained by your adjustments over a few weeks to create a program that exactly matches your life. No arcane buttons to navigate through, it just works! This is an exciting development (if Thermostats can be exciting) that if widely adopted, could save significant energy over time, as apparently only 6% of programmable thermostats sold actually get programmed by their users, despite having the potential to save 30 to 40% on a household energy bill (source: Fast Company). I’m buying one.

  • […] addthis_share = [];}It was gratifying to see a user experience/interface horror that I had complained about in this space less than a month ago, solved in a highly elegant way by a completely new take on the […]

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