On my neck is a tattoo. It looks a bit like a Phoenix, but if you focus on the negative space, it turns magically into a question mark. Why would I tattoo a question mark on my neck? Am I some sort of high school rebel still clinging to my punk rock ideal that I should question authority?
In a word, yes. But I don’t stop at authority.
Questioning is the fundamental tenet of my lifetime. It’s the driver behind everything I have said and done in my career. It’s the most important thing I have to pass on. It’s the most important thing you can learn. Questioning gives us new perspective. It forces us to see past the obvious. To see things differently. To see past false truths, and false gospels, and false idols.
Over the years, some very smart people have questioned our assumptions and discovered that we may have taken our truths for granted. I have three examples: the belief that simplicity is a goal of good design, that usability testing is an effective way to prioritize problems in existing designs, and that designers must have repeatable processes to be effective.
People have spent years telling us these notions are true. Experts have advocated them, we’ve internalized them, and we’ve passed them on to our own clients. As design professionals, many of us have made a lot of money preaching these very ideas.
But those people who told us these things are true: Are they right? And if they are right, is there only one version of right? Is the truth as they see it is the whole truth?
As it turns out, the answer is no.
In fact, accepting these ideas as the whole truth prevents us from finding the whole truth. It doesn’t help us do better. It prevents us from doing better. Because this is conventional thinking. And conventional thinking gets in the way of our progress. Standards get in the way of finding the best solutions. Facts get in the way of truth. And the truth as we see it, very often, is incomplete. Many of the things we accept as truth are in fact obstacles to it.
Conventional thinking holds us back. It prevents us from becoming better designers. It prevents us from doing the best we can for our users. It prevents us from moving our profession forward.
Questioning what we know helps us find better answers. And the most crucial time to ask questions is when we think we already know the answers.
To demonstrate this, consider the three points I just raised.
We’ve all been told for years that for a design to work well, it needs to be “dead simple.” Designers, myself included, throw around the Einstein quote that things need to be made as simple as possible, but not simpler, and we strive to get things down to their most essential coreto make them as simple as we can.
Don Norman (author of The Design of Everyday Things and others) was skeptical of this idea. He said in a recent talk that he likes to “question the obvious,” and simplicity is definitely an obvious design goal. And what he realized was surprising to many people.
He saw that many things we consider simple are in fact not that simple. The Apple homepage is an example of this. For the past several years, that page has featured just a couple of gigantic entry points, such as a large image promoting the next version of the operating system, or the new iPhone or iPad, or something else.
But this homepage isn’t as simple as it seems. In fact, it actually serves as the entry point for a couple dozen different parts of the Apple website. There are, in fact, right now, 28 different entry points on the Apple homepage. There are links to different sections, links to customer service and reseller info, press releases, and a lot more. Twenty-eight! But on any given day, there is just one thing Apple really wants you to think about. One thing Apple believes most people want to know about most. So they make it the main feature of the page.
Don Norman cites the example of a washing machine that was supposedly simpler than others but had more controls. It turns out that people often don’t buy the things that appear simple because they think these things do less. People make purchasing decisions, in part, based on feature lists. They buy the thing with more features. We all do. As Don says: “Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity.”
By questioning the notion of simplicity as a design goal, Don Norman shows us that we’re focusing on the wrong goal.
Apple didn’t make the page simple. They made it clear. The washing machine didn’t have fewer features; it had a better design. Despite all the hype that we must make things dead simple and dumb them down, simplicity is not the goal: Clarity is.