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Seeking Simplicity? You’re Probably Looking in the Wrong Place

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How can you “make it simple” when it’s impossible to pin down what “simple” means? No wonder simplicity is so hard to achieve. Giles Colborne explains why having a good definition of simplicity helps you to understand and counter many of the obstacles and objections that will crop up as you try to design your “next big thing.”
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Imagine you’ve been invited to lead the team designing the Next Big Thing In Tech—the new Twitter or iPod or YouTube. Your brief is “make it simple”—it needs to be something anyone can use. You tell your team to gather examples of “simple things” for discussion and inspiration—and that’s where the arguments start and everything falls apart.

A minimalist Henry Moore sculpture has a form that’s pure and simple. But understanding or explaining what it means is complex. What makes it simple also makes it complex. Perhaps another example would be better.

A piano seems like a simple musical instrument. Most people can pick out a one-fingered piano tune after a minute or two. But it takes years of hard practice to be able to play a Beethoven sonata, so is it really simple?

What about an egg slicer—the kind where you sit the egg in a cradle and cut it with a guillotine of wires. It does one thing and it does it well and that’s a mantra of simplicity. But if you keep buying gadgets that do one thing, your kitchen quickly becomes crammed to overflowing with things you hardly ever use. That doesn’t sound like a simple choice.

How can you “make it simple” when it’s impossible to pin down what “simple” means? No wonder simplicity is so hard to achieve.

A Better Definition

We need a definition of simplicity that helps us account for the simple-complex nature of things. The clue is that individuals have different points of view. If you’re an engineer, then Google relies on a complex infrastructure—to you, Google is complex. If you’re a user, Google feels simple to use, so Google is simple. In other words, simplicity isn’t a solution or a quality; simplicity is an experience. It depends on your point of view.

That explains why there’s so much disagreement on what is simple. It comes from shifting points of view.

We tend to judge products on their appearance, which means that we confuse “minimalism” with “simplicity”. Often, though, minimalism removes the clues and cues we rely on to make sense of the world. The simplicity is on the surface, but it doesn’t go deep into the experience.

Making something look simple is useful—it sets up the users’ expectations and can give them the confidence to approach something new that might otherwise seem intimidating. But if the product’s behavior doesn’t match those expectations, the illusion is shattered.

We also tend to judge products on how they’re built. But if you were to engineer a simpler bike, you’d try to throw away bits—the gears, perhaps even one of the wheels. You’d be left with a unicycle—simpler to build, but harder to ride.

Engineering for simplicity makes products that are robust, easy to maintain and cheap to build. But if that robustness comes at the expense of experience, then users will look for other solutions (most people would rather use a chainsaw than an axe to chop down a tree).

When it comes to designing experience, there’s a hierarchy: how the product feels in use, how it looks when you approach it and how it’s built. Start with how it feels and move to appearance and engineering.

Playing with the Rules

Knowing the hierarchy means you can play with the design of products. For instance, many people want products that feel simple but that look powerful and impressive. This model shows you can achieve both goals. You can see this if you visit a camera shop—next to the complex high-end Digital SLRs you’ll often find a row of simple point-and-shoot cameras that look similarly complex but feel simple to use. It’s a neat answer to the age old conundrum that “people want products simple that look impressive.”

Designing for the experience of simplicity also explains why the notion of “do one thing and do it well” is short sighted. If we’re aiming for simplicity, we need to take context into account. We need to remember that the products and services we create fit into users’ lives. We must replace this notion with “do one thing well and make nothing else worse.”

Having a good definition of simplicity helps you to understand and counter many of the obstacles and objections that will crop up as you try to design your “next big thing.”

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